Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Grads Share Challenges of Transnational Research

April 25, 2010

Recently at the Institute, graduate students studying the Americas shared wisdom gained from transnational research. The panel provided an opportunity for cross-disciplinary dialogue about the logistical and theoretical challenges of researching across national boundaries.

Sarah Seidman, a doctoral candidate in American civilization, highlighted how transnational research often demands understanding of a broader range of topics than does research at a single site. Since a researcher must navigate the social norms and historical underpinnings of multiple communities, “the breadth of the subject can be particularly overwhelming,” she said.

Seidman’s ongoing research traces the relationship between the African American freedom movement in the United States and the Cuban Revolution. Though they often did not see eye to eye, activists in the two movements were equally invested in issues of race, anti-colonialism, and socialism, Seidman said. Using a diverse array of sources – both textual and visual – Seidman seeks to analyze the iconography of black actors in Cuba, and how that iconography may in turn provide insight into the discourse surrounding Cuban leaders like Fidel Castro.

While the “gold standard” of transnational research is to trace the mutual effects of two communities on one another, this is easier said than done. In her own research, Seidman has found it difficult trace the relationship between Cuba and African-Americans as a “two way street,” and thus has focused on African Americans’ experience in Cuba.

Transnational research often suffers a rift between theory and practice, agreed Sara Fingal, a doctoral candidate in history. Because transnational research often explores new relationships between states or communities, a researcher may not always find previous work on his or her topic, she said. Fingal spoke from personal experience; her historical research challenges conventional approaches to migration issues along the US-Mexico border.

Fingal researches the history of Americans settling in beachfront territories in Baja California. While almost all analysis of the US-Mexico border investigates Mexican migration to the United States, she hopes to gain insight into the impact of Americans who “occupy a borderland space,” she said.

Like Seidman, Fingal has struggled to balance multiple perspectives. It is far easier to find American documents and testimonies on tourism in Mexico than it is to find Mexican perspectives on American residents in Baja, she said. However, she has not given up yet, and will soon return to Baja to seek Mexican perspectives.

The logistical challenges of transnational research cannot be underestimated, both Seidman and Fingal asserted. Researching in Cuba presented myriad challenges, said Seidman, from the strict government control of documents to the rigorous licensing procedures for researchers in Cuba. Fingal spoke to both the emotional strain of constant travel and the unpredictability of fieldwork.

Her advice on how to handle unexpected challenges abroad?  Keep a good sense of humor and “plan ahead, plan ahead, plan ahead!”

By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Juliana Friend ‘11