The relevance of "Big History" for the study of diplomatic history and international relations

Diane N. Labrosse's picture

H-Diplo readers who are interested in Professor David Armitage’s recent work on “big history” may want to watch an interview (in English) from the site La Vie des idées: .

Armitage discusses the ideas that that he presented in the annual Nicolai Rubinstein Lecture in the History of Political Thought and Intellectual History given at Queen Mary, University of London, on March 29 2012.  We have produced below three paragraphs of his talk, which was printed in the TLS. For the full text please visit . This talk was published in expanded form as “What's the Big Idea? Intellectual History and the Longue Durée”. History of European Ideas 38(4): 493-507.

We welcome comments from H-Diplo readers on the relevance of “big history” for the study of diplomatic history and international relations.


“’What’s the big idea?’ So-called big history has been inhospitable to the questions of meaning and intention so central to intellectual history – isn’t it time for a reconciliation?” by David Armitage, Harvard University

In many realms of historical writing, big is back. In some areas – historical archaeology, comparative sociology or world-systems theory – it never went away. In others, it clearly has disappeared, never to return: the globe-spanning universal histories associated with an Oswald Spengler or an Arnold Toynbee seem unlikely to be imitated again. But across the historical profession, the telescope rather than the microscope is increasingly the preferred instrument of examination. A tight focus has hardly been abandoned, as the continuing popularity of biography and the utility of microhistory both amply show. However, it is being supplemented by broad panoramas of both space and time displayed under various names: “world history”, “deep history” and “big history”. This return to the longue durée presents challenges and opportunities for all historians, including practitioners of intellectual history.

At its most ambitious, big history – so-called by its practitioners, who have now founded an International Big History Association – stretches back to the Big Bang itself. This is a universal history that is coterminous with the universe itself, drawing on the findings of cosmology, astronomy, geology and evolutionary biology as well as more conventionally historical disciplines like archaeology and historical sociology. By contrast, “deep” history is comparatively parochial, in that it delves only into the human past. It is selfdefined as “deep” largely because it breaches the barrier between “pre-history” and history in the conventional sense of recorded history, the past as recoverable through the various signifying texts conscious agents constructed and bequeathed to the future.

Big history in all its guises has been inhospitable to the questions of meaning and intention so central to intellectual history. This is not simply for the banal reason that the big historians usually scrutinize such a superficial slice of recorded history at the end of their grand sweeps: the skin of paint on the top of the Eiffel Tower, in Mark Twain’s marvellous metaphor. Nor is it just because human agency dwindles in significance in the face of cosmological or even archaeological time. It is due, for the moment at least, to the essential materialism of the two main strains of big history, what we might call the biologistic and the economistic tendencies…. [visit for the full text].


The H-Diplo Editors