Integrating Histories of Development: the Good, the Bad, and the Joined

Iris Borowy's picture
Call for Papers
March 30, 2023
Subject Fields: 
Economic History / Studies, Environmental History / Studies, History of Science, Medicine, and Technology, Public Health, Research and Methodology

Integrating Histories of Development: the Good, the Bad, and the Joined

Center for the History of Global Development – Shanghai University


There are two principal master narratives about modern global development. One is a positive story of significantly improved quality of life for people around the world. This perspective is especially taken by scholars studying health. Over the last 200 years, people around the world have grown taller and lived longer, the result mainly of better nutrition, better housing, better clothing, higher incomes, more tax revenues and better healthcare policies.  Despite an eight-fold increase of the global population since 1800, the percentage of malnourished has steadily decreased, and the rate of people dying of famine has dropped to a tiny fraction of those at any time during the last two centuries. Angus Maddison has documented the spectacular (albeit unequal) growth in global wealth, while Robert Fogel and Dora Costa have demonstrated the intertwined character of the  changes in human bodies and inventions: better nutrition and living standards have enabled people to work with more strength and better cognitive abilities for longer hours, resulting in further improvements in nutrition and living conditions in a “techno-physio evolution” of continuous improvements. Nobel Prize laureate Angus Deaton has framed such improvements in health and living standards as “escapes” from earlier fates of hunger and premature death. Steven Pinker has argued that modern societies have kept becoming more peaceful, with violence increasingly exceptional and considered outside of accepted social norms, and  the late public health specialist Hans Rosling, insisted on the overall positive tendencies of world development in a book aptly entitled Factfulness: Ten Reasons we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think (2018).


This narrative competes with a negative view of increasing environmental degradation and social injustice. The most extreme case is probably climate change, resulting from approximately two centuries of industrialization, which has been framed as a small minority of people and nations having splashed out on fossil fuels to the detriment of the majority of people, who are suffering the consequences in the form of droughts, floods, extreme weather conditions and a plethora of secondary social and political consequences. In Merchants of Doubt (2010), Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway have analyzed various deceptions campaigns by industry, adding a brief fictitious history of the future on the consequences of climate change, appropriately called The Collapse of Western Civilization (2014). And climate change is only one of the disasters which are unfolding. For decades, analysts have warned of the potentially catastrophic consequences of going beyond “limits to growth” (Meadows et al., 1972, 1992, 2004) or beyond planetary boundaries (Rockström, 2009). While these publications are not historical per se, they include references to past developments as the origins of alarming current and future threats. Some environmental historians also paint somber pictures, based on studies of the global history of pollution (Jarrige/LeRoux, 2020; Liboiron et al. 2018), or toxic waste disposal (Hamblin, 2009; Newman, 2016). Often, these accounts highlight local and global power asymmetries that cause environmental injustice (Armiero, 2021; Malm, 2016) or “slow violence“ (Nixon, 2011). Similarly, historians of development such as Mike Davis (2001) or Gilbert Rist (2001) portray development as an increasing concentration of wealth and power among global elite groups, gained through a combination of (post-)colonial oppression and capitalism.


Both narratives are well established, using specific sets of questions, sources, methods and frames to provide overriding perspectives on global history. Often, they are cultivated in separation with only limited connection to the other. However, in spite of seemingly being contradictory, these narratives can also be regarded as profoundly connected, whereby seeing one narrative in isolation, without integrating the other, is one-sided to the point of missing the real picture.

Recently, there have been fascinating studies of holistic histories in which authors have broken down barriers of conventional historiography. They tend to focus on integrating the histories of the human-made, “artificial”, and the biological, “natural” worlds, revealing unexpected parallels as well as intertwined connections. Examples include Vaclav Smil’s Growth (2019) and his analysis of phenomena ranging from geological to political structures, as well as Dipesh Chakrabarty’s The Climate of History (2021), a “conjoined history” of the biosphere and technosphere leading to global climate change.

This workshop wants to follow up on such approaches, exploring ways in which the two narratives outlined above can be integrated into one. The goal is that the positive and negative views on global development are not portrayed as parallel, contradictory histories but one single history whose one strand necessarily includes the other. For instance, one may argue that living standards and life expectancies have improved precisely because of developments that also entailed increasing production, pollution and toxic waste. This workshop will explore how such an approach can break up simplistic linearities and open new perspectives on the past and its meaning for the future.  

Scholars are invited to submit proposals for papers that explore some angle on a holistic history in which the “good” and the “bad” history are understood to be components of one single history, whose understanding of benefit and damage are blurred and may shift. They can derive from social, political, environmental, technological or any other form of history. We particularly welcome the following submissions:

  • Case studies of joined developments, whereby a distinct occurrence has positive and negative, mutually essential repercussions;
  • Studies on developments that seem clearly positive or negative at one place and one point in time but gain different meanings in later times and/or distant places;
  • Theoretical considerations of the concept of integrated histories and its possible meaning for the writing of “normal” history.

Accepted papers will be discussed at a workshop hosted by the Center for the History of Global Development, College of Liberal Arts, Shanghai University. Funding for this workshop is being sought. As far as possible, the workshop will be held as an on-site meeting, though options are reserved for a hybrid or zoom format. Selected contributions will be published in the Yearbook for the Global History of Development.


The deadline for the abstracts is 30 March 2023. Decisions will be communicated by 15 April.

Dates for the workshop: 4 – 6 October, 2023

Send an abstract of about 350 words as well as a brief cv of one or two pages in one single file, to:

Please, indicate below the abstract whether you would participate 1. online; 2. On site if there is travel funding, 3. On site.


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