What is Global History?–Continued

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By Sebastian Conrad, Professor of History at Freie Universität Berlin and author of What is Global History? (Princeton, 2016). Professor Conrad responds to the four contributions in our Book Forum:

Daoud Jackson, “What is Global History?”

Maryam Patton, “‘What Time is it There?’ Synchronicity in Global History”

Derek Kane O’Leary, “The Pedagogy of Global History”

Sarah Claire Dunstan. “Postscript: the various afterlives of Global History”

It is a pleasure, and an honor, to read the four thoughtful responses to my recent book What is Global History? on the JHI Blog. All of the four contributors – Daoud Jackson, Maryam Patton, Derek Kane O‘Leary, and Sarah Dunstan – have offered sympathetic and at the same time critical readings of the book, and of the global history enterprise more generally. As becomes clear through reading the balanced and inspiring contributions, Global History, both as a field and as an approach, is not a fixed entity. It requires constant reflection and recalibration, and most importantly, it requires each generation to determine anew how to conceive of global history, how to use it, and to what end.

Every one of the four interventions raised a host of important questions that would merit discussion. In this short response, I will briefly pick up four major issues that were raised over the course of the blog conversation, some of them appearing in more than one contribution. They concern the plurality of global history, the concepts that we use, the inequalities and hierarchies involved, and the question of why we need global history in the first place.

1) Let’s start, then, with the plurality of the field, with the somewhat unwieldy multiplicity of approaches that all sail under the flag of global history. In my book, I have discussed the many different literatures that all lay claim on explaining the globality of the past: transnational and transregional history, histoire croisée and connected histories, postcolonial studies and world systems, big and deep history, and so forth. In the fourth chapter of my book, I have gone beyond charting this variety and proposed a more specific, and also more narrow understanding of “global history as a distinct approach”: an approach that systematically interrogates the degree of large-scale integration as a condition of doing global history, and as a crucial causal factor in explaining it. While some of my colleagues have seen this as illegitimate narrowing and policing, Daoud Jackson, in his comment to this blog, instead suggests that the narrowing of the framework needs to go further: Instead of “summarizing almost all of the possible forms which Global History has taken,” we should have a clearer sense of the “directions for future travel”. I am happy for this critical stimulus, and for what concerns my own work, I fully agree.

My impression is, however, that the general trend points in the opposite direction. It is not least the success of the new field that has propelled a huge variety of approaches to the surface; its broad appeal has turned global history into a broad stream – much like the discipline of history itself – that lumps together seemingly irreconcilable methods and perspectives. Now, while this is lamentable on one count, it also opens up possibilities on another. Not least, turning global history into a truly global endeavor, and into a conversation between scholars operating in different institutional and cultural settings, requires to multiply the voices and perspectives. Global history, in other words, needs to be hijacked by scholars operating outside of the OECD world, coming to the conversation with their own questions and agenda. For this to happen, and to be fruitful, there is value in a more capacious understanding of global history that allows for the plurality of approaches.

2) This leads us immediately to the question of the appropriate categories and concepts to use when speaking about global trends and processes without, ideally, losing sight of the difference, and the specificity, of local phenomena. When analyzing the global past, can we use concepts that are applicable across time and space, without flattening the particularity of whatever we study? This is an urgent concern, and in her challenging contribution to the blog forum, Maryam Patton has posed this question creatively and provocatively, using the example of temporality. Can we apply our understanding of time, she asks, even to historical subjects who did not live in our time regime? Can we employ categories like synchronicity (but we could add others, such as development, periodization, and time itself) without distorting the life-worlds of the very subjects we study? This is an important point, and while it is a concern for any historian, it requires reflection by global historians more urgently. Maryam Patton has focused her argument on premodern Europe, but similar questions regarding regimes of temporality pose themselves once we compare, and treat within a single framework, phenomena across diverse geographies.

One way to address this conundrum would be to say that while it is important to stay attentive to the cosmologies of historical actors, we as historians cannot be the conceptual prisoners of the past. We should use our own, abstract categories that almost by definition will differ from the way in which historical actors made sense of their own lives. So, where is the problem?

The problem lies precisely in the historicity of the categories and concepts themselves. A neat separation between emic cosmologies – concepts that the actors use themselves – and the seemingly neutral analytical concepts of historians, makes invisible the historical processes that has produced these very concepts. The concepts historians employ are the product of history, and thus part of what we study. When we call something a “religion” and not a “sect” or “superstition,” then what looks like an abstract analytical concept is in reality a term that has been used, historically, to include some and to exclude others. Similarly, the vocabulary of temporality (progress, development, etc.) has been used to legitimate authority, power, and colonialism. The concepts, in other words, are not neutral, but bear the traces of the conditions of their emergence, most conspicuously the Eurocentrism and modern-centrism characteristic of the moment of birth of our current social science thesaurus. There is, I believe, ultimately no alternative to using analytical concepts across time and space – but it remains imperative to keep the historicity of these concepts in play while employing them.

3) Hierarchies of power are not only written into the global past, but also continue to structure the institutional landscape that the historians who study it inhabit. Sarah Dunstan, in her wide-ranging contribution to this forum, makes this point most poignantly, alluding to lost and forgotten histories emanating from non-Western locales (e.g., Africa), to the legitimating work that some forms of global history does for economic globalization, and to the material base that is necessary to sustain both teaching and research in global history. Differentials of power, and quite literally, funding, remain central and go a long way in explaining why global history is embraced by some and rejected by others.

All of this is undeniable. It remains important to balance the euphoria and exaggerated claims to border-crossing cosmopolitanism that some writings in the field exude. It’s not as if we said “world” instead of “nation,” and all borders and boundaries, the historiographical privileging of the Atlantic world, and the oblivion into which many local pasts have fallen simply disappeared. Global history is an integral part of the world we live in, and thus reproduces, willingly or not, many of its priorities and asymmetries.

That said, global history is still, I am convinced, our best bet. After all, the problem of hierarchies of knowledge haunts the discipline as a whole, before and after the global turn. In fact, what Dipesh Chakrabarty has called the “asymmetry of ignorance,” – the fact that historians in the Third World could not afford to ignore Western historiography, while the reverse was not true – was, if anything, much more pronounced until the call for transnational and global histories dramatically changed the contours of the field. Today, Western historians will ignore the writings of someone like Dipesh Chakrabarty – but also of others, like Romila Thapar, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Wang Hui, or Hamashita Takeshi – only at their peril.

More broadly speaking, by simply expanding the geographical reach of what historians are expected to read, the global turn has enabled conversations between pasts (and historiographies) that so far only existed in isolation. It has opened up the pages of the most renowned scholarly journals, and of the major academic presses, to themes and locations that hitherto had found access difficult if not impossible. It is clear that this is not enough, and that new obstacles and invisible boundaries – for example in the field of digitization – have emerged. But it is a virtue of global history, building on Marxist and postcolonial critiques, that the inequalities of knowledge production have been addressed most forcefully.

4) Finally, why global history in the first place? This is, of course, the most fundamental question, and Derek Kane O’Leary has raised it most forcefully. “Among the features that Conrad attributes to global history,” he writes, “it seems to me that most good college-level courses on nation-states or empires enact many.” So, why all the fuss?

This question, and the general issue of pedagogy that O’Leary’s contribution focuses on, deserve a longer conversation than this space allows. In a way, however, I think the question itself is an effect and an expression of global history’s recent success. It reminds me of the discussions I have had, and continue to have, with students in the Berlin MA program Global History (a joint degree of the Free University and Humboldt University). When the first cohort was admitted in 2012, global history was still a fairly new kid on the block, and students saw it as a radical alternative to history as they had known it. They were excited about the possibilities to question certainties conveyed by the conventional curricula, and by the prospect of studying processes that did not stop at national borders.

Now, seven years on, the program has grown dramatically, now recruiting more than 60 students annually from many hundred applicants from around the world. The program, then, has firmly established itself – and indeed, many (though by no means all) incoming students now see global history as part of the establishment of the discipline. It is almost as if one has to teach them what history used to be, in order to remind everyone that global history does indeed constitute a major break.

Similarly, we need to see the seemingly effortless incorporation of transnational themes into “good college-level courses on nation-states” as an effect of the global turn, and thus as a result of the academic success of global history – and not as proof that global approaches are superfluous. After all, the broad reception of books like Sven Beckert’s recent Empire of Cotton attests to the fact that a global analysis still today is not the norm, but is seen as innovative and eye-opening. Until not long ago, national narratives followed what I call a paradigm of consecutiveness – first, nations formed (or were founded) domestically, before then reaching out, engaging (and colonizing) others. This was a stage theory of national becoming – nation-building, then imperialism: the Founding Fathers and the Civil War, and then 1898; the French Revolution, and then Algeria; Bismarck before Cameroon; the Meiji Restoration, and then empire. The global perspective instead has questioned such convenient narratives. It has shown both how nations were made globally, while the “global” is frequently a projection from a particular location.

It is, ultimately, not a matter of displacing “courses based on nation-states and empires” with planetary overviews, and thus not a zero-sum game between the national and the global. Rather, the world we inhabit, and the various pasts that have brought it about, are interactive and relational to a degree that many existing textbooks have not sufficiently taken into account. The televised melodrama of the Brexit negotiations in the spring 2019 has served as a powerful reminder, both of striking national peculiarities if not oddities, and of just how difficult disentanglement has in practice become. The 2019 world is characterized by populism and machismo, and clamorous calls for nations to go it alone – and by the globalizing forces that have triggered and made possible these outbursts of xenophobia in the first place. The global and the national are thus co-constitutive, and bound up with each other.


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