Select Page

Why Study The Atlantic When Everyone Is Talking About Globalization?

By Prasanthi Ram
Prasanthi Ram


Feb 15, 2018 | News

Professor Robert S. DuPlessis, professor emeritus of History and International Relations at Swarthmore College and now a visiting professor at NTU’s History Programme, presented an invigorating seminar on February 8 during which he expounded in detail the methodology he adopted in his book The Material Atlantic that was published in late 2015. To summarise briefly, the book traces the history behind the production, trade and consumption (or appropriation) of textiles and garments that featured in the Atlantic Basin between 1650 and 1800. Think early cotton trade routes and the evolution of the handkerchief from its initial European associations with snuff-taking to its later reinvention as an integral part of a woman’s sartorial regime.

Within minutes of his introduction, Professor DuPlessis, who is a delightfully animated orator, addressed the elephant in the room: the Atlantic as a concept is in fact an anachronism. It does not and cannot accurately reflect history because the idea of the Atlantic as a unified system and space had already fallen apart in the 1800s. How then can such a conundrum be reconciled? And more importantly, why use the Atlantic as a central framework for his research in the first place if it is merely an imagined space?

To which, Professor DuPlessis first outlined the fundamental paradox underpinning the Atlantic, that it is at once too narrow and too wide a lens. For instance, distinct areas of the Atlantic obeyed different legal systems and trade within the region was not centrally organised either. Such discrepancies could arguably make it difficult to pin down the specificities of textile commerce during that time period due to the multidirectional nature of collected data.

Yet, rather than hastily discrediting the oceanic approach (meaning the Atlantic) for these reasons, he instead came up with the ingenious solution of fusing it together with a global, or globalisation, history approach. This alternative framework, a familiar one to several historians, centers on the industrial era which dates from the early nineteenth century onward when worldwide economic forces had become dominant and were measurable through data that emerged during the same time. Professor DuPlessis found that integrating these two approaches allowed for a more productive way of analysing data; just as the global history approach addressed the inherent superfluousness of the oceanic approach, its own teleological nature was interrogated by the heterogeneous nature of Atlantic history.

However, it is crucial to note that both approaches, despite their similarities and complementary differences, cannot be employed to the same degree at all times. They operate on different registers and the onus is on the researcher to demarcate the areas of investigation within which one approach may be more suitable than the other, just as Professor DuPlessis has.

Ultimately, the seminar seemed to point out that singularity in approaching the Atlantic world can only be a source of confusion, not clarity. This could be counter-intuitive to many, myself included, since we are used to framing our research through a particular lens. However, it admittedly rings true to the diverse and interstitial nature of the Atlantic Basin and highlights the importance of analysing our area of research first and determining its specifities before deciding on our methodology. And in our increasingly heterogeneous world, it is quite likely that sticking to a singular research approach could be too parochial that it leads us to unwittingly limit the true potential of our data. Indeed, as Professor DuPlessis said towards the end of his presentation, “methodological eclecticism is often the best research strategy.”

* The full title of Professor Robert DuPlessis’s book is as follows: The Material Atlantic: Clothing, Commerce, and Colonization in the Atlantic World, 1650-1800.