In 1990, as Director of the Institute of Historical Research (IHR), I convened the Institute's first ever seminar in global history, to the amusement of my colleagues. Predictably that seminar began and continued by discussing a then rather short list of famous books locatable in this new field: Wirtfogel, McNeill, Braudel, Hodgson, Wallerstein, Gellner, Jones, Hall and Mann were in print; Landes, Frank, Goody, Bin Wong and Pomeranz soon published their controversial theses comparing Europe with Asia.(1)
Shortly after my retirement as Director I was invited back to the London School of Economics (LSE) to help the department of economic history set up the first ever master's degree for this subject in the kingdom. This degree is advertised as global history, but (as you might expect from a group of economic historians) with credentials that cover Europe, the Americas, Africa, China, India and Japan, the course is in effect an integrated programme focused upon the long-run history of 'material life'.
The syllabus was designed for graduate students to study what is (perhaps) the mega problem of our times: namely, when or why some societies (located largely in the West and North of our modern world) became and remain affluent, while the majority of the world's seven billion people who reside in countries (to the East and the South) are still poor. Demarcated into component courses the degree takes on board a range of themes that underpin most modern meta-narratives in histories of the world focused on environments, states, geopolitics, religions, cultures, gender, diseases and of course economic change.
Unsurprisingly, the design of an innovative degree brought the entire problem onto the table of how 'professional historians' (obsessed, as most of us are, with erudition, detail and archives) could read, teach, write and undertake research upon a 'global scale' – unconfined by space and time. In short, could this unavoidably relevant, increasingly fashionable and – as I will maintain – morally significant and politically necessary academic endeavour be undertaken in ways that might meet standards for theoretical rigour set by the social sciences? Furthermore, could the respect for evidence, the comprehension of contexts and chronology as well as aspirations for imaginative insights and for eloquent clarification demanded by modern styles of micro-history be satisfied?
Five years after the launch of the degree, the London School of Economics and Cambridge University Press sponsored the publication of a new journal – The Journal of Global History. I was asked by the editors to write a prolegomenon for its first issue and produced a long essay entitled 'Historiographical traditions and modern imperatives for the restoration of global history'.(2) I wrote to reassure myself and a growing body of historians spearheading, collaborating upon or co-opted into the enterprise of delivering global history that our innovation or 'restoration' could be justified.
I attempted to do that by mobilising three related but distinct prefatory arguments.
First, I referred to Nietzsche's remark that 'knowledge of the past has always been desired in the service of the present' and concluded that the diffusion of global history into systems of preparatory and, above all, higher education is virtually unavoidable in our times of accelerated globalisation.
Second, I reached for an analogy to represent global history as the obverse of new nano-science which is based on theories and experiments into what happens to our universe when its basic components (molecules, particles and protons etc.) are reduced into infinitely smaller atoms. As science scales towards the miniscule, more and more historians scale towards the global.
Third, and despite the difficulties involved in coping with long chronologies, wider spaces and cultural heterogeneities, a raft of recent publications by distinguished historians shows there are no insuperable or particular problems involved in repositioning vistas for the interpretation of history outwards, backwards and forwards. To cite some examples: all the young scholars at Austin Texas involved in an exemplary endeavour, led by Tony Hopkins, to promote global history found no difficulties in exploring interactions and interconnections between the 'local' (which bounded their specialised knowledge) and the 'universal' which they recognised as the context for its comprehension and wider communication.(3)
Celebrated historical biographers have discerned nothing incongruous in exposing and contemplating the universal in the lives of individuals,(4) while two distinguished social scientists (5) experienced no problems in inverting a tradition of Eurocentric historiography by analysing the 'East in the West'. In addition, the insertion of relevant experiences from Asia and Europe into the current, lively and significant debate on the United States as an 'empire' has attracted heuristic interchanges between historians, political scientists, sociologists and specialists in geopolitical relations to the comparative study of empires.(6)
Grand themes for global history have already provoked sustained debate across the natural and social sciences as well as several humanities, particularly history. For example, the natural sciences (which claim universality for their theories, methods of investigations and recommendations) are intensely interested in the speed and extent of environmental degradation.(7) The queen of the social sciences (economics) is now really trying to comprehend the implications that might flow from the ever-closer integration of markets for commodities, capital labour and knowledge.(8) Philosophers are debating the meanings attracted to human rights and notions of global citizenship.(9)
In short, there are wide-ranging and highly significant contemporary issues that fall within the remit of global history. These issues are now involving networks of historians and giving rise to serious historiographical debates around the world, concerned with the terms and parameters for professional engagement with a field that can be traced back to Herodotus. Positions range all the way from enthusiasm to outright rejection of the whole enterprise as intellectually untenable or, more often, as a morally malign agenda for cultural domination by the West.(10)
Unfortunately the case for an altogether more serious engagement with meta-narratives in global history continues to meet with idealistically based, but by now entirely 'anachronistic rejections' from otherwise erudite, postmodern and postcolonial sub-groups of our heterodox tribe of historians. In recent decades, and taking a lead from influential philosophers largely from France, the United States and India, postmodern opponents have recommended (to quote Lyotard) that people should treat all 'metanarratives with incredulity'.
To their credit these philosophers have also been engaged in heuristic exercises designed to 'destabilise', 'relativise' and 'provincialise' all manner of traditional histories; to expose their linguistic ambiguities, literary forms, foundational categories; and above all to reveal how inescapably centric and unavoidably situated all attempts to recover 'Truth', 'Meaning', 'Lessons' from the past really were.(11)
Having lived with and through this particular 'cultural war', I can now recognise its cathartic benefits. I also observe that lessons have been absorbed. It seems to me that further and prolonged engagement with philosophers of history, with linguistic turns and with literary theory have run into diminishing returns. For my part, I regard the task of persuading a hard-working, conservative or otherwise indifferent profession of historians to become engaged with global history as far more important for the future of our discipline and as urgent for the problems of this century.
Meanwhile those of us engaged with the genre may as well treat attacks on its agenda to create, refine and publish more inclusive meta-narratives for our times as ideologically situated antipathies to caricatured representations of the recent history of globalisation – and, to be blunt, as representative of an entrenched belief in original sin that presupposes that all meta-narratives from Western historians will be forever biased, exclusive and oppressively anachronistic.
Historians should reject spurious allegations that global history lends implicit support to claims from neo-liberals and neo-conservatives of 'progressive outcomes' (actual and potential) of all past and predicted trends towards global integration. In no way does our now extensive bibliography of histories analysing the records of interactions between the local and the global fail to deal with malign as well as benign effects of connections across time and space.(12)
Furthermore, neither economic historians nor a growing body of economists are any longer in thrall to Ricardian predictions that openness to trade, capital, labour and knowledge flows will lead to economic growth combined with greater equality in the distribution of the world's wealth. Our colleagues in political history and political science seem acutely aware that the formation of sovereign, autonomous and effective states to protect their citizens from unregulated connections with the rest of the world has historically been a protracted and complex process – easily thrown off course by incautious and uncontrolled engagements with powerful geopolitical, economic and cultural forces from beyond those porous and vulnerable frontiers of embryo empires, realms and republics.
To turn to our own academic tribe of historians: my alas superficial survey of the historiographies of China, Japan, Islamdom and Europe reveals that, for millennia, historians from all civilisations have been more or less involved with the universal problem of how to reconcile 'packages of modernities' on offer from outside their communities, polities and empires with indigenous traditions and values that they and their societies wish to preserve.(13) Very few professional historians today (indeed only a minority of our now infamous 'Eurocentric' predecessors) lent unequivocal support to what has been represented as 'cultural genocide', have acted as 'a fifth column for Western values' or used history to support a 'Washington consensus'. We are emphatically not in the business of telling people that the only history they 'have to catch up with is other people's history'.(14)
Meta-narratives will probably remain in some senses unavoidably Western. But centric histories were never a monopoly of Europeans.(15) Furthermore, there were several classical authors (Herodotus is just one), and traditions (medieval Christendom, the Enlightenment and the period after the devastations of the Great War, 1914–18) when cosmopolitan histories appeared to contradict, qualify and question a mainstream Eurocentric tradition running from Hegel all the way to Lynn Cheyney, the self-appointed guardian of American values for school textbooks used in the United States.(16)
Global history teaches us to recognise that there has been a relatively short period (three centuries, not much more) of Western geopolitical, scientific and technological hegemony when all historiographical traditions (including separable traditions of European nations) extolled, rejected or adapted to alien packages of modernities on offer from outside their own more or less insulated frontiers and cultures.
Many historians will wonder when they read those eloquent objections to any engagement with global history by post-colonial, subaltern and other postmodern theorists if their authors have read anything from our field since John Roberts published the Triumph of the West and Eric Jones wrote The European Miracle in the early 1980s.(17) Of course, such books continue to sell and what is more dangerous appear on television whose gatekeepers (until they are replaced with re-educated and younger graduates in the humanities) persist in communicating histories that minister to the patriotisms (xenophobias) of publics in search of narrowly conceived national identities.
Fortunately such books are increasingly subjected to professional criticism for: centric bias, for ignorance of the histories of China, India, Japan, Africa and other 'knowable' others, and for dependence upon the now obsolete but formerly canonical authorities and foundational categories (often derived from Smith, Marx and Weber) underlying their narratives.(18) Surely the days when jejune Eurocentric forays into world history could be treated as scholarship are fast disappearing?
Furthermore, since most academic historians tend to be located in departments of specialists, jostling for space and recognition, the exclusions of either 'peoples without a history' or wide ranges of human activity (however trivial) are no longer a danger that thought police from philosophy need worry about.(19) That everything and everyone has a history has become a consensual presumption of modern history. The problem is not exclusions, but proliferations. How best to integrate our ever widening and deepening historical knowledge of the world into narratives that educated elites, politicians and even gatekeepers to mass media might read, absorb and communicate is the real problem.
Historians need no longer confront Hegel, revise Marx, bowdlerise Weber or provincialise Europe. Those in the loop know it would be more heuristic to engage in debates of what to include and exclude from narratives that seek to inform global as well as national histories. They know that if scholars and intellectuals in higher education do not engage directly (or indirectly by toleration and support) in the construction of new cosmopolitan meta-narratives then others, less educated, qualified and sensitive, will continue to take up that challenge and (as they have for centuries) write textbooks for schools, or nowadays more perniciously televise histories, in the form of teleological chronicles designed to reinforce people's very own set of values enshrined in canonical Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Confucian and other sacred texts. They will lend credence to their own established assumptions, in favour of particular forms of government, and support ideological arguments for economies based either upon unfettered private enterprise or upon systems of command based upon Stalinist precepts for the allocation of resources, income and wealth.(20)
Meanwhile new and plural ways of understanding world history and improved foundational categories for its reconstruction continue to emanate from the sciences, philosophy and social sciences, that are broadening out to incorporate the wisdoms from the East. Let us recognise, however, that the provenance and birth places of intellectuals of the stature of Montesquieu, Hume, Voltaire, Smith, Malthus, Hegel, St Simon, Marx, Comte, Mill, Durkheim and Weber does not a priori invalidate many of the insights they continue to offer to historians for reconstructing the past – even the pasts of societies and cultures outside Europe.
Their representations of 'other cultures' are all too easily parodied as imperial or Eurocentric.(21) Western concepts, categories and theories have, however, evolved over time into a range of social sciences that are no longer the property of the West anymore than contributions derived from Chinese medicine, the flexibility of Sharia law or African art are the property of any Eastern culture.
Modern social sciences (including economics) are no longer based upon singular overarching paradigms. Instead they offer a competing plethora of theories, taxonomies and vocabularies for the study of history. History itself has become more open than ever to alternative ways of accessing, knowing and understanding the past through memory, oral testimonies, artefacts, ballads, dance, ritual as well as printed sources of all kinds, always provided that the inferences drawn from these diverse forms of evidence are subjected to the same theoretical and empirical tests that historians are trained to apply to all forms of knowledge of the past.(22) Most historians do not assume that 'indigenous' ways of comprehending the past are necessarily inferior or superior to Western natural and social science.
As a novel field of study with strong potential for making its way (alas all too gradually) into higher education, global history has been concerned these past years with its own scope, scale and methods. Patrick Mannings's text Navigating Global History,(23) as well as numerous articles in the Journal of World History and the Bulletin of the World History Association dealing with the field's historiographical particularities and problems, testify to its youthful preoccupation with methods.
Yet, and until they came under a sustained attack from opponents who assert that all meta-narratives are a form of oppression, global historians allocated very little of their precious research time or made space in their syllabuses for methodological discussion. They leave that to historiographers and philosophers. They tend to ignore prescriptions from outsiders in favour of simple approaches, distinguished between comparisons and connections. To make the case for any particular sub-field of an ever-widening subject, historians prefer to cite exemplars of their own specialised genre – be it cultural, family, demographic, diplomatic or other forms of history, some of which (pace economic history) are attached to a social science.
Most global historians have not, however, formed close alliances with any particular social science, although more of them probably consult and use cultural anthropology and economics than other neighbouring disciplines. An increasing minority (24) who aim to bring about that promised synthesis between natural and cultural history have clearly digested a great deal of 'popularised' natural science, which is currently coming on stream in forms accessible to historians.
Much of the discussion about global history that is methodological in character makes do with arresting metaphors, extolling the benefits of scaled-up vistas from space, parachutes and skyscrapers; tells historians to think longer and harder about architecture than buildings, let alone bricks; recommends an escape from concerns that are particular, local; and above all proclaims in favour of a move towards an engagement with problems that are universal such as environmental degradation, human rights, poverty, gender, slavery, health, warfare and material life.
Most historians are now beginning to appreciate why the allocation of more space for global history is desirable and appreciate that the field could be both heuristic for their students and unifying for a would-be 'guild' of scholars to adopt. What remains more difficult to figure out is a set of acceptable guidelines (not methodologies) on how best to proceed. In short, how do we move on from exhortations and metaphors to methods? Personally I do not find the epistemological problems involved any more difficult than those encountered in writing histories of Europe or Latin America. Such problems will, I suspect, be resolved (not solved) by the appearance of a more impressive flow of exemplars of the genre.
Meanwhile what should be resisted, from those with years of scholarship and interest vested in the study of an area, is any suggestion that 'nomads' without passports or credentials be discouraged from venturing into 'their' territory in order to resituate 'their' scholarship into global contexts. Alas, this attitude is still prevalent in Western Orientalism and must be ignored. Persia is not (as that great Persian Orientalist, Anne Lambton, opined) accessible only to real scholars of that ancient and complex civilisation.
Yes, the credentials required for entry into any new territory should involve a serious engagement with the best secondary literature, hopefully abundant and available in languages that we can read. Furthermore, the interests and new insights that we claim will come from global history should be good enough to be potentially publishable in specialised journals for the areas we use as case studies. To help along the way the Journal of Asian Studies might (for example) begin to solicit attempts to compare Chinese and European history. Journals in Japanese history might also welcome articles that situate Japan in wider Asian and European contexts. The methods and traditions of scholarship in imperial, economic and transnational histories are clearly helpful. Discovering and synthesising the local in the global and global in the local clearly also has a major contribution to make.(25)
Since the historiographical tradition of attempts to detach history from its moral role and power to instruct in favour of Van Ranke's utopian historicist project to recover Truth from the past has been short-lived and is now recognised as a failure, is it not time to return to the ideals of constructing Narratives of Enlightenment for these our own exciting but dangerous times of accelerated globalisation?(26)
With its commitment to inclusion and to long chronological and wide spatial parameters, global history represents a challenge to all those who continue to claim primacy for Western civilisation along all of its manifold dimensions. The short-lived geopolitical and technological success of the West (or indeed of Song China) never embodied any kind of moral superiority. Only a few historians ever claimed that they did.
Global historians seek to follow recommendations from Herodotus to 'preserve the memory of the past by placing on record the astonishing achievements of both our own and Asiatic People'.(27) We might, in this our 21st century, hopefully confine to archives for 'historiographers' millennia of historical writing that was basically confessional, providential and centric and which implicitly and often explicitly proclaimed the superiority of a particular civilisation (be it Egyptian, Hellenistic, Christian, Muslim, Byzantine, Hindu, Confucian or Western). Our mission for the third millennium (to quote our modern godfather William McNeill) is to write and communicate 'ecumenical histories'.(28)
Such histories should be designed to make room for global diversity in all its complexity and to provide proper acknowledgements for human agency (including the agency of women). Of course, its meta-narratives will remain unavoidably provisional and negotiable. But as more and more professional historians from systems of higher education from all parts of the world (not just from Europe and the United States or from diasporas of Asian academics) see it as their public role to reveal the universal in the personal; the global in the local; as well as reciprocal connections between East and West, North and South; then flows of relevant research from every style of history could provide building blocks for the next generation of Hodgsons, McNeills and Braudels to construct even better meta-narratives than those now on offer from our illustrious predecessors.(29)
At the very least, academic debate as it evolves into competition for popular attention might constrain the nationalistic myopias of politicians and elites in control of the mass media for the communication of history. Historians are, however, realistic and recognise that even as this begins to happen, the attachments of peoples everywhere to their own institutions, celebrities, heroes, communities, ethnicities and religions as well as mythistories feeding more malign kinds of chauvinisms and fundamentalisms will continue to remain extremely strong and not easily undermined by education in something wider than the national and provincial histories we all imbibed at school.
Nonetheless, and although the task looks daunting, global history seems to be both an inescapable task and a noble dream for departments of history to embrace. Steps towards the realisation of the field's mission could lead eventually to a better understanding of the past of our long connected world. By extension that could well contribute to consciousness, pressures and institutions currently under construction and in operation for citizenship in a global civil society.
As globalisation continues to accelerate such a society is no longer regarded as an oxymoron impossible to envisage and hardly on the drawing board, let alone defined as a site for serious intellectual debates of societal construction and the formation of institutions for global governance. As a utopian ideal it can he traced way back through a long and illustrious line of philosophers to Mencius in the East and to the admonitions of Stoics in the West.
Their ideals of specifying, promoting and, where possible, protecting basic human rights for peoples everywhere against violence, disease, hunger, discrimination, natural disasters, etc. etc began to take diffuse but transnational institutional forms (congresses, global networks, international societies, cosmopolitan associations, albeit for profit the rise of multinational business corporations) during the 19th century.
Today there are literally thousands of global institutions. Their concerns and services provided as public goods or sold as commodities by business corporations touch and influence the lives of an ever growing proportion of the world's populations.(30) These institutions conceive of their missions' operational concerns and interests to be unbounded by frontiers. More often than not they operate in tacit or active alliance with sovereign states, but sometimes in opposition to the policies of governments and local authorities.
Historians have read and researched more deeply than other academic disciplines into the long and complex process of state formation, the evolution and consolidation of personal identities and cultures behind civic societies regarded as stable and more or less successful. They will recognise that, in diverse ways, the plethora of institutions now offering public goods and even selling private goods and services upon a global scale are the analogues of institutions that helped to form functional national societies, economies, cultures and states over centuries of time.
They will also recall the tensions and resistance this process met from vested political and economic interests, parochial religions and local cultures as well as personal antipathies to the widening of contexts for economic, social, political and family life. Their comprehension of the gains, losses and violence involved in this protracted history of nation building will enable them to recognise that the accelerated globalisation of our times is leading us, but slowly, towards some form of global civil society. Power is shifting away from sovereign states.
Local cultures are merging, adapting, surviving and contributing to universalising tendencies.(31) Intellectuals from the sciences, social sciences and humanities are explaining the kinds of education that could underpin a culture for global citizenship and for the institutions that might foster the development of some kind of global civil society.
History contains knowledge that is politically, economically and culturally significant for the great debate of our times. Not because, as Ranke hoped, the subject could recover truth and scientifically valid evidence about the past, but because a historical understanding of social and political processes involved can be acute and useful.
The moment should be seized because historians without purposes or agendas have never existed. Ironic detachment and careful attention to evidence are virtues to be cultivated by historians who wish to remain intellectually persuasive, but so too are the construction and reconfiguration of meta-narratives that will educate the public, appeal to the young and serve the needs of our times for a sense of global citizenship.
That task might well revive the best tradition of a guild among a rather cantankerous profession of postmodern scholars, pursuing their own riskless and self-defined agendas. Anything less could be folly, and folly, as Bolingbroke anticipated, could be remedied 'by historical study which should purge the mind of ... national partialities and prejudices. For a wise man looks upon himself as a citizen of the world'.(32)
Patrick O'Brien is Centennial Professor of Economic History at the London School of Economics.
This essay is adapted from Patrick O'Brien, 'Global History for Global Citizenship' (Global History and Maritime Asia Working and Discussion Paper Series, Working Paper No. 7, 2008)