Perspectives on Global History

Since the 1990s, most of the activities of the Toynbee Prize Foundation have grown out of the New Global History Initiative launched and directed by Bruce Mazlish, Professor Emeritus of History at of MIT and the original President of the Toynbee Prize Foundation.

Even as the Foundation seeks today to promote a catholic view and practice of global history, we also remain mindful of our roots in Mazlish’s original vision for the New Global History Initiative.  Hence, alongside the new visions of global history scholarship that the Foundation highlights on the Global History Forum, the Global History Blog, and our other initiatives, we find it appropriate to quote below from Mazlish’s original call for a global history that focused especially on “the new globalization that has manifested itself so vigorously in the period starting sometime after World War II.” There were, Mazlish suggested, “deep roots in the past that must be explored along with attention to the present flowering of the concept [of globalization].”

While – fortunately – the field of global history encompasses much more today than only the study of globalization, the text below, written by Mazlish, constitutes an animating statement as the Toynbee Prize Foundation continues to support and encourage scholarship in global history.

What are the forces of globalization shaping our world (for better or worse)? How can we bring an historical perspective to bear on them? How might we conceptualize a new sub-field of history–New Global History–and distinguish it from more traditional historical and world historical approaches, and, more recently, from the popular trend of global history? When did the forces that we associate with globalization become apparent, and how have these forces evolved since then to shape the contemporary world? Are we, in fact, entering a global epoch? What is the mix of empirical research and theory to answer these questions?

These are some of the questions animating New Global History, which is an initiative that seeks to encourage both theorizing and the carrying out of empirical research concerning the processes of globalization in the present moment. It attempts to further its mission by employing both a historical (in which history is conceived of in interdisciplinary terms) and a transcultural perspective. This quest is driven by the awareness that, especially during the recent past decades, many currents, institutions, and even events have, in fact, a global dimension. Thus, the impact of multi-national corporations or of non-governmental organizations, or the cultural implications of global media networks, to give a few examples, cannot be grasped appropriately from a shallow historical or a monocultural perspective.

To be able to conceptualize the highly complex interactions between such global entities and their different, culturally conditioned manifestations is a major challenge. For the purpose of understanding both homogenizing global forces and their accompanying local manifestations it is necessary to dig deeply into a large variety of historical heritages.

New Global History thus wants to build up a network of historians and people from other disciplines around the world and to foster the formation of new, transcultural research groups. Since recent phenomena are at the center of New Global History’s attention, the initiative is naturally socially and politically concerned (without adhering to any political direction). In addition to providing an agora for international historians and other social scientists, the intention is to establish where possible dialogues with politics and business. As befitting the global nature of our inquiries and problems, we seek to construct a global network.

New Global History starts from the contemporary phenomenon of globalization, seen as a process, and attempts to understand it from an historical perspective (which it adds to the other ways of dealing with the subject); in adopting this perspective, the new global historian goes as far back into the past as needed to understand the particular aspect of the subject under investigation.

– Bruce Mazlish