Historians without Borders: Writing Histories of International Organizations

Leiden University – 22-23 March 2018


Practical information

This workshop is organized by the ERC project ‘Rethinking Disability’. It is intended to bring together early-career researchers from different fields working on international organizations, to discuss methodological challenges together with peers and established scholars. A combination of a master class, keynote lectures, and roundtable discussions aims at providing an informal and interactive setting for the exchange of ideas and perspectives.

Confirmed speakers include:

  • Davide Rodogno (The Graduate Institute, Geneva)
  • Corinne Pernet (University of Geneva)
  • Kiran Patel (Maastricht University)


Ever since the paradigm of ‘globalization’ has found its way into the field of history, ways of writing histories beyond borders have proliferated. Today, historians no longer need to justify enlarging their geographical scope beyond the national, but it can nonetheless be a daunting task to decide on how to do this. While we are going beyond borders, the choice for a translocal, transnational, transregional or global history still reveals our preference for a certain scale. Methodologically, our toolbox now offers us concepts such as comparisons, transfers, connections, entanglements and circulations. As different approaches focus on different concepts, choosing one approach often entails a rejection of other possible approaches. Transnational historians will distance themselves from comparative history; global history, as any global historian will tell you, is not the same as world history. The further we seem to get in advancing the call for breaking with our ‘methodological nationalism’, the more we seem to split up into different subfields, where fruitful dialogue becomes increasingly difficult. The purpose of this workshop is to open up this dialogue, to see what specific advantages different approaches can offer and how they can be best put to use.

In order to do this, the workshop will focus on the history of international organizations (IOs), as they are “extremely stimulating heuristic objects for historians of globalism in that they represent a true laboratory of the accords and tensions at work between the international, national, and local scenes and frames of reference” (Kott, 2011, p. 449). Therefore, writing their history automatically compels us to think about methodologies of doing ‘history beyond borders’. Although they automatically force historians to think about international connections, it is equally important to consider the continuing role of local or national scales within international organizations. Research objects in this regard can encompass both the main intergovernmental organizations (IOs) – such as the League of Nations, the UN or the NATO – and the vast field of International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGOs), spanning a diverse range of causes from the environment (Greenpeace), over human rights (Amnesty International), to humanitarianism (Médecins sans frontières).


Thursday 22 March

Venue: Lipsius, room 147

Registration – Entrance of the Lipsius Building


Word of welcome by the organizers


Academic speed dating
In a short round of academic speed dating, we aim to get everyone in touch with each other, break the ice, and pave the way for a truly interactive workshop


Roundtable 1. Interdisciplinary perspectives
Chaired by Paul van Trigt (Leiden University)
Roundtable discussion on interdisciplinary perspectives on international organizations. Participants are:

  • Otto Spijkers (Utrecht University) on ‘United Nations history as a history of global values’, providing an International Law perspective
  • Giles Scott-Smith (Leiden University) presents his insights as a founding editor of the new journal Diplomatica: A Journal of Diplomacy and Society, which ‘addresses the broad range of work being done across the social sciences and the humanities that takes diplomacy as its focus of investigation’




Roundtable 2. Challenges in historical research beyond borders
Chaired by Giles Scott-Smith (Leiden University)
Roundtable discussion on the challenges of doing history beyond borders, with a specific focus on methodological questions and challenges when setting up international research projects. Participants are:

  • Jessica Reinisch (Birbeck College, London), brining in her expertise on the history of international collaboration and ambitions of medical professionals, politicians, generals, diplomats and policy-makers in twentieth century Europe, as principal investigator of the project ‘The Reluctant Internationalists. A History of Public Health and International Organisations, Movements and Experts in Twentieth Century Europe’. She is also the author of the 2013 book The Perils of Peace: the Public Health Crisis of Occupied Germany
  • Bogdan Iacob (Exeter University), who has worked on socialist experts’ contributions to international debates and institution building as principal investigator of the project ‘Turning Global. Socialist Experts during the Cold War (1960s-1980s)’
  • Dora Vargha (Exeter University), who has recently completed her book manuscript Polio Across the Iron Curtain: Hungary’s Cold War with an Epidemic, and is an expert on global public health and international organizations such as the WHO. She has led the project Socialist Medicine: an Alternative Global Health History supported by the Wellcome Trust
  • Steffen Rimner (Utrecht University), who will soon have his first book published which, based on multi-lingual archival research across Asia, Western Europe and North America, presents a history of the Asian origins of global drug control from the Opium Wars to the League of Nations
  • Monika Baár (Leiden University), who will share her insights from working on the project ‘Rethinking Disability: the Impact of the International Year of Disabled Persons (1981) in Global Perspective’, which studies the political, societal and cultural implications of an event that has been entirely overlooked in mainstream history








Keynote lecture by Corinne Pernet (University of Geneva)
Chaired by Alanna O’Malley (Leiden University)
“International Organizations and their Historians: Dealing with the Kaleidoscope”


‘Borrel’ at Grand Café Pakhuis Leiden


Friday 23 March

Venue: Lipsius, rooms 147 & 148



Word of welcome by the organizers (room 147)


Roundtable 1. Cold War
Moderator: Bogdan Iacob
Participants: Agnès Vollmer, David Brydan, Anaïs Van Ertvelde
Roundtable 2. Multi-actor, multi-level
Moderator: Brian Shaev
Participants: Bastiaan Bouwman, Anne-Isabelle Richard, Silke Zoller




Roundtable 3. Refugees
Moderator: Jessica Reinisch
Participants: Sara Cosemans, Jakob Schönhagen, Bennett G. Sherry
Roundtable 4. Culture
Moderator: Carolien Stolte
Participants: William Carruthers, Stefan Esselborn, Elife Biçer-Deveci




Roundtable 5. The UN & the Global South
Moderator: Corinne Pernet
Participants: Alanna O’Malley, Eva-Maria Muschik, Sam De Schutter
Roundtable 6. Local, regional, international
Moderator: Dora Vargha
Participants: Quincy Cloet, Sarah Hagmann, Anna Derksen




Keynote by Kiran Patel (Maastricht University)
“Organizations without Borders: A Future Agenda for International History”


Conclusion by the organizers


Practical information


Participation to the conference is free, but registration is required. If you wish to attend, please send an email to before 8 March, stating your name and affiliation, and the days on which you wish to attend. In order to participate in the masterclass with Davide Rodogno, additional registration is required due to the limited number of spots available. You can find more information here.

Getting there

The workshop will take place at Leiden University, at the Faculty of Humanities’ Lipsius building. The address is Cleveringaplaats 1, 2311 BD Leiden.


Public Transport

The Faculty of Humanities is a 10-minute walk from Leiden Central Station.
Alternatively you could take bus 1 from the train station and get off at ‘Paterstraat’, or bus 5 or 6 and get off at ‘Noordeinde’. For public transport planning see (for trains) and (for all public transport).


If you come by car, please do not use the visiting address for your car navigation: the Cleveringaplaats has no streetlevel parking. The most convenient car parks are located at the Haagweg (€ 2 p/h) and the Maliebaan (street level parking, €2 p/h). From the Haagweg car park you can walk to the University buildings at the Witte Singel in about 6 minutes. If you need to go to the city centre, a free bus will take you there from the Haagweg parking.


If you are flying to Schiphol Amsterdam Airport (AMS), the easiest way to travel to Leiden is by train. The airport includes an underground railway station, with frequent services to Leiden (as final destination, or en route to The Hague/Den Haag, Rotterdam, or Vlissingen). From the airport to Leiden by train takes 15-20 minutes. For more details, see the above section on public transport.


The workshop is initiated and hosted by the research team of the ERC project ‘Rethinking Disability: the Global Impact of the International Year of Disabled Persons (1981) in Historical Perspective’, based in the Institute for History at Leiden University. It is supported by the Huizinga Institute, the national Dutch research network for Cultural History.

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