We’re All World Historians Now?

Birth of Modern World

We’re All World Historians Now?

Upon first receiving these books to read as our first assignment, I wondered how they would illuminate aspects of modern European history since their material was explicitly global in nature.  However, after reading them, I see that both of these books represent a particular way of approaching history, one that ‘zooms out’ and seeks to paint larger picture.  It is a method that traces broader trends, global patterns, and large, complex interactions.  Though it is not a method without faults, I find that this approach grants a fuller perspective on historical issues that studies with more specifically focused subjects may miss.  In this sense, by taking a global approach, we may be better suited to productively discuss certain questions about European history:  What are Europe’s boundaries?  Is there a “European” culture?  If so, when and where did it begin?  On a more fundamental level:  What is Europe?  A place?  A culture? A shared history?  The two works that we have read can help us shine a light on these issues, and aid us in ascertaining where and how exactly “Modern European History” fits into a larger global history.

Jürgen Osterhammel and Niels Petersson’s Globalization: a Short History is a brief book that may ultimately raise more questions that it does answer, but it is useful nonetheless. In a world of global markets, mass media, cultural exportation, it seems that globalization can be singled out as the culprit, the driving factor of change and integration.  The authors assert that, despite the feeling that globalization is a phenomenon that began in the twentieth century, its roots can be traced back centuries into the past.  In order to substantiate this claim, they have to first reevaluate the definition of globalization itself.  Instead of viewing globalization as a process, Osterhammel and Petersson urge us to conceptualize globalization as way of understanding multiple processes of interaction.  In other words, globalization is not a process in and of itself, but instead a way of conceptualizing and measuring levels of contact among peoples.  “The question is no longer whether the term “globalization” is an adequate description for the present state of the world,” the authors write.  “Instead, it directs attention to the history of worldwide integration, its development and erosion, its intensity and effects” (26-27).

One of the key factors in this new understanding of globalization then becomes ‘networks,’ which the authors define as systems of ‘sustained interactions.’  Measuring the level of interaction in these networks allows us to ascertain what degree ‘globalization’ was taking place, if at all.  For, the network can only be considered a part of globalization if it is a worldwide network, or perhaps more accurately stated:  globalization can only have existed once networks of sustained interaction became truly global.  With this definition, the authors are able to pinpoint when they feel globalization (“worldwide integration”) began: 1500 CE.  They then detail four epochs in which globalization took on unique aspects.

The first of the four epochs encapsulates the years between 1500 and 1750.  This is the period when European exploration and expansion results in their discovery of the Americas, as well as increased interactions with eastern lands via land and waterways.  These two hundred and fifty years are the foundations of not only European, but also Asian empire building. The second epoch, which spans the years 1750 to 1880, is the age of colonization and imperialism.  More importantly, this epoch includes industrialization in many places in the northern hemisphere, which resulted in new networks of traffic, communication, migration, and commerce.  These new networks are the mechanisms of a new surge of increased worldwide integration, or globalization.  The third epoch begins with the turn of the twentieth century and ends with the conclusion of the Second World War in 1945.  It is a period marred with crisis, and despite the isolationist tendencies of some political powers (like the United States) and the intensely nationalistic (as opposed to global) goals of most nations during this period, the authors argue that this epoch cannot be said to be one of de-globalization.  Indeed, the fact that crises in one area of the world (the crash of the NY Stock Exchange in 1929 for example) were able to so quickly and devastatingly spread to other spheres reveals just how integrated the worldwide networks actually were.  The fourth and last epoch that the authors describe consists of the years between 1945 and 1970; it is an epoch in which globalization proceeded in a world divided under a bi-polar system of geopolitical power, but it is also a time period characterized by the increasing importance of multi-national groups like the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

As stated above, I feel that taking an overview of such a global topic can provide a chance to situate historical developments into a larger context.  But Globalization: a Short History makes me question the usefulness of such thin books.  Because, by ‘zooming out,’ one also runs the very real risk of missing too much of the particularities that make histories unique and important.  This book is not useful in answering questions like: did everyone experience these increasingly intense networks of interaction the same?  How did people of different economic classes, races, or genders react to and interact with these networks?  In fact, speaking in terms of “networks” may tend to “flatten out” hierarchies of power and difference that are a daily reality to most people.  And though Osterhammel and Petersson encourage thinking about the multiplicity of globalization, I cannot help but question if their book itself is not too Eurocentric.  Their story of globalization begins with the European discovery of the Americas, but what about prior trade between African and Asian societies (and trade between these societies and European ones)?  Historians have shown that intense and sustained networks of trade existed for centuries before the Atlantic World came into existence.  Is it, then, the American continents’ inclusion that makes the story truly global?

C. A. Bayly’s the Birth of the Modern World is a much larger work of history, and as such grants more attention to its subject, utilizing nuanced arguments and evidence.  Bayly’s title (the Modern World, in the singular) may be deceiving upon first glance, because one quickly realizes that his main argument is that the world witnessed multiple modernities during this period (1780-1914).  Moreover, modernity was experienced differently by different peoples in different places and at different times.  Bayly describes “the modern” as constituting a number of processes that made the world’s societies more uniform:  systems of rapid communication were developed, larger political entities emerged and replaced smaller, traditional forms of rule, more ambitious philosophies and ideologies of “civilization” (Western and non-Western) were formed, and across the board, societies became internally more complex and stratified (12).

How does Bayly handle this seemingly contradictory claim that ‘modern societies’ were simultaneously more uniform and complex?  He claims that the world’s different societies were not becoming uniform in the sense that they were beginning to resemble each other specifically, but instead that their methods of ruling, of living, of dividing social strata all began to resemble each other.  Take the world’s major religions as an example.  During this period, Christianity and Islam (and Confucianism to a certain extent, if it can be defined as a religion at all) both underwent processes of self-evaluation, restructuring, and consolidation in order to define themselves and their boundaries.  In this way, they resembled each other (they became more ‘uniform’) even if what they taught remained different.  Similarly, the ruling classes of different societies began resembling each other in how they ruled, even if the specific expressions of their cultures were just as different as before.

Perhaps the greatest strength of Bayly’s book (besides the wealth of examples that he provides, made possible by his mastery of the literature that he used to write the book) is the way in which he complicates our understanding of the past, and of the making of the modern world in particular.  He calls into question any hint of a teleological process of history in which Europe lead the way to modernity simply because it was exceptional.  In fact, his book takes a truly global approach and quite firmly decenters Europe in the history of modernity, which has traditionally been understood as a European story.  For example, he argues that many of the innovations and surpluses that supposedly came from the Industrial Revolution (again, a singular event) that occurred in Europe and was fueled by new methods of increasing supply, can actually be better understood as a series of industrious revolutions, which were actually transformations in expressions of demand around the world.[1]

Throughout the book, Bayly also tackles the notion of European exceptionalism, and shows that Europe did not become the dominant political and economic power during this period because they were essentially “better” or “more modern” than the rest of the world.  He also warns against an understanding in which the “decline of the rest” gave the misconception of the “rise of the West.”  A number of very real, historical factors gave European nations an advantage in the processes of modernization:  1) more unused resources, 2) a “boundless” labor supply (slaves), and 3) the chance to solve population problems by exporting people to their colonies, mainly in the Americas (58).  Bayly then concludes that the fifty years prior to the First World War constituted a period of accelerated change.  In this sense, Bayly’s conception of modernization resembles Osterhammel and Peterson’s definition of globalization in that it refers to a degree of change or integration.

This leads us to the questions we want to discuss for our exams:  What is Europe?  Many scholars have acknowledged that “Europe” may simply be a useful construct, a tool created to aid in analysis.  It may be true that “Europe” exists more in our imagination and in discourses than it does “out there” in the real world, but is there more to the notion of “Europe” than its analytical usefulness?  Is it a people, a culture, a place, an economic network, or all of the above?  Osterhammel and Petersson attempt to dismantle the importance of territoriality in their observations (8).  This is an important contribution, because while there may be a spot on maps labeled “Europe,” “European” includes more than just territory.  It can be helpful to continue to “dismantle territoriality,” because then we may get away from asking questions like, Where does Europe stop?  Is Russia a part of Europe, and if so, how much of Russia is “European”?  Osterhammel and Petersson’s line of thought suggests that “European” refers more to a network of trade and economies that gave rise to political and economic power for peoples living in a particular geographic location.  However, they argue that the colonies did not constitute “Europe” (42), which I find strange considering not only the central role that the colonies played in European economic networks, but also the central role that they grant to economic networks in globalization.  Moreover, interaction in the colonies (the “peripheries”) played a vital role in shaping European identities in the metropoles (the “centers”).

Recently, it seems that there is a fear among historians of being considered “Eurocentric,” and I even leveled this accusation against Osterhammel and Petersson.  This is a legitimate and justified concern, and the critique has produced better research.  But, Bayly’s work shows that in order to tell the history of the world beginning in 1750, one cannot miss or explain away the dominance (in many spheres) of European powers. Once exploration and extended trade routes revealed the existence of other peoples that were conceived to be dramatically different than themselves, the peoples on the European continent became aware of their own similarities in a way that they had not been before.  This reveals the role of consciousness in what it means to be “modern,” “European,” or “globalized.”  According to Bayly, an important step in becoming modern is thinking you are modern.  He states that by the 19th century, peoples began to “believe passionately that they had made that once-and-for-all step upward to the modern age” (169).  Similarly, Osterhammel and Petersson posit that the reason that people today believe that globalization is such a recent phenomenon is that developments in travel and communication have made it possible for more people to become aware of the networks of global interaction.  This revelation is important when discussing what Europe is:  notions of Europe and European come into existence, and are sustained by peoples who identify as European and promote ideas of what it means to be European.  Others (non Europeans) then use these discourses when they discuss Europe, and also when they forge their own notions of self.

Bayly concludes by stating, “All historians are world historians now, though many have not yet realized it” (469).  Here, Bayly is referring to the fact that, in a globalized world in which networks of interaction constitute a large (if not altogether defining) role, historians cannot fully understand a place (like Europe) or a theme (like modernization) without studying it in a larger – in this case global – context.  This is a helpful reminder to keep our eyes open as historians to broader trends.

Books Under Review:

Bayly, C.A. The Birth of the Modern World: 1780-1914.  Blackwell, 2004.

Osterhammel, Jürgen and Niels P. Petersson, Globalization: A Short History. Princeton University Press, 2005.

[1] It should be noted, though, that Bayly borrows the idea of “industrious revolutions” from Jan De Vries.

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“We’re All World Historians Now?” by W. J. Newsome is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


For more books on aspects of global history, see my full list of book reviews. 

Categories: Book Review, Modern European History | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “We’re All World Historians Now?

  1. Cecilia A

    Have you read “Europe and the people without history” by Eric Wolf ? Old (1983), marxist concepts, still interesting.

    • Nope, I haven’t come across that one yet – but I just looked it up and it just came out as a second addition with a new foreword. So, I’ll have to check it out before my exams next month. Thanks for the heads up!

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