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World history includes attempts to construct histories concerned with the evolution of humankind that are intellectually inclusive (no discipline or approach to the subject is ruled out); unbounded by geographies, let-alone national frontiers and resolutely unfettered by established chronologies for the construction of European, American, African, Asian, or other national histories. This research paper elaborates upon the long historiographical tradition of the writing of global history, explains why a renaissance of that tradition is now clearly underway, deals with mainstream and postmodern objectives to the field, and elaborates upon two distinct approaches that exemplify and categorize the increasing flow of modern publications labeled as global history.
- Historiographical Traditions
- Globalization and the Revival of World History
- Traditional, Postmodern, and Global Histories
- Current Paradigms: Connections and Comparisons
- Comparative Histories of Gender and Material Progress
World history (or global history) includes attempts to construct histories concerned with the evolution of humankind that are intellectually inclusive (no discipline or approach to the subject is ruled out); unbounded by geographies, let-alone national frontiers and resolutely unfettered by established chronologies for the construction of European, American, African, Asian, or other national histories. This research paper elaborates upon the long historiographical tradition of the writing of global history, explains why a renaissance of that tradition is now clearly underway, deals with mainstream and postmodern objectives to the field, and elaborates upon two distinct approaches that exemplify and categorize the increasing flow of modern publications labeled as global history.
Global histories have been written since Herodotus (495–425 BCE), whose cosmopolitan concerns were commended by Cicero but deplored by Thucydides – who opined that Greeks had no business investigating alien mythologies, religions, customs, and traditions. History writing, Thucydides suggested, should be modeled upon his own study of the Peloponnesian Wars – sharper in focus, shorter in time horizons, based upon verified facts, and prescriptive in purpose. Fortunately, Herodotus ignored his ‘Eurocentric’ advice and ranged widely beyond the Hellenic world to include Egypt, India, Babylonia, Arabia, and Persia in his histories in order ‘to preserve the memory of the past by placing on record the astonishing achievements both of our own and of the Asiatic peoples.’ He used oral testimony, archeological remains as well as written sources and imposed some chronology and order on streams of events that had occurred on several continents and over long spans of time. His (still popular) book ends in ‘European triumphalism.’ Its story turns into celebration of the victories of the Greek polis (especially Athens) over the Persian Empire, which Herodotus represented as a conflict between occident and orient, despotism and freedom.
Global historians applaud Herodotus for his reflexive interest in barbarian virtues and regret the long hiatus that occurred in the writing of secular world histories until Voltaire and his generation carried the project forward again during those brief decades of Enlightenment, before the outbreak of the French Revolution. They are puzzled, however, to observe that with the exception of a few Stoics (Diodorus, Polybius, and Dionysius) and a handful of geographers and ethnographers (Strabo, Ptolemy, and Pliny), histories of the world did not attract more scholars writing during Graeco-Roman times. Although they lived in empires that maintained contact with an array of cultures (African, Arabian, Persian, Indian, and Chinese), historians of the classical era remained overwhelmingly concerned with Europe. Their histories (e.g., Tacitus) deal mainly with the politics and scandals of Rome, or (e.g., Thucydides) with wars among Greeks. Their equally provincial oriental contemporaries, residing in that celestial empire on the other side of the world, asserted with quintessentially Chinese superiority that they remained unimpressed with anything the Romans had to impart, or to trade for, China’s silks, ceramics, medicines, perfumes, and spices.
In Europe, steps in an ecumenical direction occurred when Christian and Jewish historians started their narratives with the Creation and set out to ensure that Greeks and Romans should not be left (in the words of Josephus) ‘as the arrogant possessors of antiquity.’ That was why Orosius (a student of St. Augustine) proclaimed that “The Roman Empire arose in the west but was nourished in the east.” Narratives in Christian historiography are dominated by chronicles about the evolution of mankind over stages of history, no longer bounded by the frontiers or cultures of the Greco-Roman world. In 1158, Bishop Otto of Freising recognized that “all human power and learning had its origins in the East.” Medieval historians included Oriental and African civilizations right down to the Reformation when Catholic and Protestant intellectuals began to look for a usable past to help princes to integrate populations and secure the frontiers required for the formation of nation states. Even then both parties to Europe’s conflict over religion and national identities remained aware of places, peoples, and cultures not merely outside the borders of their enclosed and ideologically encompassing polities, but beyond Christendom itself, and that is hardly surprising.
Residing on an underdeveloped promontory on the western edge of the great Eurasian landmass, with ice to the north, uncharted oceans and territory to the west, and the hostile power of Islamic communities to the south and east, Europeans had not secured their frontiers, religions, cultures, and technological superiority over other civilizations, long before the eighteenth century. It took centuries to clear the Iberian peninsular of Arab power. Moslem fleets threatened European shipping in the Mediterranean for another two centuries after the surrender of Grenada. Turkish armies crossed into the Balkans in 1350, took Constantinople in 1453, and menaced Vienna as late as 1683. For nearly 1000 years after the fall of Rome, Christendom braced its defenses, imported useful knowledge, shaped its collective identity, and composed ideologically charged histories in the context of conflicts (and encounters) with the powerful civilization of Islam on all its frontiers. Memoirs, travelogs, diplomatic correspondence, and investigations into Arabic medicine and astronomy, together with commercial intelligence on societies under Ottoman dominion, flowed from east to west. Much of this knowledge came through Genoa, Florence, and Venice, along with spices, herbs, sugar, botanical drugs, jewels, chinaware, silks, cottons, and metal goods, imported through the Middle East, from India and China. The expense of procuring and transporting luxuries moving slowly, over long distances and subject to extortionate charges for protection along the way, prompted Europeans to seek ways to surmount the barriers to commerce with South Asia and the Far East by their Islamic enemies.
Shortly after the voyages of discovery, Europeans broke out of their political, commercial, and mental encirclement by Islam. Over the sixteenth century, flows of information into Europe widened to include the Americas, and increased exponentially as a result of the establishment of regular and direct trade and contacts by sea with India, China, South-East Asia, and Africa. Yet nearly two and a half centuries elapsed before Europeans produced a secular and enlightened school of world historians. Its godfather was Voltaire, who composed a history concerned with “only that which is worth knowing; the spirit, the customs, the practices of the principal nations based on facts which one cannot ignore.” Voltaire and his followers in France, the Netherlands, Scotland, Naples, Germany, and other parts of Europe deliberately constructed histories of their expanding world in ways which they conceived as a departure from the providential narratives of their clerical predecessors and the ‘nationalism’ of historians writing for princes and their obedient subjects. That aspiration was propitious. As a result of regular contacts and commerce, the trickle of information about peoples, geographies, technologies, politics, warfare, customs, manners, and the import of all sorts of commodities and artifacts turned into a river of knowledge about places, populations, societies, and economies beyond Europe. For radical intellectuals, China became an alternative model, favorably contrasted with Europe’s political systems, social arrangements, and religious beliefs. European histories became not only wider but also deeper as scholarship took over from propaganda, sycophancy, fantasy, religion, and national ideologies.
For something like half a century before the French Revolution and the takeover of India and South-East Asia, European historians resituated Europe’s and Christendom’s place in world history by including more ancient as well as classical Mediterranean civilizations and by widening their gaze to take China, India, and Japan as well as the newly discovered Americas into account. Europe’s new school of world historians dealt with the natural histories, religions, and ethnographies of most parts of an increasingly interrelated universe. Favorable interpretations of oriental polities, societies, cultures, and religions by philosophers and physiocrats did not go unchallenged. Bernier and Leibniz, Montesquieu, Defoe, Winckelman, and Hume remained resolutely unimpressed with the Chinese empire. Nevertheless historians of that era engaged in debates about cultures, geographies, and spans of time that their modern counterparts (confronted with libraries of knowledge and professional interpretations) can only envy.
Alas, the ironic reflection that their narratives of Enlightenment brought to the task of repositioning Europe in a secular history of the world was overshadowed by a tradition of Western triumphalism which emerged in the aftermath of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, 1789–1815 when Europeans acquired massive additions to the populations, territories, and natural resources of other continents under direct or informal control. During an ‘imperial meridian,’ European naval and military superiority over the states and societies of other continents emerged as irresistible. Furthermore, by 1825, European settlers throughout the Americas and the South Pacific had escaped from all metropolitan and aristocratic restraints upon their economic activities and their relations with the indigenous peoples of colonized worlds. White settlers became free to exploit ‘their’ heritage under rules of their own making, tempered only by religion. As its technological and economic lead over other continents widened, Europe moved clearly onto a path which led, as time went on, to clear divergences in levels of productivity and living standards between East and West and North and South.
Against this background, the writing of history by Europeans departed from its moment of cosmopolitan enlightenment, moved in a Hegelian direction, and returned to the introspection and cultural arrogance associated with imperial Rome. Here and there, aspirations to write universal histories survived. Isolated scholars eschewed the condescensions embodied in the nineteenth century science, technology, liberalism, and colonialism, and a scatter of historians continued to work outside the encompassing national frameworks, and dominant teleologies associated with the rise, rationality, and hegemony of Europe. Nevertheless, it took the destruction and cultural shock of two world wars in the twentieth century to encourage a return to the rewriting of histories of mankind. That program, conducted by a small group of erudite scholars, began in the climate of pessimism and breakdown in the liberal consensus that followed the Great War, when Spengler, Toynbee, Sorokin, Wells, Mumford, and Dawson wrote universal histories of humanity to help Europeans comprehend the decline and barbarity of the West. In history, they attempted to find some substitute for Neitzche’s proclaimed demise of Christianity and rationality. Their scholarship is inspiring, but their explicit search for spiritual meanings in the histories of the rather amorphous entities called ‘civilizations’ did become a compelling framework for scholars and students to work within. The attempt by UNESCO, after the World War II, to fund the writing of a multivolume collaborative history of the world (designed to promote peace across nation states) failed to provide a paradigm for the reconstruction of secular of histories on an ecumenical scale. Long after the war, historical scholarship continued to be located where its founders had situated it from the time of the Renaissance and Reformation onwards – namely, within the confines, chronologies, and parameters established for comprehending the origins and evolution of European (including North American and Australasian) societies and nation states.
Globalization and the Revival of World History
Fortunately pockets of global history survived – notably at the universities of Chicago, Northwestern, and Leipzig. Complementary branches of scholarship continued to flourish in the forms of survey courses in Western civilization; area studies, histories of trade and imperialism, investigations into the impact Western technology and culture upon other peoples and above all, as flows of encyclopedias, chronicles, and textbooks for schools and popular education concerned with the world as a whole. Thus, ‘tribes’ of professional historians with interests in fields that transcended nation states and Europe possessed the credentials and remained ready to refashion their intellectual identities, when demands for global history reappeared from the late 1970s onwards. That revival could be retraced to canonical publications by M. Hodgson, W. McNeill, and L. Stavrianos, but research and teaching has only matured into university programs for the sustained study of world history over the past quarter of a century of ‘globalization.’ Although there is nothing particularly new about the current phase of economic integration and interdependence, which are the core features covered by that label. Long-distance trade goes back millennia to prehistory, and the exchange of commodities across frontiers and overseas had always involved arrangements for counterpart flows of funds, conversions of currencies, and the operation of transnational, commercial, and financial organizations of a more or less sophisticated kind within and across Europe, Africa, and Asia.
Nevertheless, real discontinuities had occurred. For example, by the late nineteenth century, supported by steam-powered ships and trains, the volume of commodities and services traded across national borders, continental boundaries, and oceans had increased dramatically compared to 1800. Commerce was promoted and sustained by movements of capital, migrations of labor, and transfers of technology and information around the world on an unprecedented scale and at ever-increasing speeds. Political impediments to international flows of exports, imports, money, credit, capital, labor, technology, and information diminished sharply during the liberal international order that prevailed between 1846 and 1914.
State controls revived again during nearly four decades of neomercantilism that succeeded World War I; when governments everywhere sought to insulate their domestic economies from inflows and outflows of commodities, from the emigration of their nation’s capital and skilled labor, and from fluctuations associated with unregulated rates of exchange. In the interests of narrowly defined national competitive advantages and political stability, sovereign states proceeded to delink economies from participation in an evolving global economy. Between 1914 and 1948, overall levels of world trade fluctuated in volume, but ceased to grow. Warfare and political regulations depressed movements of capital and labor across frontiers. Controls on the convertibility of currencies hampered international exchanges of every kind.
Normalcy returned after World War II when a discernible shift toward liberalism in the political and legal framework for commerce among nations was also promoted by even more radical improvements in new technologies for the transportation of goods and people across space and time; and by vastly more efficient communications systems for the widespread diffusion of commercial intelligence, messages, and cultural information between distant locations and separated populations. Revolutions in transport, television, and communications widened markets and created opportunities for the organization of transcontinental and multinational business across an expanding range of production, distribution, finance, and commerce.
Unsurprisingly, the implications of ‘globalization’ for hitherto separated communities, bounded spaces, distinctive cultures, partially connected local economies, and nominally sovereign states have been analyzed by social scientists. Intensified demands have appeared for historians to supply perspective on trends toward integration – that often appear to economists, political scientists, sociologists, and philosophers (as well as natural scientists) to represent profound discontinuities in the ways that ubiquitous technological, economic, and cultural forces are clearly shaping our interconnected world. This demand is supported by Western governments, uneasily aware that their powers to control societies, nominally under their rule, are transforming their claims to effective sovereignty over the populations, territories, and assets within their borders into something more tenuous than used to be the case during the long era of competing nation states. Their anxieties (eloquently fostered by ‘official’ intellectuals) have been compounded by recent military, technological, and economic achievements of several Asian societies, especially Japan and, the ‘Tigers’ but latterly (and more significantly) by the reawakening of China. The rest are perceived to be catching up and modern mercantilists (who continue to conceive the world in terms of winners and losers or clashes of civilizations) worry about the relative decline of Western hegemony. Politicians and publics turn to historians for explanations of the past and more reassuring predictions of the future.
National frameworks for political action and academic enquiry are now widely recognized as unsatisfactory. That comprehension is patently functional for natural sciences investigating environmental issues, for biological sciences concerned with the health of human populations, and for social sciences analyzing international relations, crime, migration, communications, and whole ranges of economic activity, which can no longer be regulated within the boundaries of nation states. It is also clear that national and local cultures are being subverted by advertising, by fashion, and by the popular arts, especially music. The means and media of modern transportation, travel, and communications (cheap and available to the masses) are opening up cosmopolitan discourses (usually in English) that contribute to the reshaping of personal identities around the world and transform frameworks for behavior, especially among younger generations.
Traditional, Postmodern, and Global Histories
Pressures to make, write, and teach histories of the world that might become more contemporary and relevant has encouraged the discipline to become less intellectually, politically, spatially, and chronologically confined. They are intensifying, seem irresistible, and are being welcomed as a return to the ecumenical programs of Herodotus, Vico, Voltaire, Leibniz, and von Ranke who opined “there is no history but universal history as it really was.”
Intellectual arguments for resituating national and European histories into frameworks that might better address the problems of the new century have been persuasively rehearsed by proselytizers for global history in recent years – as indeed have their antitheses – recommendations to concentrate attention upon microhistories of difference, diversity, and a stance of humility toward the complex histories of ‘unknowable others.’ That postmodern exhortation is understandably suffused with a concern that the revival of global history will implicitly celebrate ‘triumphs of the West’ in science, technology, military power, and economic development. Unfortunately that has already occurred in several recent publications by journalists and even by historians whose pretensions to offer overviews of world history seem truncated in time, confined in space, and selective in areas of social endeavor emphasized for recognition as universal achievements; and whose understanding of environmental, biological, and other natural constraints on human action look unscientific.
As humanistic scholarship, global history aims to mature into a renaissance and not a return to the arrogance of Rome or to Victorian triumphalism. Modern history has matured into a capaciously catholic subject, willing to take many kinds of hitherto myopic exclusions into its narratives, to reposition knowledge of the past into more relevant spaces, models, and chronologies, and to plunder the natural and social sciences (as well as archeological remains) for insights into the evolving human condition. In finding voices and viewpoints to construct histories on a global scale, historians (alive to the second cosmopolitan enlightenment that emerged during the closing years of an otherwise dark twentieth century) have not found it difficult to detach their narratives from another politically correct but romanticized appeasement of the underprivileged on one hand, or from the implicit denigration of non-Western people and cultures that flows from Eurocentric convergence and modernization theory on the other.
In an ongoing search for strategies to teach and write compelling histories on a global scale, they will respect the preferences of their colleagues, whose postmodern anxieties about their capacities to comprehend ‘others’ or to offer plausible conjectures and metanarratives about major trends and significant events, leads them toward dense description, microhistories, and biography. Such flowers should certainly bloom, but the intellectual effort required to landscape the garden also demands attention and imagination from historians.
Global historians confront more challenging intellectual problems in trying to persuade the majority of their academic colleagues (writing bounded histories and bunkered in the security of national archives) that their attempts to write on a global scale could meet the standards of a discipline deeply concerned with detail and documentation that discourages generalization beyond strictly confined geographies and periods. Having rejected Toynbee’s quest for spiritual guidance as a tenable mission, global historians tend to make a general case behind arresting metaphors extolling the need for histories constructed as ‘maps on the largest scale,’ as ‘photographs taken through the lenses of wide-angled cameras,’ as ‘architectural frameworks’ and ‘as views; contemplated from space.’ Many contend that the boundaries and chronologies of parish, let alone national or continental histories seem equally problematical to define. Nevertheless, coming as most do, as recognized specialists in but one or two fields of history, global historians remain conscious of their credentials and are entirely sensitive to their epistemological vulnerability. It continues to be much easier to conduct research, claim territory, and acquire status as national or local historians.
Current Paradigms: Connections and Comparisons
Nevertheless, historiographical and methodological discussion as well as the volume of publications (off- and online) has increased exponentially. Most of the bibliography is concerned with connections and comparisons across national frontiers and cultural boundaries. Most of it displays a scientifically informed appreciation of evolutionary environmental and biological constraints on all forms of human activity, and represents a welcome reunification of natural and human history. Celebrated and influential books display a talent for the construction of synoptic histories about matters that have been important for humanity as a whole. As more historians risk writing on a grand scale, the field looks set to produce plausible, but competing metanarratives into which the overwhelming flow of parish, regional, and national histories could be reconnected.
Meanwhile two distinct approaches have already been developed. First (and central) is the model, persuasively exemplified and elaborated in several books by McNeill. He has inspired a program of historical investigation into connections across continents, countries, and geographies as well as through very long spans of time. McNeill’s assumption is that such connections, interactions, encounters, and contacts with outsiders can be represented as the origins and engine of economic, social, political, military, cultural, religious, technological, and all other conceivable types of change studied by historians; and that connection can be pursued with scholarly detachment and a proper appreciation of the long chronologies required to construct histories that aim to select and analyze major forces at work in the evolution of humanity, McNeill’s recommendations aim to avoid the condescension of cultures, the restrictions of time, and the arrogance of nations built into currently dominant styles of history. His (and Crosby’s) books show that ‘interactions’ were often malign: the spread of plagues, diseases, and parasites; those waves of destructive invasions by nomads; wars of conquest, plunder, and imperial expansion; forcible conversions to alien systems of religious belief; and the subversion of indigenous traditions, cultures, societies, and communities by strangers have been part of the universal experience of suffering.
Well-specified types of connection can be investigated over significant periods of contact and transformation. Its taxonomical divisions include trade, investment, warfare, religion, migrations, transfers of useful knowledge, technological diffusion, botanical exchanges, and the spread of diseases. Proper attention is also accorded to the means of transportation and modes of communication that secured, facilitated, and cheapened contacts by sea, land, and latterly by air. Once a relevant range of major connections are traced, understood, and their significance evaluated global history will broaden our education and provide the spatial and chronological perspectives required for the appreciation of the histories of nations, peoples, localities, and groups embodied within particular histories that the majority of their colleagues study in greater depth and sophistication, but too often in isolation.
Put simply, the second major approach extends geographical catchment areas for comparative histories of topics that could be the subject of illuminating study across national boundaries, continents, and separable cultures. Although the linguistic qualifications for such research are extremely difficult to acquire, and the scholarship needed to make sense of contrasts discovered is formidable, the methodological problems are similar to those encountered for exercises conducted within European, national, or indeed regional frameworks.
Comparative history helps scholars to surmount the complexity and tyranny of local detail and seeks to offer coherent but sensitive answers to a great variety of questions that historians select for investigation. For global historians, the illumination derived from the method tends to be realized when they can concentrate upon well-defined artifacts, institutions, organizations, social practices, attitudes, and beliefs that are found in dispersed cultures, and which have already been studied in scholarly depth, in the context of particular locations and which exhibit comparable, but, more importantly, dissimilar geographical economic, political, social, and other features. Then, as Marc Bloch anticipated, the “comparative method can elicit from the chaotic multiplicity of circumstances those contrasts which were generally effective.”
In order to communicate salient differences, global historians will be tempted to aggregate and average contrasts across wider spaces and larger populations (continents, oceans, and civilizations) than their colleagues who have the sources to engage in exercises in comparative history within circumscribed boundaries. For purposes of research, designed as building blocks for the production of metanarratives that are truly universal, the comparative method looks set to dominate the field for years to come. It has, for example, already generated a bibliography of global histories concerned with the family, youth, marriage, diet, housing, health, military organization, government, human rights, parliaments, nationalism, religions, fundamentalism, and revolutions, and there are serious debates on two seminal topics: gender and long-run economic growth.
Comparative Histories of Gender and Material Progress
Gender is perhaps the quintessential ‘analytical category’ for purposes of universal social history and it interacts with other categories including class, ethnicity, race, nation citizenship, and colonialism for purposes of constructing world histories that ‘keep humanity in view.’ Yet no surprise will be occasioned by the appearance in recent decades of histories seeking to encompass the world economy – going way back in time and written to expound and to explain the disparate levels of material progress achieved by countries, societies, and communities located on all continents. Most people, in most places for most of history, have been preoccupied with obtaining food, shelter, clothing, and other manufactured artifacts that they required to sustain a basic, a comfortable, and, only latterly, an agreeable standard of living.
A modern generation of historians is resituating the scientific, technological, and economic achievements of Western societies in global context. They call upon libraries of books and articles dealing with African and Asian agricultures, industries, towns, commercial networks, communications, trade, science, technologies, cultures, business organization, taxation, state systems, Government policies, etc., covering the last millennium and written in large part by historians from universities not long emancipated from imperial rule. This enormous, but still far from comprehensive, volume of historical research has, moreover, been communicated to the West by specialists in area studies from North American, European, Australian, and Japanese universities. Not long after World War II and during an era of decolonization, historians were offered the opportunity – provided by the accumulation of a large body of archival knowledge – long available in Europe and North America, but emerging in Asia, the Middle East and Africa and Latin America – to reposition their hitherto disconnected histories of wealth and poverty one against another in order to construct global histories of material progress that might have satisfied the aspirations of Montesquieu, Voltaire, Smith, and their ‘enlightened’ followers, and pleased Max Weber.
Recent attempts to survey this monographic literature have been dominated by scholars from Western universities. Syntheses from China, Japan, India, Africa, and the Near East would be a salutary correction to what is a plural but nevertheless European perspective. Meanwhile, scholars have carried forward a Weberian program for teaching and writing a truly global history of material progress. They have found that the quantitative evidence for such purposes would certainly not be regarded as sufficient to underpin a serious program of historical research designed to account for long-term economic success and retardation among the national economies of Western Europe, North America, and Australasia. In the absence of hard data or even of an acceptable range of contemporary observations (which could be included in a narrative designed to track chronologies of divergence in productivities and living standards between Europe and Asia), global histories of material progress continued to be marred – by three powerful Marxist and Weberian assumptions. First, that Europe’s technological and economic superiority over Asia (which became first visible in the eighteenth century and then unmistakable during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries) had evolved gradually, but cumulatively, over several centuries before 1815. Over that time, Europe’s political, legal, cultural, and institutional heritage for the conduct of economic activity continued to be exceptionally favorable for the promotion, first, of Smithian growth, and, following on from that, for technological progress. Third (and in contrast to Europe), other populations lived and worked in more hostile environments and this big ecological fact restrained and often arrested long-term economic development in Asia and Africa – although our knowledge of precolonial African economies remains entirely thin.
Those who follow Weber, Marx, and a tradition of writing that can be tracked back to Montesquieu insist that Europe’s competing economies had been on a potentially more promising trajectory for long-run growth for centuries. They emphasize persistent contrasts between European and Asian institutional arrangements, political systems, legal frameworks, cultural conditioning, and religious beliefs, within which economic activities continued to be embedded for at least four centuries before 1815. Cruder Weberians juxtapose the preconditions for long-run Smithian growth that they found operating efficiently in Europe (or rather in some societies in north western Europe) in sharp contrast to Asia, where political, social, familial, cultural, and other negative institutions and beliefs restrained the emergence of competitive markets for commodities, capital, land, and labor.
Their critics, who seem more deeply and widely read in the now massive bibliography of economic and social history dealing with South, East, and South-East Asia, and the Ottoman Empire, have produced samples of data (related largely to population growth, levels of urbanization, balances of commodity trade, yields per hectare and real wages) for selected regions of Asia and the Middle East that at the very least qualify any impression that labor productivity levels and standards of living afforded by European economies to their populations were discernibly (let alone significantly) superior long before the outbreak of the French Revolution. Of course, at this level of ‘continental’ aggregation, the selection of samples of data for comparative history remains problematical because the Asian economy includes much larger shares of the world’s cultivable land, resources, income, and population than early modern Europe.
Nevertheless, economic historians are a long way from offering statistically secure comparisons for average levels of productivity and living standards. Meanwhile, the accumulating volume of research now available on Asian agricultures, industries, trades, credit systems, mercantile enterprise, transportation networks, markets for commodities, and factors of production degrades simplistic Weberian perceptions that Europe alone had evolved the political, institutional, legal, cultural, and religious frameworks required for an effective process of Smithian growth long before other continents into dubious propositions. As Marshal Hodgson observed decades ago, “All attempts to invoke premodern seminal traits in the occident can be shown to fail under close historical analysis.” Braudel, Chaudhuri, Frank, Pomeranz, Goldstone, McNeil, Sugihara, Washbrook, and other historians of long-run material change concur. Jones would probably (as he did in Growth Recurring, 1988) continue to revise and reformulate some of the positions he adopted in the first edition of the European Miracle in 1981. From his comparisons of levels and types of development achieved by Europe and Asia for the early modern period, Braudel inferred that “the populated regions of the world faced with demands of numbers seem to us to be quite close to each other.” But there is he continued “a historiographical inequality between Europe and the rest of the world. Europe invented historians and made good use of them. Her own history is well lit and can be called as evidence or used as claim. The history of non-Europe is still being written. And until the balance of knowledge and interpretation has been restored the historian will be reluctant to cut the Gordian knot of world history.”
That acute observation applies across the entire field because histories of gender and capitalism are but two current areas of controversy that display the unrealized potential of universal history. In truth, it seems difficult to conceive of any grand theme that attracts attention from scholars engaged in writing national and local histories that could not be repositioned within wider geographies and longer temporal periods. For purposes of research, teaching, and debate, comparisons and connections are now the two dominant styles of global history. Pursued with sensitivity, they should deepen our understanding of difference and diversity. In time, they will meet demands for perspective from those trying to comprehend accelerated trends toward interdependence and integration on a world scale and allow for a less ethnocentric appreciation of the manifold achievements of more peoples, communities, and cultures over long spans of human history.
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