Fresh Thinking on World History

The prevailing idea of world history in the academy is nicely enumerated by Daniel Little. He lists six desiderata:

The first is to be vigilant about making Eurocentric assumptions about development and change. Whether in the domains of politics, economics, or culture, it is crucial to avoid the assumption that Europe set the model for developments in key areas of historical change.

“Eurocentrism” is indeed the primary foe of the fashionable world historian. But the problem with this is that the West did pioneer modernity, economic growth, science, and political democracy, among other things. The West was in many ways peculiar, and modern history is in large part Europe-centric. It is time to get over the antagonism towards “Eurocentrism” and towards the West.

A second is to expect variation rather than convergence. There are many ways that human societies have found to solve crucial problems of coordination, order, production, and the exercise of power. Global historians need to be alert to the development of alternative institutions of politics, economics, culture, or social cohesion in different locales. In particular, it is important to take note of divergences as well as parallels in the political and economic development of great civilizations like those of India, China, Southeast Asia, or West Africa.

Yes, there are some divergences among those non-Western civilizations. But this paragraph curiously omits to mention the West. The West has been the most divergent of all, the most peculiar. The greatest amount of variation in world history is not among those non-Western civilization, but between them and the West.

Third, it is important to avoid the conceptual schemes of nationalism and states. “France,” “Indonesia,” and “India” are places with diversity and internal variation, and they each followed distinct rhythms of consolidation as states and nations.  It is often more revealing to look to regions that cross the boundaries of existing states; we learn much by looking at the dynamics of change in regions that are smaller than nation-states.

No, I do not think that histories of particular nations and states should be avoided. This idea betrays a simple, and unsupported, anti-national bias.

Fourth, the way in which we consider historical time sometimes needs more critical reflection … world historians need to be open to considering temporality on a range of scales — from the months of the Terror to the decades of contention that preceded and followed the French Revolution, to the century and a half that separated the French Revolution from the Chinese Revolution.

I would add that even longer temporal scales that a century are sometimes illuminating. Why not consider scales of millennia too?

Fifth, the global impact of environmental factors needs to be given the emphasis it deserves. Climate change, exhaustion of woodlands, extension of mining and extraction — all these processes and factors influence human activity at a range of levels, and their impact needs to be assessed carefully on the basis of historical and physical data.

Environmental history certainly deserves some emphasis – but what it really deserves is a more careful assessment of just how significant it really is. Perhaps less important than currently thought.

Finally, world historians need to pay particular attention to the mechanisms of influence through which places exchanged cultural and economic material in the long centuries from the development of substantial Mediterranean trade in the ancient world to the shipping lanes of the contemporary world. Trade, the diffusion of ideas through cultural contact and migration, the effects of the book trade, the military logic of colonialism, the advent of organized long-distance communication and travel, the creation of international governance institutions — these mechanisms of social exchange constitute many of the pathways through which global integration occurs, and their dynamics are worthy of close attention by historians.

The study of inter-regional exchanges is one of the main subject-matters of contemporary world history. But possibly too much attention has been paid to this phenomenon. World historians have successfully shown that globalization and interdependence are long-running affairs, not just novelties of the present. It may be time to consider other topics as well.

Overall, Little’s is the voice of the satisfied status quo: the way things are among world historians is very close to the way he would like them to be. We need a voice for change. We need some fresh thinking.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Fresh Thinking on World History

  1. I think part of the problem is that many of the “status quo” conclusions most world historians agree on are not “status quo” conclusions for everybody else – the popular “informed readership” or even historians in general. Compare the number of works published on military, political, economic, or power-structure history in Classical Rome in comparison to that of classical China – there are hundreds of the first, but only a handful of the second. For years now I have searched in vain for a narrative political history of the former Han Dynasty. It simply does not exist. The material published on the period – despite it being one of the best documented of antiquity – is small, and the bulk of it concerns the evolution of Eastern philosophy.

    World history is not Euro-centric, but political, economic, and especially military history certainly is.* These kind of things could be said for many of his other points. (Environmental history: World historians love it, but there really is not that much of it. Where is the Retreat of the Elephants counter part for Western Europe, Russia, or the Mediterranean?) Mr. Little’s post seems to be less about reforming world history than getting the rest of academy to accept its norms.

    • There’s been an over-reaction of late. Take the political history of China and Greece/Rome. Fukuyama’s book Origins of Political Order treats the former at great length but says nothing on the latter.

  2. It is funny that you say that, for until you informed me that Fukuyama lends such heavy emphasis on Han China, I had absolutely no interest in the book. Now I might purchase it.

    Perhaps I am just unduly obsessed with the period (my most recent blog post was devoted to the Han), but I admit that when I first began studying the world of the Han (and the even more fascinating Warring States) I felt a bit cheated by the historical community. It will take many more over-reacting historians to really even the playing field.

    But I take the point about the need for balance in the study of world history – otherwise it is not world history at all, is it? Azar Gat’s War in Human Civilization is the best model I have read for serious comparative history. Some how he manages to synthesize anthropology, history, IR, economics and evolutionary biology while giving equal attention to empires and peoples the world over. Unfortunately, neither his subject of choice nor the style of his pen mesh well with current academic norms (like the ones you summarized above) and thus the book has not been given the attention it deserves.

  3. Pingback: The Essential Guide to World History | Breviosity

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