Global history?




A question that arises in historiography and the philosophy of history is that of the status of the notion of “global history.”  I’ve addressed the topic several times here in a limited way — often by making the case for Eurasian history rather than French history or Japanese history. There the view is that expanding the scope of vision from the separate nation states of Europe or Asia to the broader panoply of multiple peoples, cultures, and structures is helpful when it comes to understanding the past four hundred years.  But what are some of the more general concerns that make thinking about global history an interesting or important topic? 

One important reason for thinking globally as an historian is the fact that the history discipline — since the Greeks! — has tended to be eurocentric in its choice of topics, framing assumptions, and methods.  Economic and political history, for example, often privileges the industrial revolution in England and the creation of the modern bureaucratic state in France, Britain, and Germany, as being exemplars of “modern” development in economics and politics.  This has led to a tendency to look at other countries’ development as non-standard or stunted.  So global history is, in part, a framework within which the historian avoids privileging one regional center as primary and others as secondary or peripheral.

Second is the apparent fact that when Western historical thinkers — for example, Hegel, Malthus, Montesquieu — have turned their attention to Asia, they have often engaged in a high degree of stereotyping without much factual historical knowledge.  The ideas of Oriental despotism, Asian overpopulation, and Chinese stagnation have encouraged a cartoonish replacement of the intricate and diverse processes of development of different parts of Asia by a single-dimensional and reductive set of simplifying frameworks of thought.  This is one of the points of Said’s critique of orientalism.  So doing “global” history means paying rigorous attention to the specificities of social, political, and cultural arrangements in other parts of the world besides Europe.

So a global history can be expected to be more agnostic about patterns of development, and more open to discovery of surprising patterns, twists, and variations in the experiences of India (and its many regional differences), China, Indochina, the Arab world, the Ottoman Empire, and Sub-saharan Africa.  Variation and complexity are what we should expect, not stereotyped simplicity.  (Geertz’s historical reconstruction of the “theatre state” of Bali is a case in point — he uncovers a complex system of governance, symbol, value, and hierarchy that represents a substantially different structure of politics than the models derived from the emergence of bureaucratic states in early modern Europe.) A global history needs to free itself from eurocentrism.

This step away from eurocentrism in outlook should also be accompanied by a broadening of the geographical range of what is historically interesting.  So a global history ought to be global and trans-national in its selection of topics — even while recognizing the fact that all historical research is selective.  A globally oriented historian will recognize that the political systems of classical India are as interesting and complex as the organization of the Roman Republic.

Another aspect of global history falls more on the side of how some historians have thought about historical structures and causes since the 1960s. HIstory itself is a “global” process, in which events and systems occur that involve activities in many parts of the world simultaneously. Immanuel Wallerstein is first among these, with his framework of “world systems”.  But the basic idea is a compelling one.  An effort to explain the English industrial revolution by only referring to factors, influences, and experiences that occur within England or on its edges (western Europe) is inadequate on its face.  International trade, the flow of technologies from Asia to Europe, and the flows of ideas and peoples from Asia, Africa, and the Americas have plain consequences for the domestic economy of England in 1800 and the development of machine and power technologies. And a “globally minded” historian will pay close attention to these trans-national influences and interdependencies.  This aspect of the interest of global history falls within the area of thinking about the scope of the causal factors that influence more local developments.

An important current underlying much work in global history is the reality of colonialism through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the equally important reality of anti-colonial struggles and nation building in the 1960s and 1970s.  “The world” was important in the capitals of Great Britain, France, Germany, and Belgium because those nations exerted colonial rule in various parts of Africa, Asia, and South America.  So there was a specific interest in gaining certain kinds of knowledge about those societies — in order to better govern them and exploit them.  And post-colonial states had a symmetrical interest in supporting global historiography in their own universities and knowledge systems, in order to better understand and better critique the forming relations of the past.

Then there is the issue of climate and climate change.  The “little ice age” had major consequences for population, nutrition, trade, and economic activity in western Europe; but the same climate processes also affected life in other quarters of the globe.  So to have a good understanding of the timing and pace of historical change, we often need to know some fairly detailed facts about the global environment.

A final way in which history needs to become “global” is to incorporate the perspectives and historical traditions of historians in non-western countries into the mainstream of discussion of major world developments.  Indian and Chinese historians have their own intellectual traditions in conducting historical research and explanation; a global history is one that pays attention to the insights and arguments of these traditions.

So global history has to do with —

  • a broadened definition of the arena of historical change to include Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and the Americas
  • a recognition of the complexity and sophistication of institutions and systems in many parts of the world
  • a recognition of the trans-national interrelatedness that has existed among continents for at least four centuries
  • a recognition of the complexity and distinctiveness of different national traditions of historiography

Dominic Sachsenmaier provides a significant recent discussion of these issues in Global Perspectives on Global History: Theories and Approaches in a Connected World.  Sachsenmaier devotes much of his attention to the last point mentioned here, the “multiple global perspectives” point. He wants to take this idea seriously and try to discover some of the implications of different national traditions.  So more than half his book is devoted to case studies of global historical research traditions and foci in three distinct national contexts — Germany, the United States, and China.  How do historians trained and en-disciplined in these three traditions think about the core problems of transnational, global history? Sachsenmaier believes that these differences are real, and that they can be productive of future historical insights through more sustained dialogue.  But he also believes there are conceptual and methodological barriers to these dialogues, somewhat akin the the “paradigm incommensurability” ideas that Thomas Kuhn advanced for the physical sciences.

The idea that in the future, global history may experience more sustained dialogues between scholars from different world regions leads to deeper theoretical challenges than may be apparent at first sight.  Most importantly, there is the question of how to conceptualize “local” viewpoints in today’s complex intellectual and academic landscapes. (11)

And he does a good job of articulating what some of these conceptual barriers involve:

In almost all world regions university-based historiography is at least partly an outcome of epistemological discontinuities, outside influences, and shared transformations…. These also had an impact on the conceptions of space underlying world historical scholarship in the widest sense. Prior to spread of history as a modern academic field, forms of border-crossing histories were typically written from a clear perspective of cultural, religious, or even ethical centricity, which means that they tended to be tied to distinct value claims. This situation changed decisively during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when either colonial rule or nation-building efforts had a profound impact on what elements were selected into the canon of academic historiography and many earlier forms of knowledge were rendered subaltern. (13)

Certain hierarchies of knowledge became deeply engrained in the conceptual worlds of modern historiography. Approaching the realities and further possibilities of alternative approaches to global history thus requires us to critically examine changing dynamics and lasting hierarchies which typify historiography as a global professional environment. (17)

It will become quite clear that in European societies the question of historiographical traditions tended to be answered in ways that were profoundly different from most academic communities in other parts of the world. (17)

So Sachsenmaier’s attention is directed largely to the conceptual issues and disciplinary frameworks that are pertinent when we consider how different national traditions have done history.  What he has to say here is very useful and original.  But he also makes several of the points mentioned above as well — the need to select different definitions of geography in doing history, the need to put aside the stereotypes of eurocentrism, and the value in understanding in depth the alternative traditions of historical understanding that exist in the world.


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