Intellectual genealogies, traveling concepts – interview with Professor Donna R. Gabaccia (University of Minnesota)

Professor Donna R. Gabaccia from the University of Minnesota visited Turku in March to give a lecture entitled From Immigration History to Mobility Studies. The guest lecture was organized by the interdisciplinary PhD seminar “Multicultural and Postcolonial Intersections” and MCnet.

In her lecture, Professor Gabaccia emphasized how important it is to understand intellectual genealogies, especially for young scholars: If we don’t know the longer trajectory of our research questions and answers we are likely to claim novelty when other scholars have already answered the same questions.


“The research field can be moved forward more effectively if we really understand in a broader sense what is new in what we are doing,” explained Dr. Gabaccia. Instead, many scholars remained involved in debates with those whose ideas they seek to overturn. To support her point, she highlighted the case of American historian Oscar Handlin.

For over 30 years Professor Gabaccia’s generation has been debating Handlin without realizing they are repeating the approached developed by earlier scholars.  It is almost forgotten that other notable scholars preceded Handlin. Gabaccia would like to see better connections to the work of these earlier scholars and a greater understanding of the interdisciplinary and international connections between scholars, not only in the present but also in the past.

International connections are also important when it comes to research concepts. Professor Gabaccia outlined and discussed the long history of concepts traveling between fields. For example, the Chicago School borrowed many of their ideas from German sociology, especially the distinction between Gesellschaft and Gemeinschaft (generally translated as “community and society”). Her generation has been deeply influenced by transatlantic travels. For her, it was her studies in Germany, but the entire field benefits from interdisciplinary and international contacts, she says. When concepts travel they are put to somewhat different use and it might give something new to the research field.

Professor Gabaccia explained how the voices of migration studies are often gendered. Where does this division come from, she asks? She argues that women scholars recently have been more likely to think the global through questions concerning diaspora, the relationship between migration and home. Theorists of globalism are more often men while theorists of diaspora and transnationalism are more mixed. So there are voices of women scholars, but those writing global and world histories are still most often men. “The gendering of knowledge production should be acknowledged,” Professor Gabaccia adds.

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