Some Reflections on the Nature of Global History

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.

What happened? To be sure, the cultures of historiography have not changed so dramatically that now synthesizing, textbook or other, accounts drawing solely on secondary literature have become commonly recognized as contributions to “research.” Nor has historiography produced scholars who can do “global” archival work in the sense of working with dozens of languages around the world. Instead, there has been a slight change in definitions of global history: if we take a closer look at publications which are commonly regarded as major milestones in global historical scholarship, we quickly realize that they are not “global” in the sense of attempting to cover the entire world in their analyses. Rather, the geographical scopes of many research contributions to global history often cover do not cover more than two or three separate locations. The latter can vary in size and range from cities to nations or even larger units such as ocean rims. A good part of global historical scholarship connects the history of different locations to one another, for example by investigating different kinds of social, political or cultural networks and entanglements. Most studies do so while focusing on a very concrete topic which can range from a particular sport to the history of mining ((For example Dietschy, Paul, Making football global? FIFA, Europe, and the non-European football world, 1912–74”,  in Journal of Global History 82 (2013), pp 279 – 298; and Fiskesjö, Magnus, “Mining, history, and the anti-state Wa: the politics of autonomy between Burma and China”, in Journal of Global History 5-2 (2010), pp. 241 – 264)).

Today, only a fraction of global historical scholarship might genuinely be attempting to fill “the globe” with its narratives. Yet the globe as a container, a reference space remains very important to the field, and it does so exactly because the term “globe” remains necessarily ill-defined. Much of global historical scholarship operating on a detailed research level (which necessarily focuses on a few selected regions) can still be understood as implicitly enhancing our understanding of transregional and translocal exchanges in the widest sense. In other words, investigating flows, power dynamics and shared transformations between different locations can contribute to our common understanding of “globality” at large – a condition which is so complex and the result of single actions and perceptions that it remains rather doubtful whether the term should be used in the singular, or whether it should be used at all.

The very fact that most global historical research literature is not truly “global” should us not strike as anything unusual within the disciplinary cultures of historiography. We only need to recall that most of national historical scholarship does not seek to fill the entire container of “the nation” either. In fact, most research projects that are usually ascribed to national history rather focus on single cities, regions or other sub-national spaces. In that sense a study on social structures in nineteenth-century Marseille, for example, is usually seen as a contribution to French history. In a similar way, Ken Pomeranz’s comparison between Chinese and European economic history is now commonly regarded as a “classic” in the young field of global history even though it focuses mainly only on two world regions rather than the world at large.

Generally speaking, global historical scholarship is not characterized by one guiding spatial framework (such as the nation state), but as an entire field it generates a wave of experimenting with conceptions of space ((See for example Sachsenmaier, Dominic, “Conceptions of Space in Global History – A Brief Outlook on Research in the United States and China”, in Comparativ. Zeitschrift für Globalgeschichte und Vergleichende Gesellschaftsforschung 20-6 (2011), pp. 80-93)). Publications in the field explore historical facets of all kinds of topographical spaces ranging from oceans and seas to river systems, continental axes, trading routes and other zones of interaction. The majority of publications in global history do not even deal with any kind of geographical spaces in a strict sense and instead take themes like human interactions, the flows of commodities or the spread of ideologies and worldviews as their points of departure.

But the emancipation from national biases or national conceptions of space ((In the case of historiography, methodological nationalism has even been stronger than in any other part of the social sciences and the humanities. Compare Wallerstein, Immanuel et al. (eds.), Open the Social Sciences: Report of the Gulbenkian Commission on the Restructuring of the Social Sciences, Stanford University Press, 1996)) is not the only main character trait which distinguishes global historical scholarship from earlier historiographical traditions. Also the critique of Eurocentric concepts and narratives can be regarded as a rallying point for the vast majority of today’s practitioners of the field. Among global historians, there is a broad consensus that Eurocentrism constituted a major conceptual problem in the past, and at the same time there have been significant attempts to revise some master narratives which had been dominant before. For example, in the study of African colonialism quite a number of influential publications have come to seek ways that would see Africa not chiefly from Western perspectives and emphasized local agents’ agency far more than much of colonial historiography had before ((For example A. Adu Boahen, African Perspectives on Colonialism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987). See also Cooper, Frederick, Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005)). This does certainly not mean that biased narratives and hegemonic assumptions have all but disappeared from today’s global historical scholarship. Yet compared to one or two generations ago, there is now at least more of a disciplinary consensus about the multifaceted challenges and problems surrounding Eurocentric assumptions.

In addition to these conceptual changes — or in many regards even entangled with them — important transformations in the sociologies of knowledge are an important background of the rise of global history. In many countries, the social, ethnic, cultural and personal background of many professional historians has greatly changed during the past few decades. Such factors are often overlooked in historiographical accounts which primarily focus on the history of ideas. Nevertheless, social transformations have played at least an equally important role in the recent developments within historiography. In many Western societies such as the United States, Great Britain and Germany, world history had long been a mainly domain of Europeanists who did not have any command of non-Western languages. Certainly, there have been important exceptions to this general pattern – for the United States one may think, for instance, of the Africanist Philip Curtin or Marshall Hodgson, an expert in Islamic Studies, who both made enormous contributions to the study of world history ((Curtin, Philip, Cross-Cultural Trade in World History, 1984; Hodgson, Marshall, The Venture of Islam. Conscience and History in a World Civilization. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1974)). Yet as a general trend, historiography reaching out to wider spaces and exploring trans-continental interactions was dominated by experts in Western history who also mainly happened to be either European or of European descent.

This situation has changed in conjunction with the transformation of world history into a research field and the rise of global history. If one checks the authors of flagship journals such as the Journal of Global History, one quickly recognizes that a large number of research publications are authored by scholars based in area studies. In other words, transnational and global historical scholarship have evolved into a meeting ground, an encounter zone of scholars who from their own professional profile are closer to regional studies on the one side and scholars who are chiefly trained in European or North American history on the other side. In fact, a small but growing cohort of younger scholars and graduate students now combine background knowledge, area expertise and concomitant language skills in two or more world regions in their own professional portfolios.

Yet pluralization and diversification are not tantamount with communication and integration. For a significant amount of time, scholarly communities remained largely defined by regional expertise, and they did so even within single history departments. For instance, historians of East Asia tended to collaborate with their peer group, and so did Europeanists or North Americanists. Yet there were debates which opened up a forum for different regional experts to converse with each other and debate about the contours of the field at large. For example, this was the case during the 1970s, with the waves of dissent articulated against the often mandatory Western civilization courses ((See Naumann, Katja, „Von ‚Western Civilization’ zu ‚World History’ – Europa und die Welt in der historischen Lehre in den USA“,  Matthias Middell (ed.), Dimensionen der Kultur- und Gesellschaftsgeschichte, Leipzig 2007, pp. 102–121)). Also the more general criticism of Eurocentric epistemologies and intellectual traditions, which at an early stage particularly South Asianists enunciated in movements like subaltern studies, evoked debates in many additional corners of the historians’ guildhall ((Compare Majumdar, Rochona, Writing Postcolonial History; London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2010)). Such movements slowly prepared the grounds for more communication and interaction among regional experts in US historiography. The global historical trend, as described above, fed much of its momentum from these changes.

As a burgeoning research landscape and an encounter zone between different areas of expertise, what remains to be done in global historical scholarship? There are indeed many challenges and even potential cul-de-sacs into which this field could possibly develop. Firstly, most global historians share a critical attitude towards Eurocentric perspectives, and yet Eurocentric or Western-centric structures and cultures of historiography remain in place. This is not only the case with a strong majority of historians who are not related to the recent waves of bordercrossing scholarship. The problem persists in the field of global and transnational history itself. For example, today many historians in Europe and the United States who are active in the field of global history continue to ignore relevant academic literature from other parts of the world. For example, the significant literature in transnational, world and global history by scholars in China or Japan is usually not even recognized in the European and North American. Here it plays neither an important role in actual research nor in the debates on the future of global history and related fields ((See Deng Zhenglai, “Academic Inquiries into the Chinese “Success Story” in ibid (ed.), Globalization and Localization. The Chinese Perspective, 2011, pp. 1-18)). Such a widespread neglect of scholarship produced outside of the West (even though it is partly even available in translations) somewhat contradicts the search for post-Eurocentric narratives and other key agendas of today’s global historical scholarship.

This is a great loss since bordercrossing historiography in other parts of the world, including global history, is at least partly shaped by political cultures, academic traditions and forms of historical memory that are rather different from the ones in Europe and the United States. This certainly does not mean that we should exoticize transnational, world and global historical approaches in academic systems like China. Here historical are internationally connected, and particularly Anglo-American approaches have become highly influential during the past two or three decades. Yet despite all outside impact and transnational entanglements, Chinese historiography in general and global history in particular are not in the process of converging with the pathways of US-American scholarship. For instance, methodological debates in the field revolve around different issues, and concepts such as “modernity”, “nationhood” or even “Eurocentrism” carry different connotations in the highly diversified landscapes of Chinese historiography ((For more details see Sachsenmaier, Dominic, Global Perspectives on Global History. Theories and Approaches in a Connected World, Cambridge University Press, 2011, chapter four)). Ignoring such distinctive features means missing a great potential for global exchanges and dialogical ways of rethinking the global past – potentials which ought to be realized by a field like global history.

Until now, hierarchies of knowledge, which have emerged over the past one or two centuries, obviously remain intact and still channel the range of awareness and academic interest in the world. Moreover, the heritage of an academic system shaped by Western academic dominance has also its effects and aftereffects on academic communities outside of the West. For instance, in China scholars in world and global history are usually quite familiar with the recent literature in the West but they are typically oblivious to developments in their field in societies such as India, let alone in Latin America, the Middle East or Sub-Saharan Africa. Needless to say, a field whose academic flows are still mirror reflections of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Western-centric world orders will in the future not be able to continue challenging Eurocentric epistemologies. If global historical scholarship wants to continue working towards its inherent potentials, I believe, the patterns of academic communication and collaboration need to become less centered and more multi-directional. The logics of the current global academic system, in which some Western, mainly US-American universities are figuring as global transaction hubs for ideas and disciplinary debates, do no longer suffice.

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