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What does a truly global history look like?


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In the latest issue of Public Books, historian Serge Gruzinski reviews What Is Global History?, an ambitious new book by German historian Sebastian Conrad. As economic and political institutions have become global in recent decades, academic historians have responded by attempting to develop a new subdiscipline and methodology called “global history.” But this subdiscipline has been full of pitfalls, chief among them the danger of reproducing and reinforcing a Eurocentric view of non-European history. Conrad’s book attempts to navigate these pitfalls and define a truly “global history” worthy of the name. According to Gruzinski, he does a masterful job. Read an excerpt of the review below or the full text here.

Can we move beyond a global history that is only the history of globalization? How to avoid the illusion of continuity, or the teleological fallacy that would transform the course of history into a succession of globalizations progressively embracing more regions of the globe? Conrad warns us to be cautious with the concept of integration: “Integration, then, is not an issue of scale (the entire planet) and quantity (the amount of trade), but of quality: the commodification of things and social relations creates a systemic coherence, as it enables compatibility and exchangeability across geographical, cultural, and ethnic borders.”

After sketching the genealogy of “thinking globally” and outlining the singularity of the global approach, Conrad analyzes its relations with time and space and discusses “positionality and centered approaches.” Since the end of the 20th century, one of the main causes for complaint about history and the social sciences has been their innate and deep Eurocentrism. And it is true that these disciplines, as they are taught all over the world, were first born and formatted in Europe before being exported abroad. It is true also that historians have attempted to “provincialize” Europe—to relegate the continent’s history to a marginal place in the larger narrative of the globe—in order to decontaminate these intellectual tools.

But many worry: is global history itself just a new manifestation of Eurocentrism? This is the hazard whenever globalization is employed as a synonym for modernity or neoliberalism. Yet is it still the best way to escape from the century-old domination of the West over the Rest? One way out of the teleological trap is to emphasize the many roads of modernization and integration. It seems that global history, more than any other subdiscipline, is apt to foster the diversity of local narratives: the multiplicity of views on the globe’s past, including different and alternative ways of conceiving the past itself.

Image: A printed map from a 15th-century edition of Ptolemy’s 2nd-century Geography. Via Public Books.