Intercultural Transfer and Comparative History: The Benefits and Limits of Two Approaches

Gabriele Lingelbach


Intercultural transfer and comparative history are two approaches available to historians for transnational analysis. There is an ongoing debate on whether both approaches are mutually complementary or exclusive, both claiming the importance of theirs over the other. Comparative historians are said to artificially separate their objects of study from each other thereby constructing them anachronistically. However, the closer the societies are temporally and geographically, the more they tend to be interwoven with each other and it is more likely that there is mutual reciprocal influence. Intercultural transfer emphasizes the mutual entanglement of societies by working interdisciplinarily and using concepts from neighboring disciplines. Its proponents are said to be not consistently against the comparative approach in their practice: the scholar who focuses on the exchange relationships between two societies, always does an implicit comparison of the initial conditions in the country or region from which the intercultural transfer emanated, with the conditions in the country or region, to which this transfer was directed. This article first discusses the historiography of both approaches and then explores advantages and disadvantages using the case study of the reception of German historical studies in the United States and in France in the nineteenth century.

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