Guest Post | Dare to Compare: Attempting Comparative Transnational and Borderlands History

This post, from Dr Brenden Rensink, was originally published on the Borderlands History Blog, 21 February 2012, and on Dr Rensink’s own blog, July 30 2013. Reposted with kind permission.

I will just come out and say it – I want more borderlands historians to engage in comparative work, to integrate U.S.-Mexican, U.S.-Canadian and countless other transnational histories into new groundbreaking scholarship.  Unfortunately, this is easier said than done.

Transnational and borderlands history is complex.  It requires mastering historiographies, narratives, and archival materials from multiple political entities – historic empires and nation-states, contemporary international, national, state- or local-level polities – and potentially in multiple languages.  Fully integrating them together is complicated.  It is messy.  And that is why I love [and hate] it so much.  At an AHA panel honoring the late David J. Weber (Southern Methodist University), Professor Steven Hackel (UC-Riverside) shared a quote from Dr. Weber in which he expressed that he liked “to take the familiar and make it strange.”  I echo that sentiment!  Transnational and Borderlands history, at its best, can help break down long standing Nation-Stated-based models for exploring the past, problematize such monolithic paradigms and not only cut through them, but weld them together in new and revelatory ways.

Why then, would anyone in their right mind – already grappling with the difficulties of an already complicated endeavor – seek to complicate it further by engaging in comparative borderlands history?  Gluttons for punishment?  Perhaps, but I would like to forward a few thoughts on why comparative transnational and borderlands history holds great promise.  Much of the field is rooted in the Spanish and U.S.-Mexican borderlands, but there is so much room for expansion beyond that.

On October 13, 2011, the Western History Association Conference started with a bang: a 90 minute Presidential Session entitled, “Fifty Years: Reflections of the Past & Future of Western History.”  The forum featured William Cronon (University of Wisconsin-Madison), Patricia Limerick (University of Colorado-Boulder) and Richard White (Stanford University) – three of the New Western History’s original “Gang of Four.”  (C-SPAN has a full stream of the session available at   Needless to say, the event and evening were as delightful and entertaining as they were thought-provoking.  A number of interesting topics were discussed, but one was particularly salient to the primary task at hand today – discussing comparative transnational and borderlands history.  Towards the end Professor Louis Warren invited audience members to submit questions on index cards, which he then went through, chose from and presented to the three panelists.  Luckily, he chose to ask the question I had submitted.  It has some of the discussion it elicited will be useful.

Professor Warren’s rewording of my question went something like this: (starts at about 1:05:00 mark)

“There has been discussion about how the field has come more rigidly defined as a regional field, and the region has shrunk.  And, how do we as a field now make the pivot in an age of transnationalism and globalization, towards comparative, hemispheric and non-western scholarship and integrating that with the American West…and if we do make that pivot does it then dilute what we should be focusing on or strengthening in our fields or sub-fields.”

Though this question and much of the answers focus on casting “The American West” in transnational lights, I think many of the comments can be reread for the task of taking borderlands history and engaging it in comparative contexts.

So the first question, is should borderlands scholars look towards comparative projects that integrate multiple borderlands?

Professor Cronon had the following to say:

“I think we need to remember the Frontier Past of this field.  This field, Western History, this field has been doing comparative, transnational history – the history of the local relative to the global – from the beginning.   We’re going back to the past when we talk about doing this kind of work… No place in the United States can be understood without reference to, its connections to, its relationships with the rest of the world…this is what this field has been about all along.”

Cronon later quoted a paragraph from Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1891 essay, “The Significance of History,” (not to be confused with his 1893 “The Significance of the Frontier in American History”) which concluded with the statement – “Local History must be read as a part of World History.”  This can be directly applied to borderlands history.  From the work of Bolton on to Weber and beyond, has been an exercise in doing just that – understanding local-global connections.  How does an edge-of-empire world relate to its cross-border counterparts, and how do each relate to their respective capital regions?  This is the familiar core-periphery model of study, but with two cores and two respective peripheries who abut one another.  The proposal to integrate a second set of core-periphery relationships as a comparison does not represent a fundamentally new theory.  It simply expands what, in the words of Professor Cronon, “what this field has been about all along.”  So should we look to comparative work?  Yes.  Will it “dilute” what we are already doing, as the original prompt asked?  That depends on a study’s goals.  Non-comparative research is essential as well and constitutes most of the rich borderlands historiography upon which comparative work can be frame.  Not all work need be comparative.  However, it seems to me that the non-comparative foundations of Borderlands history are both deep and broad.  They provide more than enough well-established theoretical, methodological and narrative frameworks into which new comparative history can be built.

Comparative history, by nature, asks different questions.  It places analysis in new contexts and asks one to weigh things against one another.  It is through comparison that we are often able to see old topics in new lights.  The proposal to build a wall along the Mexican-American border, in and of itself, can be deeply and satisfactorily debated and researched in the context of its own singular circumstances.  But, nothing in history (or contemporary events) are truly, utterly singular.  What if the border-wall question was paired with historical analysis of the Great Wall of China, Hadrian’s Wall?  Would the histories of the motives behind, effectiveness of and legacies of those walls enrich analysis of a U.S.-Mexican border-wall?  Certainly. It forces us to ask different question.  And often, different questions lead to different answers – even conclusions and truths that would otherwise have remained undiscovered.  Richard White remarked, “And as my graduate students know, one of my things that I just always press on is if your problem doesn’t stop at the border of the United States, why are you stopping?  You have to push it through all the way, and in fact do it.”  I echo these sentiments.  If your borderlands research has relevant comparative counterparts, why are you stopping?

If comparative history boasts inherit merit, which I argue it does, the more daunting and pressing concern is how to approach it.  Richard White replied to the aforementioned prompt for the WHA panel by stating, “It seems to me that it is not a very hard pivot to make. ..It is really easy to start making these connections.”  Indeed, when one looks at borderlands history, its narratives of people at the periphery, crossing, bridging and creating boundaries, and so forth, comparative examples are innumerable.  Why then have so few of us dared to compare?  Why are there not more histories comparing aspects of the U.S.-Mexican and U.S.-Canadian border, or those of previous empires in North America, contemporary state/provincial lines, the urban-rural and settled-wilderness divides, Native reservation boundaries, ecosystems and their boundaries, economic, industrial and commercial spheres of influence and operation, etc…  The sky is the limit!  Why?  Richard White and William Cronon touched on two of the biggest challenges.

Professor White offered the following remarks:

“For me the problem is that the world is really big and it is my deep suspicion about things like World History, how are you ever going to know much about it except on the most superficial level.  For me when I do comparisons I always start in that I’m rooted in a fairly deep knowledge of one place.  That place is the American West.  That doesn’t mean I stop there, I can go out from it.”

White both addresses the concern – will broad comparative works leave us with only superficial knowledge of or from any of the respective fields?  He gives his answer to the problem – he couches himself where he is most comfortable and works out from there.  While reviews of comparative borderlands work will likely offer the regular critique that one side of the comparison is favored over the other, this should not dissuade the attempt.  There are also ways in which theses can be framed that sufficiently narrow the scope of analysis to make it both doable and direct – enabling satisfactorily deep and penetrating analysis across possibly expansive geographic, chronological or conceptual landscapes.

Professor Cronon agreed that the problem of scale is daunting, but identified a second challenge.

“The trouble with comparative is that its very hard to write narrative around a comparative framework.  There are ways of doing it and it occasionally has been brilliantly done, but usually comparison is ruptured in its narrative shape.  So, as far as storytelling is concerned, nobody has really adequately figured out how to tell stories that are comparative that most of the people seeking a comparative transnational style of history are seeking.  And, remember also that in terms of the popular audience that we’ve talked about…how one retains a reader’s empathy for the past that one is writing about when the scale of the writing is so “meta,” that there’s nothing to hang on to other than Empire or the Nation State…that’s the paradox…do we want those to become the main characters of a narrative that’s out there?  Probably not.  So figuring out how to move across the scales, retaining the analyticity and the narrative energy at the same time is, I think, a challenge that many of the people seeking this kind of work haven’t really grappled with as fully as they need to grapple with it…”

This is a difficult issue.  Comparative writing is anathema for narrative.  And, unfortunately I cannot offer a solid answer.  The spectrum from academic to popular history often fluctuates along the scales of narrative.  Analytical academic history often lacks narrative flow.  Engaging narrative history often lacks analysis.  The demands of comparative methodology push most works far to the analytical side.  If there is some easy formula for solving this – a panacea for our narrative-weak comparative history – I welcome all suggestions.  It is however, a challenge I am willing to take because I believe the payout will be well worth the work.

This brings us to a conclusion and confession.  In the spirit of full transparency – I am a comparative borderlands history and have been for the past 6 years.  My dissertation and current manuscript, entitled “Native but Foreign: Indigenous Transnational Refugees and Immigrants in the U.S.-Canadian and U.S.-Mexican Borderlands, 1880-Present,” and a couple miscellaneous publications drawn therefrom, examine indigenous peoples from Canada and Mexico who crossed into the United States as laborers, immigrants and political refugees seeking permanent settlement and Federal American Indian recognition.   As a dissertation, it ended as two discrete case studies of Chippewas and Crees to the North and Yaquis in the South.  The current manuscript, however, weaves the two narratives together along thematic lines.  The research was fascinating and rewarding, in spite of the first challenge of scope, as articulated by Professor White.  The writing and revision of the current manuscript is steeped in the second challenge of balancing analysis and narrative.  I have not gone grey yet, but assume it is only a matter of time.  The task at hand is daunting, discouraging and overwhelming most of the time.  But, when I step back and appreciate the new revelations in comparative manuscript that were lacking in the 2-case study dissertation, it seems worth it.

Am I issuing a call for more comparative borderlands and transnational history because misery loves company?  Maybe a bit.  More pressing, however, is my desire to read more comparative work and use it to hone my own craft, collaborate with colleagues and expand my horizons even further, and see the historiographical divides in North American borderlands history bridged.

Borderlands works like Andrew Graybill’s Policing the Great Plains: Rangers, Mounties, and the North American Frontier, 1875-1910, Benjamin Johnson and Andrew Graybill’s excellent anthology Bridging National Borders in North America: Transnational and Comparative Histories, and non-borderlands books like Margaret Jacobs award-winning White Mother to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880-1940 have all whet my appetite for more comparative work.

At the 2009 Western History Association Conference, borderlands historian Sheila McManus (University of Lethbridge) asked if the U.S.-Mexican and U.S.-Canadian borderlands were “Fraternal Twins or Distant Cousins?”  After a brief foray into possible answers and evidence, she concluded, “I think it is time for borderlands historians to have a long-overdue family chat.  The two borderlands aren’t identical twins and no amount of scholarship can or should try to erase their very real differences.  What strikes me when I put their histories side-by-side, however, is just how similar they are.  Similar processes are happening at both borders within a few years of each other.  They are not identical twins, but nor are they merely distant cousins.”  I agree.

I hope more of us will consider pursuing more comparative, hemispheric and even global scholarship.

I cannot promise it will be easy.

To the contrary, I can promise that it will be hard – but also worth it.


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