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Introduction: have we ever been ‘transnational’? Towards a history of science across and beyond borders


In recent years, historians have debated the prospect of offering new ‘transnational’ or ‘global’ perspectives in their studies. This paper introduces the reader to this special issue by analysing characteristics, merits and flaws of these approaches. It then considers how historians of science have practised transnational history without, however, paying sufficient attention to the theoretical foundations of this approach. Its final part illustrates what benefits may derive from the application of transnational history in the field. In particular, we suggest looking at the construction of transnational networks in science, and discuss some of the methodological consequences of adopting this approach.

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1 One reason why we have decided to look into these matters is our involvement in a new research programme aiming at reconstructing the history of the earth sciences, especially in Europe, after 1945. Funded by the European Research Council, The Earth under Surveillance – TEUS (241009) examines the emergence of earth and environmental sciences as a result of the development of new forms of transnational patronage related to Cold War diplomatic and military needs. We acknowledge and thank Peder Roberts, Leucha Veneer and two anonymous referees for their comments and suggestions.

2 Pierre Y. Saunier, ‘Entry: transnational’, in Akira Iriye and Pierre-Yves Saunier (eds.), The Palgrave Dictionary of Transnational History, New York: Palgrave, 2009, pp. 1047–1055. For previous uses see, for instance, Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye, Transnational Relations and World Politics, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973.

3 On the implications of using these new means for archival work see, for instance, Bruce V. Lewenstein, ‘The history of now: reflections on being a “contemporary archivist”’, in Ron Doel and Thomas Söderqvist (eds.), The Historiography of Contemporary Science, Technology and Medicine: Writing Recent Science, London and New York: Routledge, 2006, pp. 31–42.

4 Iriye, Akira, ‘The internationalization of history’, American Historical Review (1989) 94, pp. 110.

5 Ian Tyrrell, ‘What is Transnational History?’ Excerpt of a paper given at the Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociale (Paris) in January 2007. Available at, last accessed 13 September 2010. See also Iriye, op. cit. (4). Instrumental to these developments were the special issues on transnational history in the Journal of American History, and conferences were held at La Pietra (Florence, Italy). Thelen, David, ‘The nation and beyond: transnational perspectives on United States history’, Journal of American History (1999) 86, pp. 965975. See also Bender, Thomas (ed.), Rethinking American History in a Global Age, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

6 Iriye and Saunier, op. cit. (2).

7 Palgrave's Dictionary offers an insight into this richness of themes and issues. See also Iriye, Akira, ‘Transnational history’, Contemporary European History (2004) 13, pp. 211222.

8 On world history see Grew, Raymond, ‘Expanding worlds of world history’, Journal of Modern History (2006) 78, pp. 878898. On the new global history see Mazlish, Bruno, The New Global History, London: Routledge, 2006; Mazlish, Bruno and Buultjens, Ralph (eds.), Conceptualizing Global History, Boulder: Westview Press, 1993.

9 Bayly, Christopher A., Beckert, Sven, Connelly, Matthew, Hofmeyr, Isabel, Kozol, Wendy and Seed, Patricia, ‘AHR conversation: on transnational history’, American Historical Review (2006) 111, pp. 14411464.

10 However, according to Kiran Patel, the emphasis on European connections has hindered the transformation of these approaches into fully fledged transnational perspectives. Patel, Kiran K., ‘“Transnations” among “transnations”? the debate on transnational history in the United States and Germany’, Center for European Studies Working Paper Series (2008) 159, pp. 67.

11 On transfer and comparative history see Heinz-Gerhard Haupt and Jürgen Kocka, ‘Comparative history: methods, aims, problems’, in Deborah Cohen and Maura O'Connor (eds.), Comparison and History, London: Routledge, 2004, pp. 23–39. On histoire croisée see Werner, Michael and Zimmermann, Bénédicte, ‘Penser l'historie croisée. Entre empirie et réflexivité’, Annales (2003) 58, pp. 736; and Werner, Michael and Zimmermann, Bénédicte, ‘Beyond comparison: histoire croisée and the challenge of reflexivity’, History and Theory (2006) 45, pp. 3050.

12 Saunier, Pierre-Yves, ‘Going transnational? News from down under’, Historical Social Research (2006) 31, pp. 118131. More recently, Saunier and Akira Iriye have argued that transnational history deals with ‘links and flows’ and the tracking of ‘people, ideas, products, processes and patterns that operate over, across, through, beyond, above, under, or in-between polities and societies’. Iriye and Saunier, op. cit. (2), p. xxviii.

13 Such as the monograph Raj, Kapil, Relocating Modern Science: Circulation and the Construction of Knowledge in South Asia and Europe, 1650–1900, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007; and the edited volumes Simon, Josep and Herran, Néstor (eds.), Beyond Borders: Fresh Perspectives in History of Science, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008; Schaffer, Simon, Roberts, Lissa, Raj, Kapil and Delbourgo, James (eds.), The Brokered World: Go-Betweens and Global Intelligence, 1770–1820, Sagamore Beach: Science History Publishing, 2009. See also Simon Schaffer's recent participation in the Writing the History of the Global: Challenges for the 21st Century conference, Institute for Historical Research, May 2009 ( The Palgrave Dictionary of Transnational History covers scientific issues in few entries (scientific expeditions and stations, scientific instruments, prizes, standards, mathematics and medicine). On the other hand, the history of technology is well represented.

14 Sarton, for example, stated that Isis would ‘denounce on every possible occasion the imperialist tendencies that some scientists try to impose on the science of their country or of their race’, while Koyré's history of scientific ideas had as a guiding principle the will to show ‘the unity of human thought, particularly in its highest forms’. On the idea of the universality of science see Somsen, Geert J., ‘A history of universalism: conceptions of the internationality of science from the Enlightenment to the Cold War’, Minerva (2008) 46, pp. 361379.

15 Werskey, Gary, ‘The Marxist critique of capitalist science: a history in three movements?’, Science as Culture (2007) 16, pp. 397461. See also Young, Robert M., ‘Marxism and the history of science’, in Robert C. Olby et al. (eds.), Companion to the History of Modern Science, London: Routledge, 1990, pp. 7786.

16 Shapin, Steven, ‘History of science and its sociological reconstructions’, History of Science (1982) 20, pp. 157211; idem, ‘Discipline and bounding: the history and sociology of science as seen through the externalism–internalism debate’, History of Science (1993) 30, pp. 333369. See also Werskey, op. cit. (15).

17 Galison, Peter and Hevly, Bruce (eds.), Big Science: The Growth of Large-Scale Laboratories, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992; Leslie, Stuart W., The Cold War and American Science: The Military–Industrial Complex at MIT and Stanford, New York: Columbia University Press, 1992; Hughes, Jeff, The Manhattan Project: Big Science and the Atom Bomb, London: Icon, 2003.

18 Crawford, Elisabeth, Shinn, Terry and Sörlin, Sverker (eds.), Denationalizing Science: The Contexts of International Scientific Practice, Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 1993; Pyenson, Lewis, ‘An end to national science: the meaning and the extension of local knowledge’, History of science (2002) 40, pp. 251290. Krige, John and Barth, Kai-Henrik (eds.), Global Power Knowledge, Osiris (2006) 22.

19 Morrell, Jack B., ‘The chemist breeders: the research schools of Liebig and Thomas Thomson’, Ambix (1972) 19, pp. 146; Geison, Gerald L. and Holmes, Frederick L. (eds.), Research Schools: Historical Reappraisals, Osiris (1993) 8; Hughes, Thomas P., Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880–1930, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983; Needham, Joseph, The Grand Titration: Science and Society in East and West, Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1979. On the comparative method see also Margaret C. Jacob, ‘Science studies after social construction: the turn toward the comparative and the global’, in Victoria E. Bonnell and Lynn Hunt (eds.), Beyond the Cultural Turn: New Directions in the Study of Society and Culture, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999, pp. 95–120; and Lloyd, G.E.R., ‘The comparative history of pre-modern science: the pitfalls and the prizes’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science (1997) 28, pp. 363368. For a recent survey on comparative history of science see Pyenson, Lewis, ‘Comparative history of science’, History of Science (2002) 40, pp. 133, 4.

20 On universal exhibitions see, for example, Greenhalgh, Paul, Ephemeral Vistas: The Expositions Universelles, Great Expositions and World's Fairs, 1851–1939, Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 1988; and Rasmussen, Anne and Schroeder-Gudehus, Brigitte, Les fastes du progrès: Le guide des expositions universelles, 1851–1992, Paris: Flammarion, 1992. Some good examples of historical research on international congresses are Rasmussen, Anne, ‘Jalons pour une histoire des congrès internationaux au XIXe siècle: régulation scientifique et propagande intellectuelle’, Relations internationales (1990) 62, pp. 115133; and Doel, Ronald E., Hoffmann, Dieter and Krementsov, Nikolai, ‘National states and international science: a comparative history of international science: congresses in Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia, and Cold War United States’, Osiris (2005) 20, pp. 49–76.

21 Misa, Thomas J. and Schot, Johan, ‘Inventing Europe: technology and the hidden integration of Europe’, History and Technology (2005) 21, pp. 120. van der Vleuten, Erik and Kaijser, Arne (eds.), Networking Europe: Transnational Infrastructures and the Shaping of Europe, 1850–2000, Sagamore Beach: Science History Publications, 2006; Schot, Johan, ‘Building Europe on transnational infrastructures: European infrastructures’, Journal of Transport History (2007) 28, pp. 167171. Transnational or ‘global’ perspectives are also in Daniel R. Headrick, Technology: A World History, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009; Edgerton, David, Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900, London: Profile Books, 2006.

22 For an overview of the STEP program and its main results until 2008 see Gavroglu, Kostas et al. , ‘Science and technology in the European periphery: historiographical reflections’, History of Science (2008) 46, pp. 153175. Some noteworthy comparative studies arising from this group are, for example, Simões, Ana, Carneiro, Ana and Paula, Maria Diogo (eds.), Travels of Learning: A Geography of Science in Europe, Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2002; and Papanelopoulou, Faidra, Nieto-Galan, Agustí and Perdiguero, Enrique, Popularizing Science and Technology in the European Periphery, 1800–2000, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2009. The potential of transnational history has been realized by STEP and one of the authors is coordinator for a specific group on transnational approaches. See STEP webpage,, last accessed 23 December 2010.

23 Raj, Kapil, ‘Colonial encounters and the forging of new knowledge and national identities, 1760–1850’, Osiris (2000) 15, pp. 119134; idem, Relocating Modern Science: Circulation and the Construction of Knowledge in South Asia and Europe, 1650–1900, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. See also Stuchey, Benedikt, Science across the European Empires 1800–1950, London: OUP/German Historical Institute, 2005.

24 See, for instance, Christophe Bonneuil, ‘Crafting and disciplining the tropics: plant science in the French colonies’, in John Krige and Dominique Pestre (eds.), Science in the Twentieth Century, Amsterdam: Harwood, 1997, pp. 77–96; and Christophe Bonneuil, ‘Development as experiment: science and state building in late colonial and postcolonial Africa, 1930–1970’, Osiris (2000), 15, pp. 1501–1520; Palladino, Paolo and Worboys, Michael, ‘Science and imperialism’, Isis (1993) 84, pp. 84102; Michael Worboys, ‘Colonial medicine’, in Roger Cooter and John Pickstone (eds.), Medicine in the Twentieth Century, Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 2000, pp. 67–80. And more recently Neill, Deborah, ‘Paul Ehrlich's colonial connections: scientific networks and the response to the sleeping sickness epidemic, 1900–1914’, Social History of Medicine (2009) 1, pp. 6177.

25 Such as the recent Anduaga, Aitor, Wireless and Empire: Geopolitics, Radio Industry and Ionosphere in the British Empire, 1918–1939, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. See also Winseck, Dwayne R. and Pike, Robert M., Communication and Empire: Media, Markets, and Globalization, 1860–1930, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007.

26 On the role of travel in the making of scientific knowledge see Bourguet, Marie-Nöelle, Licoppe, Christian and Sibum, Otto (eds.), Instruments, Travel and Science: Itineraries of Precision from the 17th to the 20th Century, London: Routledge, 2002; Delbourgo, James and Dew, Nicholas (eds.), Science and Empire in the Atlantic World, New York: Routledge, 2008. See also the literature in historical geography on episodes of scientific exploration in the recent past. For instance, Naylor, Simon K. and Ryan, James R., New Spaces of Exploration: Geographies of Discovery in the Twentieth Century, London: I.B. Tauris, 2009.

27 On forced exile see Hoch, Paul, ‘The reception of central European refugee physicists of the 1930s: USSR, UK, USA’, Annals of Science (1983) 40, pp. 217246; and Diane Dosso, ‘Louis Rapkine (1904–1948) et la mobilisation scientifique de la France libre’, PhD dissertation, Université Paris VII/Denis Diderot, 1998. On science migrations and brain drain see Jankovic, Vladimir, ‘Science migrations: mesoscale weather prediction from Belgrade to Washington, 1970–2000’, Social Studies of Science (2004) 34, pp. 4575; and Godwin, Matthew, Gregory, Jane and Balmer, Brian, ‘The anatomy of the Brain Drain debate, 1950–1970s: witness seminar’, Contemporary British History (2009) 1, pp. 3560. On the enforcement of borders and limitations see Turchetti, Simone, The Pontecorvo Affair: A Cold War Defection and Nuclear Physics, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011, Chapter 3; and Herran, Néstor, ‘Spreading nucleonics: the Isotope School at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment, 1951–1967’, BJHS (2006) 39, pp. 569586.

28 Picard, Jean-François, La Fondation Rockefeller et la recherche médicale, Paris: PUF, 1999; Gemelli, Giovana, Picard, Jean-François and Schneider, William H., Managing Medical Research in Europe: The Role of the Rockefeller Foundation 1920s–1950, Bologna: Clueb, 1999; Löwy, Ilana, Virus, moustiques et modernité: science, politique et la fièvre jaune au Brésil, Paris: Éditions des archives comtemporaines, 2001; Löwy, Ilana and Zylberman, Patrick (eds.), ‘The Rockefeller Foundation and the biomedical sciences’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Biology and Biomedical Sciences (2000) 31(C), p. 3.

29 Friedman, Robert M., The Politics of Excellence: Behind the Nobel Prize in Science, New York: Freeman and Times Books, 2001.

30 See Josep Simon, ‘Communicating physics in nineteenth-century France and England: the production, distribution and use of Ganot's textbooks’, PhD dissertation, University of Leeds, 2009; Rupke, Nicolaas, ‘Translation studies in the history of science: the example of “Vestiges”’, BJHS (2000) 33, pp. 209222.

31 Creager, Angela, ‘Tracing the politics of changing postwar research practices: the export of “American” radioisotopes to European biologists’, Studies in History and Philosophy of the Biological and Biomedical Sciences (2002) 33, pp. 367388; Hecht, Gabrielle, ‘Africa and the nuclear world: labor, occupational health, and the transnational production of uranium’, Comparative Studies in Society and History (2009) 51, pp. 896926; Herran, Néstor and Roqué, Xavier, ‘Tracers of contemporary technoscience’, Dynamis (2009) 29, pp. 123130.

32 Zylberman, Patrick, ‘Making food safety an issue: internationalised food politics and French public health from the 1870s to the present’, Medical History (2004) 48, pp. 128; Löwy, Ilana and Gaudillière, Jean-Paul, ‘Localizing the global: tests and the clinical management of hereditary risks of breast cancer in a comparative perspective (France, USA, UK)’, Science, Technology and Human Values (2008) 33, pp. 299325; Boudia, Soraya, ‘Global regulation: controlling and accepting radioactivity risks’, History and Technology (2007) 23, pp. 389406.

33 On birth control see Connelly, Matthew, Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008. On environmental health hazards see Boudia, Soraya and Jas, Nathalie, ‘Risk and “risk society”’, History and Technology (2007) 23, pp. 317331; Boudia, op. cit. (32).

34 See, for example, Korsmo, Fae, ‘The genesis of the International Geophysical Year’, Physics Today (2007) 60, pp. 3843; or Naylor, Simon, Dean, Katrina, Siegert, Martin and Turchetti, Simone, ‘Science, geopolitics and the governance of Antarctica’, Nature Geoscience (2008) 1, pp. 143145.

35 As part of what Ronald E. Doel has defined as a history of a science ‘in black’. See Ronald E. Doel, ‘Scientists as policymakers, advisors, and intelligence agents: linking contemporary diplomatic history with the history of contemporary science’, in Thomas Söderqvist (ed.), The Historiography of Contemporary Science and Technology, Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1997, pp. 215–244. See also idem, ‘Does scientific intelligence matter?’, Centaurus (2010) 52, pp. 311–322. On the role of scientific expertise see Miller, Clark A. and Edwards, Paul N., Changing the Atmosphere: Expert Knowledge and Environmental Governance, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001; Hecht, Gabrielle, ‘Negotiating global nuclearities: apartheid, decolonization, and the Cold War in the making of the IAEA’, Osiris (2006) 22, pp. 2548; Barth, Kai-Henrik, ‘Catalysts of change: scientists as transnational arms control advocates in the 1980s’, Osiris (2006) 22, pp. 182208.

36 Crawford, Elisabeth, Nationalism and Internationalism in Science, 1880–1939: Four Studies of the Nobel Population, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Aant Elzinga, ‘Science and technology: internationalisation’, in Neil J. Smelser and P.B. Baltes (eds.), International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, London: Elsevier, 2004, pp. 13633–13638. See also Elzinga, Aant and Landström, Catharina (eds.), Internationalism and Science, London: Taylor Graham, 1996.

37 Alter, Peter, ‘The Royal Society and the International Association of Academies, 1879–1919’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London (1980) 34, pp. 241264; Greenaway, Frank, Science International: A History of the International Council of Scientific Unions, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

38 Lamar, Jake, Sixty Years of Science at UNESCO 1945–2005, Paris: UNESCO, 2006.

39 Krige, John, American Hegemony and the Postwar Reconstruction of Science in Europe, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008; Krige, John and Russo, Arturo, A History of the European Space Agency, 2 vols., Noordwijk: ESA, 2000; Krige, John, ‘The peaceful atom as political weapon: Euratom as an instrument of U.S. foreign policy in the 1950s’, Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences (2008) 38, pp. 544; Krige, John et al. , History of CERN, 3 vols., Amsterdam: North Holland, 1987–1996; Krige, John and Barth, Kai-Henrik, ‘Introduction: science, technology, and international affairs’, Osiris (2006) 22, pp. 124.

40 Kuhn, Thomas S., The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962; Geison, Gerald L., ‘Scientific change, emerging specialties, and research schools’, History of Science (1981) 19, pp. 2040; Warwick, Andrew, Masters of Theory, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

41 Galison, Peter, Image and Logic: A Material Culture of Microphysics, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

42 Latour, Bruno and Woolgar, Steve, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts, Beverly Hills: Sage, 1979.

43 Secord, James, ‘Knowledge in transit’, Isis (2004) 95, pp. 654672.

44 On the construction of these views in colonial and postcolonial settings see the literature we have referred to in the footnotes above.

45 Oreskes, Naomi, ‘Science and public policy: what's proof got to do with it?’, Environmental Science and Policy (2004) 7, pp. 369383. Hamblin, Jacob D., Oceanographers and the Cold War: Disciples of Marine Science, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005; Amy Dahan and Hélène Guillemot, ‘Climate change: scientific dynamics, expertise, and geopolitical stakes’, in G. Mallard and C. Paradeise (eds.), Global Science and National Sovereignty: Studies in Historical Sociology of Science, New York: Routledge, 2008, pp. 195–219.

46 Simone Turchetti, ‘“In God we trust; all others we monitor”: seismology in international and intelligence Affairs’, forthcoming.

47 Hamblin, op. cit. (45), pp. 233–235.

48 Agrawala, Shardul, ‘Context and early origins of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’, Climatic Change (1998) 39, pp. 605620.

49 Raj, ‘Colonial encounters’, op. cit. (23), pp. 119 (on intelligence gathering) and 129–133 (on uses of local knowledge for imperial purposes).

50 Anduaga, op. cit. (25), pp. 184–190.

51 Werskey, op. cit. (15), p. 441.

52 Evangelista, Matthew, Unarmed Forces: The Transnational Movement to End the Cold War, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999.

53 Doel, Ronald E. and Needell, Allan E., ‘Science, scientists and the CIA: balancing international ideals, national needs and professional opportunities’, Intelligence and National Security (1997) 12, pp. 5981. See also Doel, ‘Scientists as policymakers, advisors, and intelligence agents’, op. cit. (35).

54 Krige, American Hegemony and the Postwar Reconstruction of Science, op. cit. (39).

55 Aant Elzinga, ‘Antarctica: the construction of a continent by and for science’, in Elisabeth Crawford et al. (eds.), Denationalizing Science: The Context of International Scientific Practice, Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 1993, pp. 73–106. Turchetti, Simone, Naylor, Simon, Dean, Katrina and Siegert, Martin, ‘On thick ice: scientific internationalism and Antarctic affairs, 1957–1980’, History and Technology (2008) 24, pp. 351376.

56 Bayly et al., op. cit. (9), p. 1454.

57 Federico Romero, ‘La globalizzazione e la storia delle relazioni internazionali’, 2003, quoted by Saunier, op. cit. (2), pp. 129–130. See also F. Romero, ‘Globalizzazione e frammentazione nella storia delle relazioni internazionali’, paper presented at the La storia contemporanea in Italia oggi: linee di tendenza e orientamenti di ricerca workshop , Lecce, 25–27 September 2003, available at, last accessed 19 March 2012.

58 Saunier, op. cit. (2), p. 126.

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