History does not repeat itself. The historians repeat one another.
—Max Beerbohm, 1896.
Historians are often charged — sometimes correctly — with precipitously proclaiming a “new” field of study: a field that, upon further investigation, is shown to be remarkably similar to earlier turns in the historiographical timeline. The post-colonial and subaltern “turns” of the 1980s are cases in point, as they, however unwittingly, tended to ignore the prodigious and overlapping work within Area Studies that had appeared in preceding decades. I duly began to wonder if the term “global history” might prove to be yet another illustrative example.
Indeed, in recent months, historiographical debates have arisen at the New Global History Forum, the Imperial & Global Forum, and the New Republic, among others, over the promises and perils of the growing field of global history. Despite our disagreements, there was common consensus that “global history” was a relatively new historiographical phenomenon that arose in the 1990s — and one that rose in popularity in the early 2000s.
But is “global history” really so new?
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.
During the 1990s, when the term “global history” started becoming more popular within academic circles, quite a number of scholars expressed great reservations against this field. One of the most frequently articulated charges was that global history was destined to operate on a rather superficial level and would not be able to reach deeper than the realm of textbooks, trade books and introductory undergraduate courses. After all, many critics added, no serious scholar could possibly know a sufficient number of languages which would allow him or her to operate at a truly global level. Hence, the same logic went, global history could never evolve into a true research field which in the field of history, after all, is based on archival work and an intimate familiarity with primary sources on a distinct subject matter ((See for example O’Brien, Patrick K., “Historiographical Traditions and Modern Imperatives for the Restoration of Global History”, Journal of Global History, 1-1 (2006), pp. 3-39)).
In recent years, these debates have subsided, and the new great discussions on global history have moved on to different issues and themes. It is mainly distant outsiders remaining unfamiliar with the field’s most recent developments and trajectories who still pose the question whether global history can indeed evolve into an area of research. As a matter of fact, global history is being practiced by a growing, vibrant community of researchers. For them it is not primarily as a site of textbook production but rather an arena of genuine historical scholarship. This simple observation is evidenced by the sharply growing number of journal articles, research projects and monographs which in their title refer to “global history” or closely related terms ((See for example, Crossley, Pamela Kyle, What is Global History?, Cambridge: Polity, 2008)). In this context one may also refer to the founding of the Journal of Global History in 2006, and one may add that even earlier, in 1999, the American Historical Review introduced a review section focusing on “global and comparative” studies.
It is now widely recognized that ours is a global age. One of the first to perceive and then describe this “happening” was the sociologist Martin Albrow, in his book with the title The Global Age.Since its appearance, in 1996 numerous studies have been published. Indeed, a critical bibliography would be a valuable tool, pointing to further research. This might be the opening project in carrying out an agenda that I am about to describe.
In undertaking such a task, it would be well to establish what I will call regional globalization studies. Do these regional arrangements facilitate globalization? Work against it and in what ways? Examples immediately spring to mind. A major one, of course, is Globalization and China, perhaps the greatest challenge of our epoch. No less important is Globalization and Islam. Of equal importance is the European situation, in which pulls toward a European and a Global identity may be in conflict. Other regional studies—the USA, Latin America, etc.–would also be subjects for further study.
I will now divide my proposed agenda into two parts. The first will focus on research projects, including those mentioned in the first two paragraphs, that appear promising. The second will concentrate on what I consider a most important offshoot from the globalization process itself—the concept of Humanity.