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The "Global Turn" of contemporary Western Historiography

By Jiang Zhushan | 2013-07-25 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Science Digest)

The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community written by William H. McNeil is deemed a landmark in the rise of global history.

During the past decade, historiography in Europe and the United States has witnessed increased research on theories, approaches and practices in the study of global history. One characteristic of this “global turn” is a “spatial turn,” that is, history has transcended the territories of nation-states, moving toward the regional, continental and hemispheric basis.
Global history studies
Since the 19th century, professional historians have generally approached world history based on the division of nation-states, focusing on the uniqueness of culture, exclusiveness of national identity, local character of national knowledge and path-dependency of a nation’s development experience. For many historians, the nation-state is the basic unit for historical analysis. Some, though, examine the interchange and interaction between different locales and societies, embracing an approach that transcends locales, continents, oceans, and hemisphere, and potentially covers the entire globe.
Three factors have contributed to the global turn from nation-state studies. First of all, historians and regional experts have obtained more knowledge about people and societies in locales other than Europe. Secondly, the redrawing of the world map, in terms of changes to vast empires, the geopolitical upheaval of war, and the redistribution of global fortunes and economic strength, have served to underscore the interdependence of global affairs—“no nation is an island,” metaphorically, even if it may be physically. Lastly, specialized knowledge has lead to the fragmentation of the overall knowledge system and held back efforts seeking a more profound historical understanding for certain events. Scholars, teachers, officials and the masses began calling for an integrated framework of historical knowledge so as to view history from a new perspective.
Currently there is no consensus on the definition of global history, which has often overlapped and been mixed with world history. In most cases, global history focuses on the era since European explorers began navigating and trading between continents and hemispheres in the 15th and 16th centuries; some scholars have even proposed this concept is only applicable to the globalization during the last three decades of the 20th century. World history, on the other hand, covers studies of pre-modern society and culture.
Global history has challenged the centrality of the nation-state in historical studies, expanding history’s view to include the intertwinement between locales, regions, countries and hemispheres. It has also transcended a grand system and theoretical frameworks. Many articles that are simultaneously committed to both broad, grand topics and specific, detailed questions have begun to gain importance in scholarly circles. Global history has given researchers a global perspective, and has therefore fueled new trends in all fields of history, much in the same way that the cultural history has. A global perspective has been taken by environmental history, social history, gender history, economic history, diplomatic history, education history and medical history. Many of the scholars committed to global history are not exclusively historians, but interdisciplinary experts from sociology, economics, politics, international relations and geography. Professional journals (e.g. Cambridge University’s Journal of Global History) and research institutions for global history have also been established.
Challenges to nation-state history
The "global turn" is most obvious in a new generation of scholarship on American history. From the late 1970s to the 1980s, social history was at its heyday, with towns, cities and communities seen as the ideal units for analysis. At the time, many books and articles highlighted the relative isolation of early America. Beginning in the 1980s and going into the 1990s, however, historians began reconsidering the privileged place of local communities in the American narrative. Instead of discussing America’s isolation and the independence of its early citizenry, historians began exploring the close relations between Americans and the outside world. Those committed to early republican American history even began to iterate the significance of imagined communities and the public sphere. People far away from each other are connected through these two concepts—print media facilitated the spread of thought as technology connected previously isolated locales and the market economy spurred trade relations. The connections enabled individuals to share the same political ideology, support the same movement for social reform or express their feelings of American identity and nationalism.
Experts in global history have posed a challenge to claims advocating nation-state history. The defenders of national history are committed to historical narratives which justify the nation-state and American power, breeding a history that has strengthened the concept of American Exceptionalism. As it imposed Western values on the rest of the world, national history, in a sense, represented a form of “cultural imperialism.” The "global turn", however, has encouraged historians to oppose teleological narratives of the nation-state, moving beyond their attachment to histories which focus on the interests of the United States and Western Europe. In other words, the "global turn" has enabled historians to transcend the nation-state framework. Placing emphasis on people’s connection to their locale, rather than to a national identity or a particular national narrative will undermine the hegemony of modern nation-states and dispel the myth of American Exceptionalism.
Gender history has also been influenced by the "global turn". New interpretations of the turn in gender studies have become a heated topic of debate in North American academic journals, where discussion has highlighted the relations between world history and family history, women’s history, and gender history. The traditional narration of European history depicting a particular area or a community, locale and country has been replaced by either world history or global history. For instance, for scholars in the field of American women’s history, three perspectives are getting increasingly more important, i.e. the international, comparative and global perspectives. In order to better establish a universal narrative of world history, traditional women’s history and gender history should engage in a trans-cultural exchange with non-Western critical history.
The research direction of global history has fueled the remapping of national history, advocating that the best way of understanding historical processes is through examining the economic, political, social and cultural systems that have world-wide influence. The "global turn" has provided another lens through which to interpret current boundaries while examining the past by transcending the boundaries of nations and regions that have changed many times over.
"Global turn": a new research perspective and approach
Despite global history’s revision of nation-state’s role as history’s protagonist, historians have also warned us that the overall impact of the "global turn" on historiography could very well be overstated. No matter how we view the ethicality of nation-states’ previous global conduct, the nation-state is still undoubtedly representative of a significant pattern of social and political organization in history. Rather than categorically rejecting national histories, “nation-state” should be returned to its lexical context—that is, nation-states’ origins should be explored without special attention to criticism of the behaviors of particular nation-states or moral rationales used to justify these actions. When advocating global historical research, it is not necessary to cast away nation-state history.
In other words, the nation-state is still a rather significant topic although it is no longer the most common unit for discussion in historical studies. In his article “American History in a Global Age”, Johann Neem has offered an insightful approach to rethinking global history and national history. Neem observes that the "global turn" could provide a revision for the national historians and national history is no longer seen as a particular history. As global visions have removed the essence of a nation, historians have begun to question the origin and structure of the state. Neem asserts that the state, once it becomes an assumption, will be regarded as merely a product of a particular historical process. He suggests that national narratives do not have to be superseded because of the "global turn"; rather, the global vision could revive national histories.
It is easy to see whether the global history has superseded national history or the two have complemented each other. In fact, the "global turn" has provided a new perspective for national history. This "global turn" is not only expansion of the geographical scale within which historians research, but also representative of a new research perspective and approach.
Jiang Zhushan is from the department of history at National Dong Hwa University.
The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Science Digest, N0. 110, Feb 2013.
Translated by Jiang Hong
Revised by Charles Horne