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"Cosmobilities" – Transnational Lives in Dictionaries of National Biography across Europe during the 19th Century

Between 1 May 2014 and 30 April 2015, the feasibility study "Cosmobilities" was carried out at the IEG. The project was jointly managed by Johannes Paulmann and Margit Szöllösi-Janze (Munich); Sarah Panter worked on the project at the IEG, which was funded by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation. The starting point was the observation that national biographies of the 19th century are strongly characterised by the appropriation of individual persons in the name of a 'nation'.
In doing so, it asked how the incorporation of digital resources and other biographical source material into the research design can offer new, inspiring insights and point to new avenues for historical research on the 19th century. At first glance, dictionaries of national biography appear to be characterized by a straightforward national perspective and function. A close reading of the life stories contained in these dictionaries, however, produced an altogether different picture, showing that many of these life stories were transnational in nature. Our project’s point of departure, closely linked to this observation, was the following assumption: The way in which national dictionaries of biography lay claim to individuals and their accomplishments in their entirety for the respective nation hides the fact that the lives and actions of these men and women were characterized by transnational and transcultural circumstances and examples of cultural exchange.
Our feasibility study had three principal aims: Firstly, by looking at transnational biographies, it questioned widespread, nationally inspired narratives about the 19th century. Secondly, by engaging with theoretical approaches from the social sciences, it developed a new historical approach (called "cosmobilities") for explaining transnational activities and practices within different national contexts during the 19th century. Finally, it explored the potential benefits of digital collections and infrastructures for historical analyses in this context. In contrast to projects focusing primarily on collecting or exploiting data, our research perspective was reversed. Our project examined whether the perspective of "cosmobilities" would enable us to develop questions and categories for the analysis of digitally available mass data that promises innovative insights for historical research. During the one-year timeframe of this feasibility study, we concretized its principal aims with a view to preparing a proposal for a larger research grant. To this end, the explorative phase focused on selected sample groups from four different spheres of society: the economy, politics, science and the arts.