What Is Global History?: A JHI Blog Forum

What is Global History?–Continued

By Sebastian Conrad

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.

Sebastian Conrad is Professor of History at Freie Universität Berlin and author of What is Global History? (Princeton, 2016).

What Is Global History?: A JHI Blog Forum

Postscript: The Various Afterlives of Global History

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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What Is Global History?: A JHI Blog Forum

The Pedagogy of Global History?

By Derek Kane O’Leary

First things first: Sebastian Conrad has adeptly synthesized and evaluated the state of global history and other global perspectives on history, in a work ideally suited to the graduate or undergraduate student delving into the field or the historian pivoting toward it. I’m far from a specialist in this domain, though I wish I had this as a general resource earlier. But as someone who has taught varieties of world history and worked on a world history textbook (which, I think, when done well can function as good global history along the lines that Conrad delineates), as well as instructed courses and experiential learning trips organized around the concept of “global citizenship”, I am concerned with what’s at stake here. (The latter pedagogical agenda, as I’ll mention, seems bound up with the study of global history.)

Conrad ably answers what global history is. Along the way he also discusses when it is, where it is, and who it is. That is, he engages with debates and stakes around periodization, geography, and perspective. He remarks throughout on how we should–or, more often, shouldn’t–do it. He is less concerned with why. In 2019, we’ve likely already had our surfeit of calls for papers and conferences, seminars and round tables propelled by the existential question of whether global history should exist or not. I’d nonetheless like to raise the why in response to ethical questions that are gestured at in the book but not engaged with at length.

Conrad is cautious to present the specter of the nationalistic Euro-American-centric nineteenth-century social sciences as a symptom to which global history is an antidote. And he certainly does not deny that the nation-state remains an important level of analysis, as a function of the historical question on the table (138-9). Indeed, he is critical of a range of scholarship that responds to that nineteenth-century bogeyman of nationalistic history writing by simply reifying other nations, perpetuating other narratives based on cultural essentialism, imposing other teleologies, and establishing other centrisms. Still, censure of the origins of our modern discipline and the implication that we should rather be doing global history linger throughout the book. National confines, in short, are something to be transcended. “Global history as practiced today rests on the assumption that unifying frameworks and dialogue across societies and cultures is both possible and desirable.” (201) I think that this appraisal and normative claim are worth commenting on.

On the less pressing historiographical point, it is not clear to me that the nineteenth-century social sciences and history in the U.S. (at least, and I’d be curious to know how other national experiences within Europe compare) were uniquely concerned with one exalted nation-state as their unit of analysis, or that they “developed in close relation to the institutions of the nation-state.” (205) In the U.S., history, for instance, did resemble Europe in its promotion of an archival source-based methodology and the concepts of progress and nation exceptionalism– “Euro-American historicist epistemologies” that Conrad refers to (27-8; 170). But in contrast, US history writing was produced mainly through numerous local historical societies, constructed by individual initiative, and often more interested in some local, regional, or ethnic version of American history than a coherent national narrative emanating from the State and focused on the nation. Federally-funded archival and history-writing projects were just some among these many undertakings, and not often in harmony with them. Of the major writers who used these scattered archives, the most famous–George Bancroft and his epic History of the United States–surely worked to sanctify the nation and its teleological conquest of the continent, but the other acclaimed Romantic historians of the nineteenth century did not even write about the U.S.: William Hickling Prescott authored works on Spanish empire in Central and South America; John Lothrop Motley was mainly concerned with Dutch history and wars with Spain; Francis Parkman focused on French colonialism and combat with England in North America. They were certainly interested in the distinctiveness of Anglo-America, but history as a discipline developed in this broader geographical and international context. Meanwhile, the major nineteenth-century works of ethnography, linguistics, craniology, and archaeology–though often animated by an effort to impose a global hierarchy ethnic and racial hierarchy–all examined evidence about the nation-state within a geographical scope far larger than the continental U.S. Generally, they comprised the entire hemisphere, and sought to make sense of human history within that context.

Even if it remains mostly right that the nineteenth-century Euro-American social sciences focused within the boundaries of a given nation–thus missing crucial connections beyond those boundaries–and emphasized the exceptional nature of the nation–thus aggravating the potential antagonism among nations–I think it is worth asking again why global history is a better approach and, more important, why we should teach it. Conrad seems more concerned with the intellectual shortcomings of such nation-centered disciplines–as they “hinder our ability to achieve a systematic grasp of processes that span the world”(3)– rather than their practical implications in the classroom, but the latter is worth discussing.

Pedagogy is noticeably absent throughout the book. If we move away from nation-centered history on the grounds that it is not just intellectually but ethically deficient, we should be clear about why a global historical approach is better for students. Why would it be better to instruct students in global history rather than a given national history  (if that is the trade-off, and given the finite resources of institutions and students, it often is)?

On the intellectual plane, I’m not sure why a history course focused on a nation cannot also be a “history of entanglements”–or why a history mainly confined within political borders should be seen as excessively “frugal.”(9) Among the features that Conrad attributes to global history, it seems to me that most good college-level courses on nation-states or empires enact many: they strive to “situate concrete historical issues and phenomena within broader, potentially global contexts”; consider “alternative notions of space” that have shaped events within a political entity; keep in mind the “relationality” of the political unit’s development within a broader geopolitical context, and are “self-reflective on the issue of Eurocentrism.” (65)  In short, they entangle the nation-state in a global context, while recognizing that it is a meaningful unit both in recent world history and in students’ experience of the world. In doing so, at their best, they empower students to be far more conscientious and critical thinkers vis-à-vis the nation state, not unlike how “global citizenry” programs hope to enable students to perceive and engage with the globe–another construct. In my experience, it’s a far cry from Bancroft. Perhaps this is just evidence that the teaching of national history is positively influenced by global history, rather than in conflict with it. And Conrad may in fact not deny that a course entitled “U.S. History: Civil War to Present” could also be a good global history course, but I am interested in how our current curricula could or already do engage with global history’s insights.

But in an institutional context of dwindling resources and competing interests, why global history courses might replace nation-centered ones remains challenging. In a global academic context, too, I think it raises tough questions. Most of the practice and publishing of global history emanates from European and U.S. institutions, including the very places that developed and in different ways employed the nation-centric historical discipline: what do we make of critiques coming from such institutions against contempoary nation-centric historical practice in newer, post-colonial nation-states? Conrad is sensitive both to how power operates in history and how it has organized the discipline of history over the centuries. And he doesn’t eschew arguments that global history can obscure human agency and responsibility and be a vehicle for exercising power; namely, that global history narratives can create a teleology of globalization that serves some at the expense of others, and that instruction in global history might, for instance, simply prepare students to work in global corporations (188; 211). Conrad counters that education in global history can be a source of empowerment for those challenging the rhetoric and claims about globalization (212-213). Beyond this, though, the pedagogical pay-off in an academic context of shrinking resources is not clearly articulated, and the critique that education in global history and citizenship is simply empowering a global privileged class to excel across national boundaries is not dispelled. The teaching of global history reflects scholarly awareness of how global integration has shaped historical developments, and of course this should make it into the classroom. But if it is also intended to reconfigure students’ relationship with the past, displace courses based on nation-states and empires, and claim to better equip students than other histories can to excel in the world, I think we need to make a more coherent case for why this is so.

What Is Global History?: A JHI Blog Forum

‘What Time Is It There?’: Synchronicity in Global History

By Maryam Patton

Modern historians are trained above all to avoid anachronism, but the opposite of anachronism is not an intuitive concept. This antonymic definition of the historian’s craft offers little understanding of what it means to be correct ‘in time.’ The fear of anachronism furthermore entertains assumptions about time itself that historians rarely challenge. Why do we only write synchronic or diachronic histories? These models treat time as either at a standstill or moving inexorably forward, but trace nothing more than a line on a 2-D graph whose axes are time and space. They are objectivizing labels we use that avoid the possibility that, as Augustine famously suggested, time exists only in the present in the mind. Still, it is perhaps the best we can do for now until the field faces the implications of suggestions by physicists like Carlo Rovelli that time is like heat and “the growth of entropy distinguishes the past from the future for us and leads to the unfolding of the cosmos” (Rovelli, 195). But if, according to Sebastian Conrad, “history, indeed, was largely chronometry” then global history offers a critique of this paradigm and challenges the predominant temporal metaphors of traditional forms of historical writing (Conrad, 141).

Conrad’s What is Global History is almost as much about the nature of the historical discipline more generally as it is about the new kid on the block, who was never really all that new (Conrad, 17–20). The thematic chapters engage both the limits and potential for global history to offer new insight on the problems that all historians face regarding the past. In the process, Conrad showcases the wide range of monographs that broadly come under its scope. The resulting variety might suggest global history is too imprecise a label to impart meaningful distinctions, and alternatives like world history, deep history, or Atlantic history all illustrate attempts to home in on specific methodological bents like global connectedness, grand timescales, or geological agency. But at the moment, my particular focus is on the chapter “Time in Global History” and the potential for global history to rethink historical time.

Conrad suggests that global history yields two primary methodological alternatives when it comes to temporal scale, namely that of huge swaths of time, in the case of deep or big histories, or synchronicity, whereby events or phenomena that are contemporaneous are meaningful even if geographically distant (Conrad, 150). As Conrad admits, the first alternative, characterized by studies like Daniel Smail’s Deep History and the Brain or David Christian’s Maps of Time, often requires a union between history and the natural sciences and is difficult for any single scholar to pursue. Synchronicity then seems the more promising pursuit, especially given global history’s underlying concern for links and connections. The best example Conrad highlights is Christopher Hill’s National History and the World of Nations wherein Hill examines the emergence of the genre of national histories in France, Japan, and the US. Instead of a traditional comparative study, Hill adopts a synchronistic view of the 19th century world and links the global currents of interstate relations, growing trade, and the communication revolution to their local expression in the aforementioned settings. But this and Conrad’s other examples illustrate the tendency that global history, especially the synchronistic kind, tends not to concern itself with the pre-modern era.  Conrad’s only pre-modern example of a synchronous global history is John Will’s 1688: A Global History, which Conrad dismisses as “blinkered…with no larger argument and without considerations of causality” (Conrad, 153). Example works for the 19th and 20th centuries abound.

Unless viewed within the sum totality of the human experience, as in the case of deep or big history, human history prior to 1800 yields far fewer meaningfully global studies when compared to the modern era. This is not a complaint, though I admit I am an early-modernist, but an observation I find curious given repeated suggestions that “a genuine global consciousness began to take shape in discrete Eurasian regions in the early modern period” (Conrad, 17). What would early modernists with a global bent do without Sanjay Subrahmanyam to assure us it is possible? Jokes aside, perhaps it is a matter of practical, not theoretical, difficulty, and with time scholars will uncover more of a global early modernity. But how many centuries far back can one reasonably push the paradigm of globality? If only a couple centuries more, then global history begins to resemble a subject matter more so than a methodology.

In addition, however, to the straightforward observation that synchronism offers limited practical application for pre-modern history, I am highly skeptical it has any analytical salience, at least not in the way it is used by global historians of the modern era. I began this piece with a perhaps esoteric critique of the terms synchronic and diachronic for flattening our understanding of time. Their strictly linear perspective can be traced to Enlightenment ideals of progress and deterministic trajectories which in term shaped ideas about history, often in highly politicized forms. And though we now avoid writing history using the language of progress and development, its effects linger in the push to trace the origins of globalization and in our temporal vocabulary with terms such as ‘modern’. Synchronism is not as straightforward as taking account of events that happened at the same time when we consider that time was measured, felt, and understood in countless different ways. Synchronism, and by extension time itself, needs to be historicized.

We take for granted that the year begins on January 1st. Despite Pope Gregory XIII’s monumental efforts to unify Europe’s calendars in the late 16th century, local response to calendar reform was far from uniform. It was not as straightforward as converting from one date to another, because any particular date varied in its local cultural importance (Selfridge-Field, 22). Time was political. The picture becomes even more complicated when one considers the different temporal rhythms of early modern Christendom’s neighbors, for example the Ottomans who employed multiple calendars depending on the administrative context. Just as time passes quicker or slower depending on where you are on earth, information travelled at different speeds and scholars are now exploring when the idea of contemporaneity began to emerge.

By calling for the historicization of time and synchronism, I do not mean to ignore the prodigious efforts already available to us. Fernand Braudel’s longue durée and Reinhart Koselleck’s time structures were crucial steps towards expanding our understanding of plural temporalities, but these are just the beginning. Classic reference texts like Adriano Cappelli’s Cronologia e calendario perpetuo were invaluable keys to synchronize the myriad of calendars from the past and allowed scholars to translate time. But in the process, we have stripped away much of the temporal disorder that characterized pre-modern life in ways we no longer understand. I believe our engagement with historical time is poorer for it. Global history’s penchant for synchronism threatens to take this another step further by eroding the cultural history of time, but if properly historicized, then perhaps synchronism can continue to serve global history as a methodological choice.

Maryam Patton is in the dual History and Middle Eastern Studies PhD program at Harvard University.

What Is Global History?: A JHI Blog Forum

What Is Global History?

By Daoud Jackson

The diverse chapters of Sebastian Conrad’s tightly structured book, What is Global History? do an excellent job capturing some of the essential eclecticism of the field of Global History in its current state. Having myself recently completed a degree in Global and Imperial History, Conrad’s book is the sort of guide which would have been invaluable as a student.

Globalgeschichte: eine Einführung (Munich: C. H. Beck, 2013).

What is Global History?  was originally planned as a translation of his book Globalgeschichte: eine Einführung (Munich: C. H. Beck, 2013). In his acknowledgements, Conrad explains the significance of the changes he has made from his German introduction to the field. From that edition, only two heavily edited chapters survived, a testament, he argues, to how rapidly moving the field is. Equally, however, the need for such serious changes and the adoption of what he calls a “problem-oriented approach” is a response to the sprawling nature of the field. The way in which Conrad structures these responses is not revolutionary but makes thematic sense. After a chapter which seeks to delineate the particular niche in which Global History has been developed, Conrad deals confidently with the integration of structures, space, time, and their relationships with Global History, before ending with a chapter looking at Nelson Goodman’s concept of “world-making” and some of the subsidiary issues it creates for a global historian. Throughout these chapters, Conrad is compelling in his own approach to defining the problems faced by “Global History,” even as he introduces the newcomer to the field to the views of earlier historians. By defining his account of Global History alongside the work of its critics, Conrad shows a deft touch, guiding the reader through a vexed field, rather than simply producing a polemical statement of the discipline’s utility.

Rice fields in Assam, India.

Conrad’s pattern of engagement struck a real chord in terms of the ease with which a student of history might use it to shape work in the realm of global history. My own research—on the relationship between tea and rice cultivation in Assam—would certainly benefit from a connection to the global history of the present moment, and certainly could have been studied in the era before Global History. In this sort of case, Conrad’s “problem-oriented approach” has the clearest utility, in so far as it acknowledges that the adoption of Global History needn’t be universal, and shows how scholars like Kenneth Pomeranz have responded to particular problems of broader historical currency. Conversely, while thinkers like James C. Scott are natural interlocutors in writing about a rural area like Assam, the perspectives of scholars like Nelson Goodman are clearly relevant, but less thoroughly utilized than they ought to be. Conrad’s approach provides a vital impetus in that regard.

Partha Chatterjee

One slight weakness of Conrad’s book is that as he revels in the carnivalesque brightness of the field of global history, he does little to acknowledge the essentially apophatic foundation on which it rests. It seems to me that the slightly disparate strands of Global History presented in What is Global History? are most clearly linked in their shared opposition to historiographic insularity and myopia. Conrad discusses arguments like those of Partha Chatterjee in Chapter 4, but does little to link these strands of dissent into a broader discussion of what has constituted  and constitutes “Global History.” This doesn’t affect the utility of Conrad’s book as an overarching account, nor does it compromise the rigor with which he tackles the task of encapsulating the various facets of so disparate a field, but it does mean that “Global History” is here essentially defined exhaustively, by explaining and summarizing almost all of the possible forms which Global History has taken, rather than providing a single positive or negative statement of the field. If he succeeds where others have failed—by picking one facet of a multiplicious field as the sole correct answer—he does not explore the commonalities between global historical approaches and what their emergence means for the historical field writ large as fully as he might.

The most challenging chapter of What is Global History? is probably Chapter 7, which deals with the issue of time. Conrad confronts the issue of time head-on and flags the potential complications that emerge from expanding the scope of traditional histories— a prime example of where his self-stated “problem-oriented approach” is most clearly mandated. On the other hand, the chapter itself takes perhaps an over-generous interpretation of where “Global History” lies, in drawing in the work of Jared Diamond and David Christian. Where Conrad falls short, in a sense, is in recognizing that the discipline has not yet expanded itself sufficiently to confront these problems; in my opinion, some of the problems which Conrad highlights have been neither confronted nor solved: a thinker of Conrad’s profound capacities would perhaps be better served in suggesting directions for future travel, rather than striving to maintain his book simply as a summary of past work.

These shortcomings of the Global Historical discipline bear a real significance for some of my past research and the future research of others. Having confronted historical problems that spanned both the uplands of South and South-East Asia and explored the relationship between Awadh in northern India and Karbala on the southwest coast, the focus on timescales can sometimes become subsidiary when a clear emphasis is placed on geography. One of the great benefits of the Global Historical approach in this regard is that it allows us to deal with the issues presented across time and geography synchronously. Having reached the conclusion, for example, that the pattern of agricultural development in Assam in the early 20th century had similarities with those in Bengal in the early 19th century, the impetus to draw relationships between a region at different times and between different regions aids historical understanding. At the same time, as we as historians try to unite regions of the globe that haven’t traditionally been linked in historiography, the challenge of synchronizing time periods and making them coherent is especially valuable—a problem Conrad himself has influentially tackled.

Conrad’s summarizing approach is most effective in meeting the challenge of including all of the major figures in what is unquestionably a nebulous field, seemingly without ever straining too greatly to incorporate them into the story he seeks to tell. As a short book that manages to reference all of the great names of Global History, Conrad’s book is unmatched. The eighth chapter, which deals with positionality, exemplifies Conrad’s skill in combining key thinkers into a coherent perspective, first outlining the basic problem before entering into his own argument, making sure to mention key figures like Dipesh Chakrabarty without engulfing a reader new to the field with an immersion in the texts, and keeping the focus on the key issues of the field.

One of the most interesting conclusions Conrad reaches in What is Global History? is that, ultimately, the successful adoption of the maxims of the project of Global History may well lead to the abandonment of the term “global” entirely. In ending on this note, Conrad chooses to emphasize the key methodological aim of Global History as a transformation of the geographical frames which structure the problems of history. Much of the rest of the book should be understood in this light; for Conrad, the primary shift is to change the geographical lens which historians use, in favor of one which more closely aligns with the realities of the problems they are facing. Further changes in perspective or time period are in some sense a consequences of this foundational shift, adjustments needed to maintain an internal coherence. This perspective, and the book as a whole, are to be highly recommended, as both a spur to action and as a work of reference.

Daoud Jackson received a B.A. in History and an M.St. in Global and Imperial History from the University of Oxford.