• Modern European history
• Transnational history
• Ethnic studies
• Environmental history
• Political history
• Social history
• Digital history
My research explores the paradox-laden process of democratic nation-building, particularly looking at how the world’s democracies were forged against the backdrop of imperial expansion, environmental volatility, social unrest, and racial politics. My work is highly interdisciplinary, and it cuts across a number of subfields: modern European history, transnational history, ethnic studies, environmental history, political history, and social history.
Colonial History as National History
Colonies are key constituents in the process of nation-building. There is a growing consensus among historians that colonial and national history must be treated as a single unit, because in democratic regimes, the administrative empire and the parliamentary republic are articulated within the same political formation—what Gary Wilder has termed the “imperial nation-state.” With this in mind, I explore how the French republic—and other democratic regimes more broadly—championed liberty and personal choice while maintaining an empire that mitigated or suppressed those virtues, looking in turn at how colonial citizens pushed back against inequity and subsequently redefined the very meaning of a republic with respect to political rights and cultural values.
My work resituates the Antilles as integral to French national history and treats colonial citizens as actors in the “imperial nation-state.” In doing so, I depart from understanding the African experience in the Caribbean as a form of diaspora akin to the Jewish tribes’ expulsion from their homeland. While scholars like Paul Gilroy have expertly shown how the black experience in the Atlantic world can be centered on the middle passage, thereby moving the margin to the center and underscoring the importance of slavery to European modernity, many other Caribbean writers have struggled against an analytic frame of reference that portrays Caribbean peoples as dispersed or dislocated Africans without attending to the specificity of experience or culture that developed over generations in the Caribbean basin.
As the blending of European and African cultural heritages in an Atlantic World context, the Antilles present an interesting case study to explore late-nineteenth-century nationalism and class struggle. Benedict Anderson has demonstrated that nations are not natural or foundational givens, but are produced as “imagined communities” in the modern world through print-capitalism, political action, and the ever-expanding bureaucratic apparatuses of the state. With this in mind, my research explores the simultaneity of two paradoxical ideas in nation-building: the racial conceptualization of civic identity that excludes recent immigrants and colonial populations from a given national identity, and the civic conceptualization of the “civilized” race that incorporates such populations under the rubric of universal individualism.
By looking at how both European and colonial heritages constituted the French nation, we are able to better understand how modern democracies seek to incorporate disparate groups, and how marginal groups in turn shape national culture and policy-making. Such an approach cuts across subfields within history and reaches out to other disciplines like political science, sociology, and ethnic studies.
Politics of Disaster
Historians are becoming increasingly interested in environmental disasters and the long-term historical processes they influence. I demonstrate that disasters play a vital role in nation-making by challenging and quite often redefining a nation’s core ideological values, ultimately putting the government’s relationship to its citizenry on display for all to see. Moments of catastrophe lay bare—and oftentimes heighten—preexisting social, political, and economic tensions, which in turn forces the government to make good on its promises or face a very public acknowledgement of societal inequity . At stake in any disaster or civil disturbance are a population’s citizenship rights and the state’s obligations to those citizens. Beyond the discipline of history, such research is relevant to sociologists, environmental scientists, demographers, and geographers who study disaster preparedness, governmental policy, and social mobility.
I am also invested in the new avenues of research made available by the digital humanities: geospatial information systems, text-mining and text-encoding, data visualization, computer-assisted qualitative analysis, network analysis, and relational databases. These tools enhance our historical understanding by helping us to organize and analyze an ever-increasing digitized source base. One such new technique is known as “distant reading.” Coined by Stanford literary scholar Franco Moretti, distant reading is the process of treating large amounts of text as data. Using the tools of natural language processing—algorithmic techniques like topic modeling and bi- and trigram collocation networks, as well as exploratory methods such as concordance and word frequency distributions—distant reading generates a bird’s-eye view of texts that permits us to see cultural and political change over time. Much as the Annales School changed our chronological scope, this new approach of distant reading changes our proximity to our texts, allowing us to see larger trends as they emerge in political and popular culture.
I have used digital tools to make more vivid the impact of natural disasters in shaping the language of citizenship against the backdrop of economics and governmental policy-making. I intend to continue integrating these emerging tools in my historical research to shape how we view long-term historical and cultural processes, as well as to make history accessible to those outside of the academy through public history projects that employ cutting-edge multimedia and data visualization technologies.
Overall, my research explores the process of democratic nation-building and how environmental disasters defined citizenship, influenced race-making and class politics, directed state-building, and shaped international cooperation in Europe and the Atlantic World. My approach to studying the history of national identity and civic integration is innovative, because it is highly interdisciplinary and integrates new digital tools with rigorous archival research.