Is Global History still possible or has it had its moment?

Jeremy Adelman has written, I think, a cogent analysis of where we are right now. His call to listen to the “tribalists out there and here” as well as to the cosmopolitans is right on.

The job of history should be to explain the present by examining the past. But it is more than fair to say that many of us became invested in certain outcomes, namely those of greater integration and interdependence. We took it for granted that the forces of globalization were not only inevitable, but were desirable as well.

But maybe globalization is just another ideology, or teleology, destined for the dustbin of history. And maybe tearing down walls and crossing borders are bad things.

Maybe good fences make for good neighbors, as the old saying goes.

But if we are going to listen to the tribalists from the “other half of the globe,” as Adelman suggests
we do, we might want to come up with a different name to call them. “Tribalist” and “cosmopolitan” are hardly value neutral terms. They are developmental in nature and the former is clearly meant to be inferior to the latter.

We could use the terms “localist” versus “globalcrat.” To my ear at least, “localist” sounds more sympathetic than “tribalist.” And “globalcrat” certainly captures the negative way in which the tribalists see the cosmopolitans.

But all we have done here, of course, is to exchange one biased valuation for another biased valuation.

So how about this binary terminology: “localist” versus “globalist”? I think this pair is pretty neutral. At least both terms are positive. Or, for the misanthropes out there, we could go in the opposite direction and adopt the equally negative “tribalist” and “globalcrat.” Why not a pox on both houses?

Whatever the set of terms we come up with, one thing is clear: Adelman’s duality of “tribalist” versus “cosmopolitan” just won’t do.

Kevin Jon Fernlund
Professor of History
University of Missouri – St. Louis

I think Jeremy Adelman's article excellent in advancing a discussion that has for a long time been stuck at one overall dichotomous place. I also agree with Kevin Fernlund's point here about the terminology "tribalist" vs. "cosmopolitan," but have no further suggestions for alternative language. I prefer to think it would be better to discard entirely the heavy ideological weight given to this dichotomizing.

If someone wants to write a history of Connecticut, I see no reason to dismiss that as not truly global history - since it could not be done without attention to the state's global as well as regional and national linkages. If someone instead wants to write a history of my home town of Norwalk, CT, that, too, would be valid history if framed around meaningful problems, global or otherwise. Or if someone writes a history of New England, it's fine - and obviously its Puritan heritage, language and many other things do come from elsewhere, so I assume it would have global aspects to it. Or if they want to focus on the diaspora of New Englanders who spread across the upper Midwest and helped to shape an entire region, that might also entail some global linkages of importance. Or if a historian focused on the role of DeWitt Clinton in constructing a canal that made that regional migration swifter and more thorough, or that helped turn New York into a truly global city, I see no reason why it needs be more global than the purposes of the historian demand. Or if someone wants instead to focus on the emergence of the region within a sectional pattern that slowly focused more heavily on slavery and sought compromises of a strange sort ultimately failing and leading to Civil War, so be it. I see no need to make that more global than to note in passing that cotton was a globally traded item and African Americans did come originally from Africa.

In other words, while I am very interested in world history and the history of many parts of the world, I see nothing much to be gained from a debate in the abstract about "global" history versus "Western " history, versus "history of the nation state," etc. I think historians frame their work around all sorts of social, political, cultural and economic problems, and it is these that determine that nature of the frames they adopt. And it is fine with me to leave it at that. As to the "nation state," I do think Adelman's article failed to deal with it sufficiently. One big problem I see with the globalist ideology is its often presumed sense that the nation state is on its way out. I think the political wave now sweeping in demonstrates what should be apparent anyway. The nation state is still the key unit of global history and I for one see no sign of that shifting much. Yes, all sorts of regional and global institutions also exist. So far they are by and large assemblages of nation states as jealous as ever of their sovereignty, their institutions, their languages and cultures. Whether this is so or not, I also mainly see no reason why historians as historians should have any sort of stake in opposing or promoting it. I just don't think that's their job.

While I enjoyed Adelman's essay, I do not agree that World History depends for its vitality upon an increasingly cosmopolitan world. Work done in this tradition, from Janet Abu-Lughod's Before European Hegemony through Österhammel's Transformation of the World has always recognized that "globalization" is episodic. Intrinsic to all such stories is collapse, whether in the 14th c. or, again, in 1914.

World historians are hardly pollyannas. We know that the tales we tell our students often end badly. The most student-friendly world history text isn't Thomas Friedman's moldy Lexus and Olive Tree. It's Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events.

It is certainly true, so long as nationalist parties and policies gallop to fresh victories, that the market for national histories will surge. But what then? If the past is prologue, we will see growing tensions as an unstable international order cracks and crumbles. Those who prefer reading books in a brightly lit room to shivering with fright in the dark will eventually turn to writers who promise to account for the fracture, the anger, and the increasing insecurity.

Best suited to writing such accounts are those historians, journalists, retired politicos, and others already familiar with questions familiar from works shelved under "world history." A familiar Beast has returned. Those of us who draw volumes from those shelves to teach or to write are in a pretty good position to remind others of its habits.

Tom Laichas
Crossroads School

I turned to this thread just after glancing at an article by Witz in the World History journal concerning Africa and world history. In it he decries the academic construction of mega-categories that obscure the specifics of locality. This problem obviously seems an artifact of historians' employment of arbitrary closed units that range from the local to the global levels and are defined by properties that by some arbitrary criterion are deemed essential to them and lends them a identify as a factor.

This systems approach (arguably a hangover of Western positivism or even the Enlightenment) cannot begin to explain an emergent historical processes. Historical processes are non-linear. Needed instead of closed units is a conception of the individual as an actualization of possibilities made accessible by the grounding of the circumstance. Economic production, natural environment, social milieu and culture change the probability of possibilities in relation to the individual's self ground.

Professor Adelman’s essay reminds us that place remains important in a rapidly globalizing world. I have lived for over 40 years in the U.S. state of Idaho, most of that time in a rather isolated mountain valley. Throughout almost all of those years, I have held some sort of office in a Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), including during the years of greatest activity of the pro-Nazi Aryan Nations. For the 11th straight year, the Idaho Legislature has denied a large group of its citizens an opportunity for a hearing on a bill to add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the state human rights statute.

With these details, I make the point that within the context of global history, the meaning and history of a place is shaped by the way it is connected to other places and by the way those connections change over time. (Thank you, Joseph Levenson.) How is one to study and teach/write about this complicated reality in a way that makes sense now?

Although I certainly did not pose the question in these terms at the time, I went to the University of Wisconsin in the fall of 1966 to study with Domenico Sella because the École des Annales offered me more interesting ways to deal with world history than the political and intellectual history to which I had been exposed as an undergraduate. Sella had gotten a research grant to return to Milan, and it was suggested to me that during the first fall semester of graduate work, I should read Fernand Braudel’s La Méditerranée et le monde méditerranéen à l'époque de Philippe II, which because the second edition had not arrived, meant that I plowed through the 1160 pages of the first edition of 1949 with genuine enthusiasm.

With my first tenure-track position at New York University, I created in 1972, a course on the history of the Mediterranean world from A.D. 500 to 1700 in order to develop my ideas about what I would eventually call “Geographically-Integrated History”, which became the name of the lab I directed at Idaho State University.

In addition to the idea that the history of any place is shaped by the way the place is connected to other places and by the changes in these connections over time, the paradigm has two other components, which make it clearly global history:

1) Historical periods are complex, dynamic, nonlinear systems, which are spatially large, and in more recent centuries, global in extension, and which sometimes become unstable, leading to a phase transition, bifurcation, and the organization of new systems;

2) Within such systems, people and places are connected by self-organizing networks, which are the sources of innovation and the emergence of new forms.

Thanks to “Big History” –thank you, David Christian—we keep in mind that human systems are continuously coupled with complex natural systems and that both the human and the natural systems are nonlinear, which means that prediction is limited. Does anyone doubt the limits of prediction after the 2008 crash or the recent U.S. election?

Professor Adelman rightly stresses the issue of language in dealing with global history. Many years ago, Immanuel Wallerstein urged us to learn many languages so that we could interact at some level with colleagues from different backgrounds. Apparently, some did not receive the memo. In terms of large, international meetings, historians do better than colleagues in many other disciplines. Because my research on cooperation is multidisciplinary, I can attest that most conferences in the natural sciences and mathematics are conducted entirely in English regardless of where they are held.

Serious research in geographically-integrated history, however, requires dealing with sources and secondary works in multiple languages, and this task normally lies beyond the powers of individual historians. Therefore, I want to interject an important issue that Professor Adelman neglects: the need for collaboration among historians.

Our contemporary means of communication permit such collaboration on broad geographic scales. For example, several years ago, I coordinated a project within the program of the European Science Foundation known as TECT ("The Evolution of Cooperation and Trading"). My project encompassed 19 principal researchers in 16 countries on five continents; with the graduate students and other interested researchers, I picked up a sixth continent, South America. At the height of our activity, before the global financial collapse eventually cost us our “networking funds”, the project had over 40 participants, about half of whom were historians.

New technology also provides those interested in geographically-integrated, global history with other important resources. For example, under the leadership of Vitit Kantabutra, we have developed a new form of database management, Intentionally-Linked Entities (ILE), which does away completely with all of the cumbersome aspects of current relational database management systems while providing a flexible means to connect information according to the needs defined by a historian.

We developed this improved database management system in order to create a narrative form of geographic information systems (GIS), which is another technology that can be used effectively to integrate information about places and about their connections over various geographic scales.

I concentrate my research on the First Global Age, roughly 1400-1800. Often, information sources were never created or if they were, they have been lost. Experts in artificial intelligence (AI) are providing means through agent-based modeling to expand what we do know. Of course, one must filter their results to eliminate projects that are ahistorical or anachronistic, but this filtering is not difficult once one becomes familiar with their publications.

Finally, one need not narrate a history of the whole world to tell a global history. I am completing a book, which I have under contract, entitled Precarious Existence and Trust in the Spanish Kingdom of Murcia, 1550-1580: A New Form of Cooperation among Politically Important Men and Women. I narrate an often disturbing, cautionary tale for our time. By applying research results from the broad interdisciplinary field of cooperation studies, the book recounts how, in recognition of their precarious existence, wealthy men and women in southeastern Spain shaped a new, enduring form of cooperation among themselves and with others in the face of unpredicted and unpredictable events, including natural disaster, violent factional conflict, racist persecution, threats to existing commercial relationships, and a Christian-Muslim religious war. Although focusing on one place, the story becomes global by stressing how its history was shaped through its connections to events and processes elsewhere, often quite distant in the global Hispanic Monarchy and beyond. When “history moves” it moves to and through places.

Allow me to add one final task to the global history project. Because the story I tell in this book transpired within a complex, nonlinear human system, it requires a nonlinear historical narrative if I am to convey to my readers a useful understanding of reality. I have few guides to help me write in this way, and perhaps global history would become more important if its practitioners would develop nonlinear narrative forms.

I look forward to reading the comments of others about what components we should add to the global history project so that we can continue to assist ourselves and others to understand an increasingly complicated and globalizing world.

J. B. “Jack” Owens

Professor of History (emeritus)

Idaho State University


From T Mounkhall-SUNY New Paltz- World history's relationship to other sub-fields of our discipline is fundamentally complementary not adversarial. I am looking at a photograph of an indigenous village high in the Sierra of Oaxaca State, Mexico,which is half way between Oaxaca City and Vera Cruz. The photo was taken in 1935 and is now being shown for the first time at the Textile Museum in Oaxaca. The photo shows the church in this pueblo. Local historians would be very interested in the materials used in its construction. National historians would quickly realize that the photo was taken during the presidency of Lazaro Cardenas when Mexico was starting to appreciate the importance of the indigenous in its history. The Atlantic littoral connections are obvious in the Catholic Church. It is at this point that world history can make its complementary contributions. The church entrance has Greek pilasters framing a Roman arch. The bell towers were Roman watch towers in Syria that Muslims converted to minarets in the 7th century c.e. These minarets were taken across North Africa by Muslim expansion into southern Spain. After the Reconquista, they became Catholic bell towers that the Spanish Dominicans brought to this mountain valley in Early Modern World History. World history's unique perspective places this mountain church in very real connection with events in five global regions. This cross-regional perspective only enhances the local, national and regional approaches. In no way does it need to replace any of them.

Thanks for the interesting comments, Professor Owens. Your description of your database initiative immediately reminded me of AHA President Patrick Manning's presidential address in Denver earlier this year. He and his colleagues at Pitt are building what sounds like an enormous database for world history data of all kinds (the "World Historical Dataverse" He urged us all to submit data in any form. Perhaps you are collaborating with that group already. In regard to the question of non-linear narrative forms, I recall that Robert Rosenstone has been very interested in that problem. His book _Mirror in the Shrine: American Encounters with Meiji Japan_ (Harvard 1991) adopted a narrative structure modeled on cinematic narrative structure. It is a lively read. But probably that sort of structure would not accomplish what you are trying to do in your project.....

From my reading of the Aeon article, Professor Adelman has provided a cautionary tale about the dangers inherent in historians' pandering to political currency for relevance, classroom numbers, research grants, tenure, publication, or other challenges facing our profession. The idea that global history may be waning because of a reversal or uncertainty in global political and economic trends raises a red flag that the underlying theory is teleological and therefore flawed, in that it ignores the inevitable uncertainty in outcomes in regional and local particularities. This is a timely reminder of the limitations of relying on any single aspect or genre, in this case top-down political economy, the bedrock of Eurocentric merchant oligarchic coloniality and its ensuing crises of modernity in economic nationalist projects, notably in post-independence Central and South America and the Caribbean. To quote Stanley Stein from a briefing at Princeton in the Fall of 2014 (at which Prof. Adelman served as discussant), "It was always all about trade."

This is only part of the picture; one need only refer to Simón Bolívar's Angostura or Jamaica letters, or the writings of Jesuit Vizcardo y Guzmán, to discern a distinctly Creole-in-the-middle perspective, or to recent burgeoning scholarship of mid-eighteenth century resistance and rebellion against Bourbon reforms for a clearly subaltern groundswell from the Andes (Tupac Amaru and Katari) to the Colombian "comuneros," Jamaica, and Haiti, and beyond to British Hanoverian exactions in Anglo-American domains. The enduring strength and utility of world/global perspectives lie precisely in expanding the single narrative to gain a holistic picture from multiple narrative threads, interwoven to produce fabrics that vary in pattern, color, and texture: while specificity is essential for comparison, it is of little use or interest to my ethnically diverse students without broader contextual connections that only a world or global perspective can provide.

To Prof. Owens' point, in my Intro to Latin America class this semester I am guided by Benedict Anderson's IC and Walter Mignolo's "Idea of Latin America" to deconstruct Latinidad for my students. I compare former "Spanish" realms to Orientalist/Western ideas of China/Korea/Japan, Sri Lanka/Pakistan, and Africa, since I have students from all of those areas, not to mention those from our southern neighbors, the Philippines, and many non-Latin indigenous sectors of "Latin" America. The recognition of diversity and connectivity is instantaneous in the classroom. In my History of the Caribbean to 1898 class, we combine the westward march of sugar with slavery in different dimensions, from the Zanj to Tacky's rebellion - a relatively linear progression, to a more diffuse analysis of coerced labor, including slavic janissaries, Barbary Corsair "Christian stealing," French galley "Turks," feudal serfs and hacienda peons, African warrior slaves and black conquistadors, and of course indentured convicts and mass slaves. The topic is framed by modern examples such as Boko Haram, sex trafficking, migrant-trade coyotes, labor markets, and even prison reform. The result startles students indoctrinated in the traditional single narrative of the US South, but is readily understood by the children of immigrants who are familiar with concepts of self-sale in famine or dire poverty, or kidnapping, indenture, or forced participation in the sex industry and drug cartels. The most important connection for my students is the topical connection to the here-and-now and how it relates to each of them personally.

Kevin C. Young
PhD Student, Rutgers New Brunswick

The responses to Adelman's essay from last week have taken informative and provocative turns. There's clearly lots in the essay to grapple with. So far, though, no one has responded to the provocative title and the question behind it: is global history just a passing academic fad, a moment that shone brightly and is now fading? 

I agree with Adelman's summary of the challenges to field, and his characterization of the intellectual and political resistance to globalization. But I challenge the presumption that globalization--in all its current forms and messiness--is the central force behind interest in or support for world history scholarship and teaching. Those connections certainly explain why some versions of global history were "hot," but those links don't tell the whole story, or even the most important one. 

Focusing only on globalization--with all its attendant benefits and discontents--draws our attention to the recent past, casts the study of history firmly in the service of the present, and makes it easy not to look for other rationales, comparisons, connections, or disjunctures. I was using parts of Jerry Bentley's essay on "Myths, Wagers, and Moral Implications" of world history to argue back at Adelman while I was reading (JWH 16.1 | 2005: ), but I have yet to do the work of going through the texts side by side to create on the page the dialogue that was spinning in my head.

This afternoon, though, as I prepared for a lecture, a passage from Jonathan Reynolds' Sovereignty and Struggle spoke directly to the discomfort Adelman's essay raised for me. Reynolds encourages us to "think about how the stories told in these chapters highlight the degree to which all our lives on this planet have been, and continue to be, connected and shared." (xx)
These words are from the introduction of a "local" book (about Africa) set in a global context (the Cold War)--a framing that speaks to elements of Adelman's argument picked up in this thread by Fernlund, Burrack, Owens, and Mounkhall. 

Teasing out the tensions between local v. global is important, but even when nuanced with telescoping scales of analysis, this response leaves a big piece of Adelman's argument on the table, untouched.

World history is not just about globalization, and the embrace or critique of a neoliberal world order--an order in which the politics of the global north are starting to look more like those in other parts of the world. What Adelman's essay seems to miss (though he gets at this premise more fully in the comments and responses to questions on the Aeon site) is the shared past and future of humanity, regardless of whether we share commodity chains or social media platforms or rising nationalist sentiments. As Tom Laichas reminds us here, as world historians, we're well-equipped to tell a wider range of stories. 

Thanks, Jonathan, for helping me to articulate the inchoate resistance that's been building since I read Adelman's essay. 

Thank you, Professor Stapleton, for your helpful response to my post. I apologize for my delayed answer. I “write” using voice-recognition software because my hands no longer function, and this process places limits on the location and speed of any written production. I am familiar with the “World Historical Dataverse” because I reviewed the proposal for NSF. My evaluation was so enthusiastic that when I visited the NSF office in September, 2012, to discuss new funding opportunities, my NSF project officer, in the Office of Cyberinfrastructure, told me that the proposal would be funded because she knew I would be delighted.

I remember putting the Rosenstone book on my list of things to read when it first appeared, but I never got around to doing so. I will certainly read it now. I am not put off by cinematic narrative structure. In fact, I am working on an article about ideas for nonlinear historical narratives drawn from the interactions between certain French philosophers, film directors, and novelists with the translations by Maurice-Edgar Coindreau of two novels by William Faulkner, _The Sound and the Fury_ (1929 [trans. 1938]) and _The Wild Palms_ (1939 [trans. 1952]). Jean-Paul Sartre published an important essay on the first in his _Situations, I (Février 1938 – Septembre 1944)_ (1947), a book that had a big influence on director Jean-Luc Godard during his early period. The second narrative of _The Wild Palms_ (chronologically, the first) is a beautiful example of nonlinear narrative, which works especially well in French because the language supports longer sentences. After the publication of the first edition in English, readers of the French translation possessed a better version of the novel because its US publisher perversely rearranged the author’s narrative order, even after Faulkner received the Nobel prize, much to Faulkner’s distress. _The Wild Palms_ served as the structural model for the first feature film of director Agnès Varda, _La Pointe courte_ (1955), and the novel continued to influence the narrative organization of her films. After he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2014, the work of Patrick Modiano has become better known, and it probably will not surprise anyone now that his famous early trilogy (1968, 1969 and 1972) exposing French collaboration with the Nazi occupiers was heavily influenced by Coindreau’s translations of Faulkner and by Nouvelle Vague films, especially those of Godard. Therefore, these novels also provide ideas for nonlinear historical narrative, as does his important historical work, _Dora Bruder_ (1997).

I know that you caught my reference to Joseph R. Levenson’s _Confucian China and Its Modern Fate_ (1968), a book that I was probably reading at the moment he died, which meant that I never had an opportunity to meet him. I inserted the reference in part because of Professor Adelman’s observation about how few undergraduates study for doctorates in East Asian history. When it still existed, I apparently set some sort of record on the GRE in History. Because we were penalized for incorrect answers, I did not attempt any item for which I could not identify an incorrect response. When I submitted my exam, I realized that all of the blank responses were in East Asian history before the era of European expansion into the region. This realization exposed a serious flaw in my effort to become a world historian, and I did my PhD minor at the University of Wisconsin in East Asian history, which is when I read Levenson’s exciting work. Shortly after I finished, troops with heavy weaponry occupied the Madison campus, which provided a dynamic environment within which to evaluate Levenson’s analytic and narrative techniques. I felt honored when I was offered a five-year fellowship to study either Chinese or Japanese so that I could take my doctorate in East Asian history, but by that point, I was determined to use my Ford and Fulbright fellowships to go to Spain (and my wife was especially determined that I do so). My subsequent efforts to obtain positions that would have allowed me to study Chinese were all frustrated.

To pick up on Mr. Young’s point about connecting the narrative to the lived experiences of his students, I should mention my reaction to the arrival on campus of the National Guard troops in the spring of 1969. My grandfather, John Owens, was a tough, one-legged coal miner who started to work in the mines just before his ninth birthday. He was the founding president of the CIO in Ohio, the president of District 6 (Ohio) of the United Mine Workers, head of Labor’s Nonpartisan League, the CIO’s political arm, and the operational head of the “Little” Steel Strike of 1937, because two of the companies had their central operations in Ohio. During the that strike, there were two known attempts to assassinate him. Of course, there was nothing “little” about this strike, which convulsed the U.S. industrial heartland from the Delaware River to the western shore of Lake Michigan, and it is sadly remembered for the Memorial Day Massacre by Republic Steel in Chicago. When the governor of Ohio, Martin L. Davey, took a bribe from the steel companies to call out the poorly trained National Guard against the strikers in his state, John L. Lewis and my grandfather decided to call off the strike, as described in Lewis’ famous Labor Day speech, often called “Labor Like Israel”. This series of events shaped political debates in my family for several decades and, thus, my own political and historical outlook. When those poorly trained troops arrived on campus in 1969, I begged my fellow strikers to recognize that they might fire on us, but no one believed me. Tragically, it would only be a few years before events at Kent State would confirm my assessment. I leave you to guess the ways in which I constructed my nonlinear narratives in my courses on Latin American history. As far as I know, I am the only person who marched twice in the March on Washington in August 1963.

[I am posting this on behalf of Professor Welter]

World History: Now More than Ever

William McNeill’s 1963 magnum opus, the Rise of the West, quantified that the world is the product of millennia universal and ecumenical interactions. By trade, travel, and war countless peoples have woven a human web composed of all creeds, cultures, and colors. Only global history conveys the reality that all peoples have been depositors and withdrawers to the “world bank of knowledge.” The corollary is palpable: no one people, nation, culture, or creed can realistically claim that it is “superior,” “chosen,” or “unique.” Borrowing has been universal, ubiquitous, and untrammeled.

Histories limited to manmade borders cannot offer this perspective. Because they are inherently limited to confined areas, authors generate only national or regional perspectives. As such, they create self-flattering, histories that extol their nation, creed, or culture. Accordingly, they write self-aggrandizing accounts that pin the gold medals on themselves. Others, by omission, appear less accomplished.

Truth does not reside in singular “in depth” accounts. Historians must move away from the ancient paradigm that if they “get all the facts,” they will have found “Truth.” Truth, instead, lies in communicating what people have in common amid global diversity. World history demands accenting what McNeill names “myths” -- accounts that rise above esoteric detail and illustrate what humans share, a set of beliefs that rise above petty divisiveness.

Myths address our provincialism, for they rise above masses of petty detail that obscures the patterns. While myths are the “motor of history,” they can be inherently dangerous. “What one culture calls history; the other sees as myth”; and what one sees as myth, the other calls history.
In an age of mutually annihilating technology, this is intolerable.

We need, in short, an ecumenical history, one that accepts the reality that our species is a product of mutual borrowing. Today’s world mandates a shift from provincial myths to a what McNeill calls a Global Myth -- one that reveals that all human innovation is not so much discovered [or revealed] as it is borrowed. Learning of our commonalities enhances acceptance of our differences. Martin Luther King asserted that this tension-reducing awareness wasn’t optional. It was an existential mandate: “Unless we learn to live together as brothers and sisters, we will die together as fools.”

Only world history addresses this mandate.

Mark Welter, UofMN, retired
Welter authored Professor McNeill’s eulogy appearing on the WHA website under “News.”

“World History: Now more than ever.” Hmmm. Why the sudden urgency? This plea sounds political to me. And should history really be political? The past should explain the present—but should it take sides? And why are histories that are “limited” to manmade borders necessarily “self-flattering”? Why can’t we have a critical world history, a critical big history, a critical national history, and a critical regional history? Doesn’t each frame of reference offer a different and valid perspective on the human condition?

I am great admirer of William McNeill. I don’t think he has written anything that I have not read. One may still read "The Rise of the West" with great profit. The illustrations alone are worth it. They are brilliant. But one can draw different conclusions about the meaning of his work. Certainly one meaning is that the West should not be studied in a vacuum. It should be studied in a global context.

And there are McNeill’s rich insights. For example, he pointed out that the Indian caste and the Greek polis each met a fundamental human need: the need to belong.

But does an ecumenical history really meet the human need to belong? Are we really ready to be earthlings rather than Americans, Mexicans, or Canadians? I’m not so sure.

I was originally trained to be an historian of the American West and I eventually served as the director of the Western History Association. I was drawn to the field because I believed that place mattered. I learned that growing up in Tucson, Arizona and reading Lawrence Clark Powell, Wallace Stegner, and Edward Abbey.

My biography of President Lyndon Johnson tried to interpret his life by looking at his deep Texas roots. In fact, I found that I could not separate the man from the land—Johnson from the Texas Hill Country.

But since I received my Ph.D.,the field of Western history has moved in a very different direction and in the process has defined itself out of existence. How can place matter if history is moving toward a decentered, borderless world?

But is it?

I think we need to separate global history from globalization. The one should not be dependent on the other.


Kevin Jon Fernlund
Professor of History
University of Missouri - St. Louis

Professor Fernlund is correct to warn against conflation of global history and "globalization," the latter word politically-loaded because it is rarely defined and therefore means who-knows-what? To my knowledge, there are only two arguments for the "birth of globalization" in the economic history literature. O'Rourke and Williamson have proposed a birthdate in the 1820s, based up an economics-only (Eurocentric) viewpoint narrowly limited to prices of less than a handful of commodities. Several economic historians have subsequently challenged the O'Rourke-Williamson argument on statistical grounds.

Arturo Giraldez and I have proposed 1571 as globalization's proper birthdate, on the other hand, based upon our definition linked to physical geography. (See D.O. Flynn and A. Giraldez, "Born Again: Globalization's Sixteenth-Century Origins (Asian/Global versus European Dynamics)," PACIFIC ECONOMIC REVIEW 13:3 (2008), 359-387). Our argument intentionally excludes neither any academic discipline nor any political orientation. Irrespective of personal political views, we believe that the Age of Globalization can be objectively identified in the same manner that one identifies the Age of Agriculture, the Age of Aviation or any other such Age, no matter one's views on commercial agricultural or aviation practices today.

For a fascinating new book concerning world literature consistent with our trans-disciplinary view of globalization's sixteenth-century birth, see Ning Ma, THE AGE OF SILVER: THE RISE OF THE NOVEL EAST AND WEST. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. After careful re-reading of her fascinating book, I cannot detect any overtly political ideology pushed by Professor Ma.

Dennis O. Flynn
Emeritus Professor of Economics
University of the Pacific

One could extend Kevin's examples endlessly. Most history is still local history - with the sense of the "local" taking all sorts of forms - a town, a region, a state, a nation, etc. Why the global aspect should take precedence, either conceptually or politically is beyond me.

As to the political aspect. Kevin's point about history within man-made borders not having to be "self-flattering," I would say most national history of the U.S. of recent decades is exactly not self-flattering. I hardly think self-flattery is something we need to worry much about there. But even still, I would suggest that the man-made boundaries of the nation state are so far pretty much the only ones within which political systems based on real, legally grounded, dependable individual rights and democratic control have had much of a chance.

As to global history, likewise, I would hope it, too, would not lapse into self-flattery. Is the human race writ large across the globe any more admirable than those particular humans were when they constructed the first city-states in Sumer? Has globalization yet indicated how such values as democracy and human rights can be institutionalized and protected on a transnational scale? I think a critical stance on all that is as necessary on that level as it is on any other, and self-flattery as much in need of being kept in check. Were I to write a history, say of the UN Human Rights Council and its forebears, I do not think flattery, self or otherwise, would have a chance.