Research in Dialogue - Dialogue in Research: Interview with Dr Bernhard Struck

Research in Dialogue - Dialogue in Research: Interview with Dr Bernhard Struck

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Europäisches Hochschulinstitut, Florenz ()
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01.06.2015 -
Dorit Brixius

Dieser Beitrag ist hervorgegangen aus der Initiative von Doktoranden des Seminars für ‚History and Civilization' (HEC) am Europäischen Hochschulinstitut in Florenz. Ihr Projekt ‚Research in Dialogue – Dialogue in Research' wird herausgeben von Tilmann Kulke, Dorit Brixius, Ievgen Khvalkov, Florian Wagner und James White.
geschichte.transnational veröffentlicht in loser Folge Interviews, Literaturberichte und Forschungsergebnisse aus dem Bereich transnationaler und globaler Studien.

Interview with Dr Bernhard Struck
by Luca Scholz, September 2015

You are the director of Saint Andrew’s Institute for Transnational and Spatial History. What role does the ‘spatial’ play in your research and your conception of transnational history?
BS: To clarify, I directed and later co-directed, the Institute for Transnational and Spatial History between 2009 and 2015. These positions rotate, as they should, to keep ideas spinning. The ITSH is currently co-directed by Konrad Lawson and Riccardo Bavaj, two great colleagues who bring broad and varied perspectives to transnational history, ranging from European, transatlantic and Asian history, from legal history to intellectual networks.
The role ‘spatial’ to us has both a heuristic-analytical and a more technical dimension. With regard to the latter it is part of the skills set including mapping and visualisation we teach in our Masters Programme (MLitt) in ‘Transnational, Global and Spatial History’ (
On the heuristic-analytical: If we follow variations of transnational history, as conceived by Patricia Clavin, Pierre-Yves Saunier or Ian Tyrrell, the starting point of transnational research are objects, people or ideas on the move, in circulation and crossing borders. As such transnational history is spatially dynamic and, well, messy. To us, at least in our St Andrews reading (and teaching) of transnational history, that is a welcome invitation to us historians to critically and creatively engage with the various spatial dimensions in history. More conventional – important and legitimate – entities such as the nation-state or the historical region are only one spatial dimension. But actors or ideas on the move connect these with local, urban, regional or global scales.
As historians we are trained to think, primarily, along time and chronology. As transnational historians, I think, we ought to be more aware of spatial dimensions. And rather than starting from or with a spatial frame in mind (i.e. region, nation), space should be the result of our actors in motion. Personally, I think it is not by accident that we have seen an almost parallel emerging interest in transnational as well as spatial issues and, hence, history. While one finds hints at this link here and there in the literature, the explicit link of the two in research remains underexplored.
This brings me to the last point, the more technical and skills orientated, as well as teaching related. In terms of technology and software that we have access to today, 2015 is so radically different from, say, 2000 not to speak of 1990. Transnational history as outlined above has a lot to offer in an age of Digital Humanities. And if we wish to practice and teach a more spatially and geographically aware version of transnational history, then it is time to rethink the way how and what we teach. At the ITSH at St Andrews we have opted to teach our MA students, a tech-savvy digital native generation anyway, a healthy dose of map making, visualisation and databases. A map made with relatively low tech software is not necessarily the answer to what I tried to outline here, but it can serve as a very powerful heuristic tool. I am enthusiastic about these developments, but also realistic about potential trade-offs if the incoming MA or PhD student needs to decide: do I spend time on software or on my next language?

As a co-editor of a recent journal issue on scales and spaces in transnational history, how important do you think is the variation of scales of analysis in the writing of transnational history?
BS: I think this partly links up with the previous question on space and a notion of transnational history where the nation is only one spatial layer among others. There are different ways to practice and enter transnational history. Transnational as a term and composite word has the ‘national’ in it. So, transnational history can be entered via the nation as a key scale of investigation. I am thinking of Kiran Patel’s “Soldiers of Labor” (Cambridge 2005). In its spatial setting, his starting point is the comparison between two nations: Germany and the US along the question of youth labour organisation. Only once, and perhaps initially unexpected, similarities become evident, the focus shifts to individual actors or groups that were part of German-American links, transatlantic exchanges and entanglement and processes of mutual transfers and perceptions. Hence one explanatory element behind initially unexpected similarities are actors in motion.
However, a different entry point into transnational history can be via the individual, through a product or commodity. A number of excellent examples spring to mind. For instance the edited volume by Desley Deacon et. al. on “Transnational Lives” (New York 2010) or Jan Rüger’s thought-provoking article on “OXO” (European History Quarterly, 2010, no. 4) to name just two. In the case of Rüger, his starting point is OXO, a meat extract, you will find in pretty much every supermarket in the UK today. OXO, in a nutshell, is a product of different scales and geographical settings – none of which neatly fits a national framework as we know it. The making of OXO involves a laboratory in Munich and, of course, individuals such as Justus Liebig operating it and making science. Once meat extraction was operational in a lab-setting the question was what to do with it. London-based investors spotted an opportunity for investment. The meat, however, was supplied from farms in South America.
To me that is a model example that shows the potential of transnational history and the importance of scales. The entry scale is a simple product, OXO, and in that respect a micro or small-scale entry point. But one that allows to show the entanglements between continents (Europe and South America), countries including Germany (or strictly speaking Bavaria), the UK and Uruguay and individual actors between science, capital and farming together.
While this may be a crude comparison, I see similarities between Rüger’s OXO and Sven Beckert’s recent, and admirable, “Empire of Cotton” (New York 2014) in terms of playing with scales. Beckert’s entry point is a radically different macro one: global capitalism. But in order to make his macro-level questions operational (apologies for this very Germanic term), he breaks it down to the level of a single agricultural product: cotton – with all its complexities and complex entanglements.
While at extreme opposites in terms of their entry points, the similarity I see is the constant change of perspectives at different scales of investigation. The result in these examples and many others is to some extent a messier picture, not the kind of A to B narrative along time, but a more complex and more nuanced historical narrative. We live in a complex world, arguably in an increasingly complex one in terms of territorial fluidity, as well as in terms of human, social, economic and technological interaction across space and borders (the latter old and new). Historical writing, at its best, should increase the level of complexity, not decrease it. And in this respect I see a transnational history that seeks to think through the often complex interactions between the micro and macro level, between the global and the local scale as the right and timely way to practice history.

Francesca Trivellato recommended microhistory as a corrective to the generalising tendencies of global history and as a means of balancing structure-oriented accounts with individual agency. How do you deal with these problems in your own research?
BS: The article by Trivellato (California Italian Studies 2011, no. 1) is a great one, very stimulating, and she is not alone in recommending a micro-level approach in order practice transnational or, for that matter, global history. Natalie Zemon Davis’ “Trickster Travels” (New York 2006) or Tonio Andrade’s article “A Chinese farmer, two African Boys and a Warlord” (Journal of World History, 2010, no. 4) are other excellent examples on how the lens on individuals enables us to write global histories or histories that span and connect places, cultures, continents.
While I follow discussions around Digital Humanities including the dream of Big Data history as well as the plea for longer time frames in Jo Guldi’s and David Armitage’s “History Manifesto” (Cambridge 2014) or even deep history with interest, as historians we tend to be specialists, we tend to work with specific, small samples and data. We cherish the idiosyncratic. And yet we must not loose ourselves in the tiny, safe and specialist corner of the idiosyncratic. Current questions, hard questions are all there: from economy to capitalism and their ramifications for the social; from climate and environment to the history of globalisation and the anthropocene. And I am convinced we as historians have a lot to contribute to these questions, in particular through a transnational perspective as none of these pressing themes fit into more conventional spatial frameworks such as the nation or the region.
The question is how global and transnational history as an approach and a way of writing, explaining and, not the least, selling history can contribute to these and many other questions. In this respect, I do believe that global history and micro history can learn and benefit from one another. It could be a happy marriage. Just as globalisation, climate or migration can be and often are abstract concepts, they do become real, less abstract once we break them down into the lives of individuals.
Yet this is not easily done. I often find in teaching micro history reading Ginzburg’s “Cheese and the worms” (Baltimore: 1992) or using Andrade’s article in a global history class including questions of scale that students love these text for their narrative power that goes back to the focus on the individual. Identifying the large-scale questions, however, the Why and What, in Andrade’s text is not easy as it includes questions of trust and race in an early modern imperial setting. This requires critical reading beyond the anecdotical and idiosyncratic.
I try to incorporate this into my own work, both as an analytical tool as well as a narrative strategy. Together with my colleague James Koranyi, who works in Durham, we are just about to start writing a synthesis on late modern Europe from a transnational perspective. Starting in the second half of the eighteenth century, this is a challenging project. As we define transnational as an actor-centred approach around people in motion, the challenge is to identify individuals as case studies of historically specific transnational spheres and cross-border dynamics. This is where the classic question posed by microhistory on the “exceptional typical” is useful in order to identify feasible, writable case studies that exemplify larger trends.
Lastly, and more generally, in a time of technology, metrics and Big Data processing, we must define and stand our ground as historians. Without being overly defensive we ought to find our place between what we are traditionally strong at, that is the small and close observation, on the one hand, and the current trend towards Big Data and longue durée on the other, by providing analysis and food for thought towards these larger questions.

What place does interdisciplinarity hold in your work? From which fields do you draw inspiration for your research?
BS: As many fields and genres as possible. History has always borrowed from neighbouring disciplines. Ideally there should not be any boundaries in terms of reading and inspiration. I guess the art lies in the balance between close, expertise reading on one’s own field of immediate research and a much wider focus into different areas. The study by Brian Uzzi and Jarrett Spiro (American Journal of Sociology 2005, no. 2), on how creativity works in a networked world, based on the simple question on why some Broadway musicals fail why others fly, springs to my mind. Uzzi and Spiro attribute the success to what they call the Q-factor. By Q they mean the ideal balance of people with expertise knowledge and experience in the field, paired with a healthy dose of people who come with different perspectives and, most importantly, different questions. I think there is a lot in their study to think about on how we work as historians and scholars more generally. I, for my part, am convinced that a too focused, expertise reading is not the path to novelty and originality.
One of my current projects focuses on cartography and the question of visualising space and territory in the nineteenth century. In this case I seek inspiration from works ranging from the sociology of knowledge, the history of science, the history of media, from Latour’s idea of objects as actors, or spatial history such as Henri Lefebvre’s “The Production of Space” (Oxford, 1991).
As historians we always ought to look towards our immediate neighbours including sociology, philosophy, and the social sciences. More specifically on transnational history, I see inspiration coming from urban studies or human geography. This again goes back to the question of scales and a spatially aware form of transnational history that can potentially link into and benefit from our technology-driven world. Whenever I open a book in transnational history or read a transnationally-inspired article, say, Andrade’s article, I wish to “see” the place, the spatial dynamics. Yes, we have a long tradition of textual narrative and that will stay. But I do see more potential for more data-driven research or the integration of visual and mapping elements into the way we write and present history, not as mere illustrations but as heuristic tools. Urban studies or human geography are areas to look at and learn from. These are areas that are far more technology-savvy. As part of the way we try to do and teach transnational and spatial history at St Andrews, we are in the process of building bridges with our colleagues in Computer Science.
While I am personally exited and optimistic about such links and interdisciplinary crossings, the trade-off may be that when it comes to ticking boxes for a grant application, we are still often stuck and trapped to tick a certain area or discipline. We need to show expertise in order to be credible. In this respect convincing funding bodies to open up barriers and disciplinary boundaries remains a challenge.

Anglophone historiography is read across the globe, but the reception of historiography in other languages is often limited to national audiences. How does this affect the writing of transnational and global history?
BS: This is an excellent and indeed a pressing question, not the least as it addresses questions of audience as well as potential and existing imbalances in the way different historiographies are acknowledged or ignored. But it is, unfortunately, also a question on which I do not have a satisfactory answer. We all want to be read and we all wish to have an audience, ideally a broad one that goes beyond our immediate peer group and a smaller circle of experts. In that respect this is a huge problem as a book published in French will always have its immediate audience in France and the Francophone world. And that is a key language in our discipline. The problem goes further with limited circulation and recognition of scholarship and historiography published in, say, Danish, Czech, Portuguese or in any Asian or other non-European language. In this respect a history of Poland written in Polish will always have a limited, yet most likely or potentially wider readership than a complex history with a global dimension written in English. But as we do live in an increasingly globalised and transnational world at so many levels, the audience of people with transnational lives and background is also increasing.
Historically there have always been dominant academic languages. And generally speaking I do not see this as a problem, it is just pragmatic as a common platform of communication. But global or transnational history cannot and will not be credible as a mono-linguistic enterprise based on scholarship written or translated into English exclusively. Such histories will be myopic and run the risk of being regarded as yet another dominant western hegemonic discourse. The risk would be to equate any chosen language and platform of communication with the cultural, political or academic norms that come with it. That is a risk and needs to be taken into account.
At the risk of sounding ideological or programmatic, this is where I see one of the many benefits of transnational and global history as a multi-linguistic enterprise with the capability of looking beyond cultural and linguistic boundaries and as such as a political and educational project: language, language, language. Proficiency in languages is not only the basis for credible transnational, comparative, global histories, it is also one way of working against national solipsism and parochialism. Only with linguistic competence and flexibility comes an awareness of difference. The plea for languages, starting at school level, brings us to a blatant paradox. While the dominant language of our and other disciplines, for better or worse, is English, including global history, Anglophone students are often not well-equipped to do transnational history when they enter postgraduate studies. I have the privilege of working at a very good university here at St Andrews, but at least in the UK, I am less familiar with the US, languages are the key component missing. We do have very good students, but languages are a problem. In this respect continental students, whether from Scandinavia, the German-speaking countries, from Latvia or Poland are linguistically far better equipped to practice transnational history.
To sum up at least the paradox in the UK when it comes to postgraduate funding: Funding bodies may (or may not) like the thrust and ambition of transnational or global projects. But funding follows national parameters and citizenship primarily. So funding tends to go to UK citizens who may not have the languages or need to acquire them on the way. And the normal time frame for a UK PhD is three years. So in a research environment driven by tight funding, ever tighter measurements around metrics and completion rates, going for a PhD as well as a language or two can be seen as a risk. And students who have the languages but come with the wrong passport are normally not eligible for funding. So, yes, these basics do affect the writing and development of transnational history, sadly. This is where US institutions with funding for much longer-term postgraduate programmes clearly have an advantage to immerse oneself in a language.
If I may finish on a different note. Time is one of our main resources, and it is scarce. Acquiring languages does take time. One way of overcoming the dominance of one language or to go beyond our limited knowledge of languages and the contextual knowledge that comes with it, is to question our dominant pattern of the single-authored article or monograph. I think there is far more scope for team work, collaboration and co-authorship in whatever we write, books, chapter, articles. If you specialise in, say, post-war conflict and violence in a central European setting post 1945, why not merge more often with your colleague who works on Japan, China or Korea? Pooling and sharing expertise as well as co-authoring in the life sciences is part and parcel of research and writing, it is often key to perform at top, world-leading level. Why not in the humanities and in particular in a complex field such as global history with as many opportunities as there are potential pitfalls if we keep operating as the heroic single author?

As a historian who was trained in Germany and France and teaches in Britain, what differences do you see in the internationalisation of historical research (thematically, institutionally and career-wise) in these countries?
BS: Three academic contexts and three themes. This is tricky to sum up, where to start – without being too personal or too crude avoiding simplification? At the risk of being biographical here, let me take it from the “trained in Germany and France and teaches in Britain” (with an emphasis on teaching) angle and from there into career and institution. The key word here is teaching.
I applied to St Andrews exactly ten years ago and was offered a permanent position as Lecturer in March 2006. This was three years after the completion of my PhD that I had pursued in a co-tutelle setting between Berlin and Paris. Right after the completion of my PhD I was fortunate enough to have two consecutive research-teaching positions in Berlin between 2003 and 2006. I was lucky. But two years into my second job, I hit a wall. For two reasons: First, hardly any (or to be honest) no prospect of a permanent position for the next ten years or so. During a period when I clearly wanted to enjoy academic independence along with the joys of family and fatherhood. I am certainly not alone with that. Second, a key reason for me to stay in academia was a desire to teach, to share and communicate knowledge. I wanted to work in higher education, with an emphasis on education. While I enjoyed many things back in Berlin and while I am very grateful for a fantastic education back home in Germany, the relatively speaking limited or subordinated role of teaching was something I found dissatisfying.
So what I was looking for was a permanent position that would allow me to balance my interests and passions in both teaching and research. I looked to France and Britain. St Andrews was my first application and it came as a shock, a nice one, I have to say, to be offered a job on the same day of the interview. Of course, I went for it, and never really looked back. Not the least as it is fun and stimulating to work in an environment that is so open and welcoming to colleagues from different national contexts. What may sound like a personal trajectory, again one with a good element of luck, is not untypical. I could think of a number of German colleagues in particular those working in European history with a transnational-comparative edge who ended up in a number of different countries from Britain, to France, to Switzerland or the US.
The fact that both Britain and France offer permanent positions at a relatively early stage of an academic career makes both academic cultures more attractive, more open and more international compared to Germany. Britain is certainly the most open and thus the most international system. But also France, at least at the level of its elite Grandes Ecoles, is more international than a German faculty. We could bring this full-circle back to Uzzi, Spiro and the “Q-factor” I mentioned above. Germany, as it were, has the lowest Q in terms of international faculty. Does this make German academia, to push the Broadway analogy a bit further, less original, less successful? Not necessarily, in particular when it comes to transnational and global history German colleagues are a major and admirable driving force in the field between Berlin, Heidelberg or Leipzig to name just a few. What it is lacking in international staff at a permanent, that is a senior professorial level, it does make up through, comparatively speaking, generous funding at PhD level. It is after a successful and promising PhD where, sadly, the all too well-known bottle-neck of no prospect of job security hits even the most talented young colleagues. Personally, I think that that is a shame as intellectually this structural institutional problem, at least potentially, stifles innovation, risk and originality.
I do not wish to romanticise Britain’s academic system, which also has its flaws. But it does offer a far more balanced work environment and career trajectory between the three core elements: teaching, research (individual as well as collaborative and grant-oriented) and administration. And not the least given a much lower student-staff ratio on average compared to Germany, it does allow for a far more specialised, diverse and international research-teaching portfolio in terms of themes that most history departments offer. I need to apologise as I do not think that I have given a full and satisfactory answer. It is a very difficult balance to strike between the strengths and weaknesses of different academic systems.

While global and transnational history are thriving fields of research, careers and institutional settings in many countries remain strictly national, if not parochial. To be credible, does the writing of transnational historiography require more international universities and historians?
BS: Yes, you are hitting a paradox here in many ways. Indeed, global and transnational themes have been thriving over the past ten years or so. And they will continue to do so. For all the right reasons, not the least as they address a number of highly relevant questions at the right time. They question, implicitly or explicitly, the relevance of the nation. Also, seen as a political and educational programme, transnational perspectives ought to historicise the role of the modern nation-state, which in return allows to question an arguably western or Euro-centric model of both organising society as well as a traditional historiographical paradigm based around the dominance of the nation. At a time of migration and refugee crises, globally-minded perspectives have the edge of addressing the pressing political questions on the relevance and historical role of boundaries or territoriality. And the list is far longer, ranging from trade, to economy, to technology, to environment and climate.
And yes, all this thrives in and, partly, in spite of a largely nationally framed research and university environment. But it is not only the national frame that looms largely above a good number of job adverts. Some 25 years after the end of communism we still live, institutionally-speaking, with a long Cold War hangover replicating the 1945-1990 division with specialisation in either East or West. Things are changing, but at times frustratingly slowly institutionally.
In an (or my) ideal world, there would be far more international or European universities for that matter in terms of curriculum, students, staff, themes and topics. We have a few such institutions like the College of Europe in Bruges and Natolin or the European University Institute in Florence. It may be wishful thinking to hope for more of these and similar institutions with a much wider, truly transnational student and staff population. And it may only be a dream at the far end of the horizon. But I am a hopeless optimist that time will come in spite of many hurdles including funding of higher education and research that largely depends on (national) taxes while our world, our questions, our problems can no longer be dealt with in such containers and national isolation. If I were allowed to close my eyes and dream to be Dean of Humanities of any given institutions with a say in directions of research and recruitment, I would like to see job adverts to follow themes rather than national frameworks. I would rather advertise for jobs in, say, the history of science, economic history, the history of labour than the standard history of nation X or Y. Always with an explicit expectation that any given theme can be dealt with from multiple perspectives.
I would like to express my thanks to you for inviting me to participate in this interview around such excellent, pressing and thought-provoking questions. I really enjoyed that, I hope not too much with too lengthy responses.

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