All posts by Raymond Grew

Professor Emeritus of History, University of Michigan

The Contexts of Global History

Historians care about context. When setting out to explore any historical question, professional historians want some familiarity with the customs, institutions, social structure, economic system, and ideas prominent in the relevant place and time. Indeed, much of the training for a career in historical research aims to provide a broad understanding of the region and era expected to be the context of future research. But does global history have a context?

It does, because global history, however uncommon it may be, is methodologically unexceptional. Even the most ambitious global histories operate within limitations, letting principal topic and central method set standards of relevance that allow limits, including chronological and geographical ones. Like all historical work, global histories establish their own rules of relevance. The more imaginative and original the work, the more likely it is to delineate its context from a cluster of questions that constitute historical problems. These, however, are then addressed with arguments based on kinds of evidence and methods of analysis familiar in historical research. Distinguished by its conceptual scale and sometimes by the historical problems it addresses, global history proceeds in normal fashion to establish the context it must engage.

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