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.

There are two principal approaches to constructing a global history: the Search for Connection and the Grand Explanation. This Global History Forum can aid both approaches in determining their appropriate historical context. The Grand Explanation probes a significant historical process over a large period of time and a broad expanse of space. Grand Explanations often identify a critical key to global history and may present their findings in a form that is analytically tight or narratively loose. They usually focus on a particular sphere of interaction (most commonly international power, economic pressure or environmental necessity). Given their scale, these studies necessarily intersect major historical issues, stimulate debates (for which this Forum is a convenient vehicle), and invite new research. Current historiography and the author’s theoretical stance do much to indicate relevant evidence, but the study’s proper scope remains to be determined. How much of the world and how much of the world’s history should be encompassed in this new study? Deciding that, conceptually complicated in itself, strains the substantive knowledge of any one scholar. Here this Forum can be especially helpful. When an author posts an outline of the argument for a new study in global history, others can point to relevant instances that should not be overlooked and to counter examples that need to be accounted for. The discussion that follows can help to establish the critical context essential for convincing analysis of any specific work of global history. That discussion will also raise important methodological and theoretical issues for global history as a whole, serving this growing field much as historiography guides and challenges historical scholarship in more established fields. One of the reasons that individual works have often had only limited cumulative effect on global history as a field is that they tend to proceed from distinct angles of vision and attend to somewhat different geographies and chronologies. Greater attention to the choice of context exposes more clearly when interpretations of global history intersect, contradict, or by-pass each other.

Another path to the construction of global history emerges with the Search for Connections. Investigating a significant historical problem (often one recognized within a context conventionally defined), the global historian looks to see if there are links to forces, ideas, and practices that function beyond the initial historical context. Once recognized, these connections point to the topic’s effective global context and the chronological and geographical scope its study requires. In this way the Search for Connection constructs a global history without committing to a totalizing Global Explanation. The procedure requires noting relationships that do not automatically come to mind yet may prove the basis of significant connections, and I have tried in a number of articles to suggest ways to go about this by looking into 1)societies that share common experiences and challenges (environmental,  demographic, epidemiological, etc.);  2) societies that experience similar diffusion of ideas and practices (technologies, ideas, customs, etc.); 3) societies that establish durable ties (of commerce, diplomacy, religion, institutions, etc.); and 4) societies that influence each other through cultural conflict (where apparent dominance or subordination proves culturally creative). Taken together (and there can be other ways to identify them) the strength of such connections frame the field for a global history.

The global histories that will be tested, challenged, prodded, and shaped on this blog will be evidence of more than a fashionable “global turn” among historians, for postings here invite all scholars to make a global historical framework part of their research whether or not that becomes their exclusive focus. There should be Grand Explanations attentive to ideas and social practices as well as to power and commercial exchange; searches for connections that argue the world has entered a new global era and others that explore webs of connection in every historical era. Some will avoid the concept of globalization, some make it central. By talking to and learning from each other, contributors to this forum from around the world will help make global history truly global.

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