By Sarah Claire Dunstan
A great deal of ink has been spilt in the last few decades answering the question that forms the title of Sebastian Conrad’s What is Global History? Even within this forum, my three predecessors, all working in different sub-fields, have taken a variety of approaches to thinking about Conrad’s book. Such diversity nicely illustrates Conrad’s own introductory description of global history as ‘Janus-faced,’ not just as a ‘subject matter and methodology’, but ‘a process and a perspective’ too (11). Setting up his book in that way reminds readers that the question is not settled, nor should it be. To the contrary, it’s a historiographical assessment we each have to reach on our own terms. What follows is a short reflection on the state of the field, so-to-speak, in the last two decades and a brief meditation on how Conrad’s book fits into these conversations about the purpose and potential of global history.
Earlier debates about the notion of the global in the discipline of history were linked, as Frederick Cooper’s African Affairs essay on the subject makes clear, to the question of whether globalization meant the spread of the West and was, therefore, a Western phenomenon, or if it was in fact something co-created by non-Western peoples. In his 1997 article, ‘Connected Histories,’ Sanjay Subrahmanyan argued against a theory of globalization that was inherently Eurocentric. His research sought to illuminate that the world was connected in Eurasia prior to European ascendancy in the modern world. In 2013, he reiterated this concept at his College de France inaugural lecture ‘Aux origines d’histoire globale.’ Chinese Studies scholar Dominic Sachsenmeier made a similar argument about the works of global history in a New Global Studies article. He urged scholars not to assume ‘diffusion from the West to the rest as the only force behind the genesis of academic historiography as a worldwide phenomenon.’ To the contrary, global and or world histories with a teleological bent have been common throughout the world since the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, despite the asymmetry of geopolitical power.
In institutional terms, the Journal of Global History was established by a group of scholars in 2006. Writing from the LSE, the Centennial Professor of Economic History, Patrick O’Brien framed the journal’s launch as a new stage in the practice of global history. The journal was to shepherd in ‘a renaissance’ of the sub-field which left ‘behind the arrogance of Rome, aspirations for a universal Caliphate, the moral pretensions of doctrinal Confucianism, claims for spiritual superiority associated with Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity, as well as the scientific and technological triumphalism of the West.’ The imperative of global history in our time, O’Brien declared, lay in its capacity to cater ‘to moral purposes, connected to the needs of a globalizing world.’
A little over a decade later, Jeremy Adelman, the Henry Charles Lea professor of history and director of the Global History Lab at Princeton University, noted in an Aeon article that, for a while at least, ‘Connection was in; networks were hot. Global history would show the latticework of exchanges and encounters – from the Silk Road of 1300 to turbo-charged supply chains of 2000.’ The political subtext to these efforts was clear: nations and civilizations were codependent. Connections trumped distance. The renaissance that O’Brien had hoped for in the first issue of the Journal of Global History was truly in swing.
For Adelman at least, this moment did not last, if it ever truly existed at all. From the vantage point of 2016, the same year Conrad’s book was published, Adelman had serious reservations about the reality of this renaissance. He wondered if ‘global history’ was still just another Anglophone effort ‘to integrate the Other into a cosmopolitan narrative on our terms, in our tongues’? The statistics he presented in his Aeon article seemed to suggest that nationalist subject matter, however global the conceptual framing, prevailed in the United States and the United Kingdom. Too often, histories framing themselves as ‘global’ were reliant on primarily English or continental European language sources. Outside of the academy, the 2016 Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom, the election of President Trump in the United States, the rhetoric of Marine Le Pen in France’s Presidential elections and, most recently the success of the Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil all seem to indicate that global historians had been left behind in a world determined to see nationalist divisions.
Turning full circle in early 2018, the Journal of Global History published ‘Discussion: the futures of global history,’ by Richard Drayton, the Rhodes Professor of Imperial History and King’s College, London, and David Motadel, an Assistant Professor of International History at the LSE. As O’Brien and Conrad before them, they stressed the ancient pedigree of global or ‘universal’ history as a genre, dating it back to historians of ancient Greece such as Herodotus. Nevertheless, they grounded their understanding of the contemporary practice of global history in our modern, state-based world order. Both historians took Adelman, as well as the distinguished historian of France, David Bell, to task for the assumption ‘that global history implies a rejection of the smaller scales of historical experience, in particular the nation.’ How could this be so, they asked, when the methodological impetus of contemporary global history is the result of the post-1950, nation-state organised, world?
For Drayton and Motadel two key phenomena drove late twentieth and twenty-first century historians to engage the frame of the global. The first was the end of empire and efforts towards decolonization. The second was the advent of ‘history from below,’ a historiographical turn that necessitated attention to global connectedness. Both of these phenomena crystallized around the turn of the 20th century, ‘with the cresting of both the realities and idea of ‘globalization.’’ Two works in particular characterized this moment for Drayton and Motadel: Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence (2000) and Christopher Bayly’s The Birth of the Modern World (2004). Bayly’s work was published on the bicentenary of the Haitian Revolution and, as Drayton and Motadel noted in the footnotes, it followed Jürgen Osterhammel’s 2000 Sklaverei und die Zivilisation des Westens, in using an image of the black Jacobin, Citoyen Belley, on its cover.
This reference to the global historical moment of the Haitian Revolution is particularly striking. It points not only to a revisionist conceptualization of the Haitian Revolution but to the disciplinary amnesia necessary to sustain a post-1950s understanding of global history, especially as it relates to globalizing forces. Conrad makes this point rather nicely when he observes, in his chapter on positionality, that black scholars such as Frederick Douglass, Edward Wilmot Blyden, and W.E.B. Du Bois were writing global histories from an African-centred framework as early as the 19th century (174). (We might also add Anna Julia Cooper, C.L.R. James and Eric Williams to this list.) Such thinkers realized, far avant la lettre, that we need not just triumphalist narratives of global connectivity but ‘narratives of global life that reckon with disintegration as well as integration.’ But, as Mamadou Diouf and Jinny Prais argued in their chapter in Samuel Moyn and Andrew Sartori’s edited collection, Global Intellectual History, most contemporary scholarship, both theoretical and substantive, of the Atlantic world has ‘largely ignored and/or dismissed the role of Africa and Africans’ (206).
This is particularly true of the sub-field within global history that Moyn and Sartori’s book investigates: global intellectual history. I’ve written a little about their book elsewhere on the blog so I’m not going to dwell too long on it here, other than to argue that it’s a good companion to Conrad’s book because many of the issues Conrad explores about global history at large are applied here to think about the possibilities of global intellectual history. They, and their fellow contributors, ask two key questions: what might it look like to practice global intellectual history? Should it even exist as a sub-field?
Rosario Lopez reviewed Moyn and Sartori’s book in 2016 in a Journal of European Ideas review article titled ‘The Quest for the Global: Remapping Intellectual History.’ Whilst Moyn and Sartori, as well as David Armitage, may well be right in framing global history as the methodological antidote to parochialism in the field, Lopez still envisioned global intellectual history ‘as yet another turn in the screw’ of debates about ‘the identity and methodological distinctiveness of intellectual history’ (160). For Lopez, the real challenge of the global turn in history, and specifically for intellectual history, is its effect on the way we understand ‘context.’ Lopez reads the ‘global turn’ as an attack on the way the Cambridge school – initially comprised of scholars Quentin Skinner, John Dunn and J.G.A. Pocock – understood context in terms of spatial and temporal frameworks. Moyn and Sartori’s edited volume appears to Lopez as a continuation of the same debate that began with Quentin Skinner’s seminal 1969 essay: ‘Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas.’
The screw certainly turned once more when Pocock himself published ‘a review of a review’ in response to Lopez. In the journal Global Intellectual History, Pocock accepted the assertion that ‘Cambridge School’ scholarship in the field of intellectual history was Eurocentric ‘and calls for reformation’ (2). So too, did he acknowledge that the study of non-European political thought might well call for the development of a distinct conceptual toolkit. Nevertheless he remained convinced of the value of the narrower ‘spatial-temporal’ frameworks he has used throughout his career. Although proponents of the global tend to frame the two approaches in opposition, it is important to accept that they can be mutually complementary. (In his contribution to Moyn and Sartori’s book, Frederick Cooper remained unpersuaded of this point. It seemed to him that ‘the path to an intellectual history that takes in most of the world will lead us to a less-than-global-intellectual history’ (292).) Pocock warned, however, that the flurry of attention to the ‘global’ means that we should well be asking ‘how ‘global history’ is to be other than an ideological tool of globalization’(7).
Conrad dedicated his final Chapter, ‘Global History for Whom: The Politics of Global History,’ to this very question. As he observes, there is a rather utopian allure to the entire project of global history: it has the potential ‘to turn us into citizens of the world’(207). This is all very well, Conrad notes, but the reality is that global citizenship is a very weak identity for most of us. Often global frameworks provide a means of illustrating particular nationalist concerns. Even works intended to emphasize cultural diversity and to combat Eurocentrism, can very easily slip into being ‘a prop for globalization’ (211). This is particularly the case when difference is understood primarily in cultural rather than economic terms because it homogenizes material inequalities.
Moreover, there is a lot to be said for Pocock’s warning that global history can be used as a tool for globalization. This is true in terms of an explicit instrumentalism as well as an inadvertent reflection of the uneven power structures and imperatives of academic institutions across the world. For his part, Conrad noted the (early) institutional focus on world or global history in nations that see themselves world powers. Global or world history is very popular in China, not ‘as a methodological alternative, but as a context in which the growth of the nation can be explained and promoted’ (208). The same is true of the United States, where the World History Association was established in 1982 and the Journal of World History in 1990. This reflects the two countries’ self-identification as leading world powers.
More recently, the Asian Association of World Historians, founded in 2008 and including scholars from Japan, China, Korea and Singapore, has been very popular. Conrad makes the interesting point that much of the work done under the umbrella of Global history is focused on linkages between Europe, the New World and Asia, at the expense of Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and Russia. He points to John Darwin’s After Tamerlane: The Global History of Empire as an example: the impressive volume does not include any imperial formations outside of Eurasia (222-223).
This focus on Asia reflects the way that global history has been less popular in the academic circles of countries in Africa and post-Cold War Europe, where nation-building political agendas have taken a particular precedence. It is also, Conrad argues, a product of the expense of adopting global history as a methodology. Doing global history, so to speak, requires proficiency in multiple languages and the funding to spend time in archives across various countries. This may be possible in countries with strong tertiary sectors and the associated access to economic resources but it is ultimately exclusive of scholars who do not have this financial support. The global political economy of the academy then can be determinative of who is studying global history and for what purpose.
Conrad’s book, as we have already seen, is certainly not the final word on global history. Nevertheless, it is an excellent and well-balanced treatment of the field that allows scholars to enter into the ongoing conversation about the potentials and pitfalls of ‘global history.’ If, as Pocock suggests, a truly global history requires the development of a new and innovative conceptual toolkit, then there is no better place to start than with Conrad’s What is Global History?
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