In Defense of Global History

tags: global history



Marc-William Palen is Lecturer in Imperial & Global History at University of Exeter, Research Associate in U.S. Foreign Policy at the University of Sydney's U.S. Studies Centre, and is the editor of the Imperial & Global Forum.

A recent New Republic article by David A. Bell on the limitations of the ‘global turn’ has been making the rounds this month, and deservedly so. Bell’s article reviews Emily Rosenberg’s 2012 edited volume A World Connecting: 1870-1945. [1] Nestled within it, however, is a much larger critique of the global historiographical shift toward ‘networks’ and ‘globalization’.

Bell’s criticisms are provocative. They are eloquent.

But are they fair? Let’s take a look.

Bell begins by describing the ‘global turn’:

It has not been enough simply to study the way Western powers have affected the rest of the world -- a venerable subject. The task has also been to show how the rest of the world affected the West; how ideas and practices flowed back and forth in a constant flux of appropriation, transformation, and resistance; how the oppression of the strong met the “weapons of the weak”; and how history’s repressed “subaltern” can be made to speak . . . how, even in the relatively distant past, global patterns of movement, exchange, exploitation, and aggression shaped phenomena that historians once saw as purely local. And it has been a matter of applying, even to quite distant historical periods, the controlling metaphor of the digital age: the ‘network.’


So far, so good.

Bell also cedes that this global turn retains the ability to open ‘up remarkable new perspectives on the past.’ As an example, he refers to how seemingly national histories have been enriched through the use of a broader historical vantage point, one that has since connected the French and American revolutions with that of the African slave trade and Caribbean slave revolts at the end of the eighteenth century, as exemplified in the fine work of Laurent Dubois. Bell then suggests that ‘the “global turn” has very rightly insisted that histories of the French Revolution take these events fully into account,’ and that the same global turn ‘has done similar things for many other subjects.’

Now it’s worth pausing for a second to consider whether Bell’s own example outlined above is in fact illustrative of global history.As Bruce Mazlish and Akira Iriye explain, global history ‘focuses on the theme of globalization that runs through the history of the past.’[2] But that is not really what Bell’s example depicts. More accurately, it is that of ‘Atlantic history’ – a dynamic field of study encompassing the Atlantic region that gained in popularity throughout the 1980s and 1990s -- rather than the even broader (geographically at least) global historical turn of the twenty first century.

Such definitional differences are crucial -- and their confusion within Bell’s article raises further questions. Why, for instance, does Bell claim that C. A. Bayly ‘found it difficult to bring whole continents and oceans together into a coherent story’ in his powerful global history The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914? Well, apparently it was Bayly’s page count that most ably explains this difficulty, with Bayly spending ‘only two and a half pallid pages’ on explaining ‘the motors of change’. (This issue of page-counting as criticism will arise again in due course.)

Has ‘global history’ become a buzzword, with publishers churning ‘out encyclopaedias, manuals, handbooks, and dictionaries of global history faster than anyone can keep track, let alone read,’ as Bell claims? Indeed, ‘global history’ has been so over-used and so under-defined that, much like ‘globalization’ and ‘network,’ it is fast running the risk of becoming meaningless. One major reason for the term’s unseemly popularity, however, stems from its frequent conflation with other historical approaches such as, say, Atlantic history.

Bell does grant that The World Connecting is what it claims to be: a global history of the period 1870 to 1945. It is not the global history of the period, it should be noted, nor does it claim to be. After all, what history book could possibly provide a truly comprehensive history of, well, just about any subject?

And it is here that the vast majority of Bell’s criticisms of the volume -- and of global history -- are unfair, as he seems to expect the impossible from The World Connecting: that is, a comprehensive global historical study of the period 1870-1945. Admittedly, he grants that each chapter contains global connections, fine syntheses, and a wide range of source material on the subthemes of exchange, movement, coercion, resistance, and cooperation.  He then gives a succinct summary of the individual chapters and praises the contributors for their wide-ranging ‘insights about global connections and networks’. But he thereafter takes the massive tome of 1,161 pages to task for neglecting other connections. ‘A remarkable amount is absent as well,’ he writes. For example, he points to how

readers of the book will learn far more here about postal systems, telegraphs, and telephones than about the ideas transmitted through them. Perhaps nothing in the period between 1870 and 1945 created more intense international solidarities than socialist ideas – ‘workers of the world, unite!’ was nothing if not a call for global connection.


And yet, Bell observes, ‘Rosenberg’s chapter has barely four pages’ on socialism. Here again, page numbers appear to matter a great deal to Bell – apparently even more than the substance within them. And yet aren’t historians often able to transmit an impressive amount of information and analysis in but a handful of pages? In this very New Republic article under discussion, for instance, Bell himself utilizes ‘barely’ six pages to analyse both a 1,100-plus-page edited book and the history profession’s ‘global turn’. Furthermore, Rosenberg’s spending any amount of pages on socialism within the text strongly suggests that the subject was not in absentia.

Bell’s criticisms of other such allegations of substantive absentmindedness prove similarly problematic. That is, Bell discusses how he might have structured the themes differently, or how he might have included certain subjects more prominently (like Winston Churchill, warfare, and socialism). He even goes on to suggest that more essays should have been included in this weighty tome, even though it would have meant ‘stretching an already massive volume to the literal breaking point.’

And yet, seemingly at odds with Bell’s criticism for all that was ‘absent’, he then goes on to criticize the book for cramming ‘so much information into such a small space’ and for illustrating ‘every argument with a long string of examples drawn from across the globe.’ It is mystifying indeed to see how a global historical text’s use of globe-spanning examples ‘contributes to the problem’, especially after having just taken the same book to task for not including enough examples.

Bell’s broader problems with (and proposed solutions for) the ‘global turn’ are also worth considering.

First, owing to their ‘vast scales’, do global histories tend to give less attention to the individual? To some degree yes. However, a micro-historical approach (an alternative approach Bell suggests) to A World Connecting would have created insurmountable hurdles to accomplishing the book’s stated goals. Moreover, it would have left the book open to even greater criticism from those looking for what would invariably have been left out.

Second, is it difficult to write global histories that contain a ‘single, overarching argument’? Absolutely. The scale and scope of global historical work is daunting. Global histories therefore do often tend toward complexity and contradiction instead. But does one approach inherently outweigh the other? Some historians prefer a nuanced thesis, even if it means sacrificing the easy readability of a more cohesive narrative.

And of course the latter approach contains its own pitfalls. As a case and point, Bell’s very example of the global connectivity

of socialist ideology notably leaves out how this same global ideological spread simultaneously fostered social, political, and geopolitical conflict throughout the world, culminating in the Cold War. As A. G. Hopkins put it in Global History (2006), globalization contains both ‘homogenizing tendencies’ and ‘heterogeneous consequences’. [3] Accordingly, a global history of the spread of socialism should incorporate both sides of the ideological story -- the connectivity and the conflict -- even if it means sacrificing a stronger (and likely less accurate) overarching argument.

In conclusion, the New Republic review article, while containing salient points on the difficulties of writing global history, ironically ends up falling into some of the same semantic pitfalls that it decries. Does A World Connecting have its weaknesses? Of course. But it is unfair to take such an impressive volume to task primarily for what it may have left out (while at the same time criticizing it for including too much within!) -- especially when the volume has admirably taken on the enormous task of tackling myriad aspects of global history over a large swath of time; and especially when it tackles so many of the goals it explicitly set out to accomplish.

Even more, it is misleading to suggest that what ends up ‘absent’ in such a tome somehow illuminates the limitations of global history -- when it does quite the opposite. As Anne Foster put it amid an excellent H-Diplo roundtable review of the book:

We look to this volume for answers to many of the questions which vex us regarding how to think about the relation of ‘global history’ to the smaller bits of history which each of us claims some mastery over.  Inevitably, no one volume can answer these questions and indeed perhaps the best such a volume can do is raise the best new questions for us to explore.


Or to quote Erez Manela, another H-Diplo reviewer:

The present volume can serve well as a vessel to sail for a while down the treacherous rapids of this historiographical current. But there is still quite a way to go down this particular river, and it is not yet entirely clear whether it is safe harbor or a crashing waterfall that awaits us just over the horizon.


In other words, the very gaps inherent within such a massive work of global history as The World Connecting only further illustrate how the ‘global turn’ proffers boundless new avenues for historical enquiry.

Works Cited

[1] Rosenberg’s ground-breaking work on the history of late nineteenth and twentieth-century U.S. foreign relations, culture, and globalization needs little introduction. See, for instance, Spreading the American Dream: American Economic & Cultural Expansion 1890-1945 (Hill and Wang, 1982); and Financial Missionaries to the World: The Politics and Culture of Dollar Diplomacy, 1900-1930 (Duke University Press, 2003).

[2] Bruce Mazlish and Akira Iriye, eds., The Global History Reader (Routledge, 2005), 11.

[3] A. G. Hopkins, Global History: Interactions between the Universal and the Local (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 6. See also Mazlish and Iriye, ed., Global History Reader, 6.




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