What are transregional studies? For whom are they useful? What do they respond to?
The interrelations between the economy, politics, communication, and culture, which have grown ever more intense in recent decades, affect all areas of life – they influence not only the politics of every country, but also the perceptions and experiences of each individual’s everyday life. Globalization and technological change have connected societies and the world, but have also subjected them to fragmentation. At the same time, globalization presents a challenge to academic study, to the prevailing narratives of social development, and to the order of knowledge itself. Exchange and interaction, entanglement and networks characterize our world, which has itself emerged from these boundary-crossing processes. But in many respects, the academic sciences today are no longer able to pose questions and generate answers that adequately respond to the reality and future of a networked and globalized world.
In particular, two “birth defects” of modern cultural and social sciences stand in the way of systematically grasping global processes. Both of them can be traced back to the formation of modern academic disciplines in 19th-century Europe. The first is that the genesis of most of the social sciences and humanities was tied to the nation state. In their themes and questions, as well as in their societal function, fields like history, sociology, and philology remained tied to a country’s own society. Beyond that, the “methodological nationalism” of academic disciplines meant that, theoretically and beyond the individual case, the nation state was presupposed as the fundamental unit of investigation and the territorial state as the “container” of society. Knowledge of the world was thereby discursively and institutionally pre-structured in a way that tended to mask out the constituting role of exchange relationships.
The second “birth defect” is that the modern disciplines were deeply Eurocentric. They placed European development in the foreground and saw Europe as the central driving force of world history. And even more fundamentally: the conceptual toolbox of the social sciences and humanities stylized European history into a model of universal development. Ostensibly analytical terms like nation, revolution, society, and progress transformed concrete European experiences into a universalistic language of theory that already anticipated how to interpret other societies and pasts and, in a certain way, “Europeanized” them.
In recent history, the situation has changed radically. The world of the 21st century has become more global, multipolar, and multilayered. In the age of globalization, Europe has long since become one region among others. But the concepts and methodological approaches of academic scholarship, as well as their overarching narratives and the organization of their disciplines, continue to bear the traces of their originary contexts: they examine the global world of the present with the nation-state concepts of the 19th century. What we need instead is a transregional perspective on the emergence of an entangled world, which acknowledges and accepts differences, and transcends these differences in a pluralistic concept of the world.
The approach of transregional studies is a step towards this direction. It does not work from the basis of delimited, monadic nation states, but from a situation of exchange relationships and of entanglement. At the core of transregional perspectives is an insight into the constituting role of cross-border interactions for the formation and the future of the modern world. At the most basic level, this approach therefore aims to overcome the existing theoretical frameworks of the social sciences, which operate as a rule within an internalistic paradigm.
In the “grand narratives” of modernization, upon which a great part of empirical research – whether originating from Marxist or modernization theory – is explicitly or tacitly based, historical processes were explained endogenously and typically within a single society. The transregional approach, in contrast, favors interpretations that grant an important role to interactions and entanglements between multiple societies as well as to cross-societal structures.
Nations, civilizations, and “Europe” cannot be explained from within themselves. With this theoretical premise, parts of reality that have hitherto been ignored also come into view. Within the traditional German academic system, history took place primarily in Germany, literature and art in Europe, and ethnological studies in what had long been conceived of as the “Third World”. Since then, we can now observe approaches in many disciplines that expand the object of study. Examples include: Global History, discussions of world literature, and intercultural art histories. Methodologically, these approaches are based on comparison, analyses of transfer, and the examination of processes of integration. These are approaches that are still often isolated, but they aim to overcome the segregation of different realms of reality – a segregation that prevents parallels and entanglements from even coming into view.
It is thereby ever more important to become aware of the diversity and multiperspectivity of our understanding of entanglement processes. The “world” looks different depending on from which perspective one views it. Knowledge is tied to positionality, and therefore transregional studies must take into consideration a wide variety of perspectives. The goal is not to produce a German or European view of the world, but to create a dialog with differing interpretations, in exchange with researchers from other parts of the world. Not only are the objects of study “transregional”, but also the processes and people involved in its study.
The Berlin Forum Transregional Studies sees its task in taking up the opportunities and challenges posed by the current global conjuncture for the humanities and social sciences. It creates an open intellectual and scholarly space for the interconnection of international research perspectives.
The Forum develops and organizes research programs that pursue innovative questions and facilitate various forms of international research collaboration. Forum invites Fellows from all over the world to Berlin to join its programs. The aim is for the individual projects, in turn, to have an impact on the research landscape and on research institutions in Germany. Since its founding in 2009, the Forum Transregional Studies has developed into an important site of international exchange and communication.
The discussion about possible contents and methods of transregional studies is mainly conducted on our blog »TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research«, for example in our blog series “All Things Transregional?”, or in our print publications or those of our members and cooperation partners such as the Dossier “Reimers Konferenzen Revisited” and Matthias Middell’s “The Routledge Handbook of Transregional Studies”.