TPF Executive Director Gives Lecture on Toynbee Prize Foundation and the Evolution of Global History at ISS (Yale University)

Visiting International Security Studies at Yale University this previous week, Toynbee Prize Foundation Executive Director Timothy Nunan gave a talk entitled “Perspectives on International and Global History: A View from the Toynbee Prize Foundation.” Appearing before a mixed audience of undergraduates, Master’s students, PhDs, post-doctoral fellows, and professors, Dr. Nunan provided a brief overview of the history of the Foundation, intertwining his chronological narrative with a broader account of the rise of global history as a discipline unto itself.

In his talk, Nunan drew on the results of the Toynbee-sponsored October 2015 conference at Princeton University, “The Transformation of Global History,” to structure his remarks. Since its founding in the late 1970s, he explained, the Toynbee Prize Foundation was committed to fostering a globalist mindset. But throughout much of its first decade in existence, the quality of scholarship that thought of itself self-consciously as “global history” was rather limited. As the Princeton conference (organized by Princeton PhDs Benjamin Sacks and Natalie Berkman) emphasized, the enterprise of methodologically non-nationally conceived works emerged only haltingly. As scholars at that conference emphasized, while one might think of early works such as  Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s The Discovery of India, French historian Pierre Villar’s History of Spain pushed mid-20th century post-colonial audiences and Europeans to think beyond the bounds of the nation-state, it was arguably only in the late 1960s and early 1970s that global history approaches as we know them today truly emerged: Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power, or Alfred W. Crosby’s The Columbian Exchange, to take two works discussed in depth at the Princeton conference. These works had a tremendous influence on scholars at the time, while the post-1970s re-globalization (whether seen in terms of trade statistics, détente, the global oil economy, or transnational activism) further spurred scholars’ interest in using history as an angle to answer questions not bound by the nation-state.

Hence, by the late 1980s and early 1990s–by which time MIT historian Bruce Mazlish assumed leadership of the Foundation–the setting was ripe, in a way it had perhaps not been a mere decade earlier, for the Foundation to adjust its focus to promoting global history scholarship per se, rather than the global thinkers who had stood at the center of its activities during its first decade of existence. Indeed, as the Cold War stimulated further interest in what the next big global condition was—an end of history or a clash of civilizations, for example—the public hunger for historical approaches to inform present-day dilemmas only grew. Works like the edited volume Conceptualizing Global History (edited by Bruce Mazlish and Ralph Buultjens) spoke to the mood of the moment.

As the TPF organized numerous conferences devoted to what was then dubbed the “new global history” and scholars like Akira Iriye (a TPF Trustee) enriched the debate with works like Cultural Internationalism and World Order (1997) or Global Community (2002), the “scene” grew more and more sophisticated. Helping, too, was the increasing sophistication of works by scholars of the British and French empires, as well as of U.S. diplomatic history; indeed, since the late 1970s, too, these fields had been transformed by new journals that provoked an “imperial turn” in their fields and turned the study of US foreign relations into a thriving subfield with debates of its own.

These events in many ways spawned the landscape we see today, one in which efforts to write global histories are well inside the mainstream of contemporary historiographic debates. Still, noted Nunan, there are several points on which one might hesitate about the global history enterprise itself. As a recent debate about the reception of an edited volume on global intellectual history highlighted, questions of Eurocentricity and the subordinate role that the non-West may be assigned to play in ostensibly emancipatory global frameworks remain open.

More prosaically, but also importantly, scholars like Margrit Pernau have expressed worries about the rush for younger scholars to trumpet their work as “global” without having the requisite philological base to tackle the questions that interest them. Sometimes, the specific “toolkits” of languages scholars would need to research certain topics are not offered by any one university, require protracted specialist training, or may run awry of professional expectations about the “proper” methodological background for fields whose hiring patterns remain predominantly national.

Finally, drawing on a recent discussion held between Andreas Eckert and Indra Sengupta, Nunan commented on the post-colonial inequalities that scholars must remain aware of if they wish to embrace “the global” in an honest way. What are the ethics involved when scholars from well-endowed, primarily Western universities, enlist multiple post-colonial archives to create ambitious “global” narratives that may—implicitly or explicitly—seek to “overcome” national narratives? If the risk for 19th century Africans and Asians was to become denizens of a “continent without history,” how do global history approaches today play in nations with only a very limited tradition of national history? Questions of the proper kind and scale of collaboration with colleagues from these settings abide.

The lecture was followed by a round of enthusiastic questions about—and criticisms of—the discipline of global history today. Some questioners asked what it meant, precisely, to write the “global history of a country” and if national history and global history approaches inherently stand at odds with one another. Scholars of political science praised the broad systematic questions that global history has to offer, but wondered whether the Foundation’s existing Global History Forum interviews had done enough to engage with similar lines of questioning in other disciplines. Others had questions about the relationship between ostensibly similar methodological projects: what distinguishes “global history” from “big history,” for example?

Questions from scholars like Yale historian Jenifer Van Vleck—a former interviewee on the Global History Forum—opened up a broader discussion about the evolution of the field in the last several decades. When she and other Americanists were beginning their graduate study, noted Van Vleck, works that self-consciously branded themselves as global or transnational were all the rage. Today, however, there is much more guarded skepticism about the way these terms are used: the history of bilateral relations between the United States and another country could be well worthy of study, but it would be a triumph of marketing over substance if such projects about foreign relations were branded “global history.” Of interest, she noted, is the ways in which terms like “the global” or “globalism” themselves emerged at different periods in history.

ISS Director Paul Kennedy agreed, observing that the rise of global history as a discipline itself dovetailed with significant shifts in the “journal landscape” for historians and political scientists since the late 1970s. Not only were significant journals like Diplomatic History and International History Review themselves only established in the late 1970s; throughout the 1980s, Kennedy noted, national fields established journals of imperial studies that themselves created career paths for scholars that did not necessarily run through mainstream generalist journals such as Past and Present or The American Historical Review. This move toward specialization created fruitful sub-disciplines for scholars of, for example, France’s empire in Africa, but what effects did it have on bigger debates within the field about the relationship between imperial history and global history? These questions abide.

Kennedy also noted that the kinds of projects sponsored by ISS themselves were a useful barometer for the development of the field: if, in the 1980s, projects tended to focus on pre-1913 diplomatic history, since the mid-1990s there had been a marked shift towards a “new international history” that focused less on “what the diplomats had to say.”

As other questioners noted, however, the very upswing in interest in global history might be a cause as much for reflection as for celebration. When practitioners told audiences that they worked on “global history” in the early 1970s, the general impression was that “world history” or “global history” was in the boondocks—an enterprise perhaps of interest to general audiences, but not a real scholarly discipline. It is in part thanks to the works of the historians mentioned above (and discussed at the October 2015 Princeton conference) that the field has earned a certain amount of respectability, even excitement. But as Van Vleck’s question suggests, the question persists: what next? Needless to say, the Toynbee Prize Foundation is committed to exploring the debates around the proper answer to this question in our ongoing survey of the field.

The Toynbee Prize Foundation again thanks International Security Studies (ISS) for sponsoring Dr. Nunan’s talk. ISS at Yale was founded in 1988 and is directed by Paul M. Kennedy. It is supported by the Smith Richardson Foundation, the Jewett Foundation, and the Friends of ISS. John Lewis Gaddis directs the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy, which operates under ISS’s auspices.

Readers of this account who are interested in contributing to the Toynbee Prize Foundation as editors-at-large are reminded of that scheme.

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