What is Global History?
Cambridge, Polity Press, 2008, ISBN: 9780745633008; 152pp.; Price: £45.00
University of Dhaka
Date accessed: 6 June, 2023
Like most practitioners in global history, Pamela Kyle Crossley, in What is Global History, engages this simple yet profoundly provocative question: ‘how to tell a story without a centre?’ In a smallish, 120-page treat of the question, Crossley provides a gripping overview of the field, along with its genealogy, trends and possibilities.
Crossley weaves her study through four analytical-cum-narrative categories, which, in Crossley’s own words, are the following: ‘divergence’ (the narrative of things diversifying over time and space from a single origin); ‘convergence’ (the narrative of different and widely spaced things necessarily assuming similarities over time; ‘contagion’ (the narrative of things crossing boundaries and dramatically changing their dynamics at the same time; and ‘systems’ (the narrative of interacting structures changing each other at the same time). The book opens with a chapter on what Crossley terms ‘the great story impulse’, by which she shows, using oral traditions and literary and religious-textual evidences, how people in different cultures have sought to tell stories of connections with the rest of the humankind. This has been true of the classical and medieval periods as well as our own time. So, to Crossley, the story we now want to tell through global history is a continuation of a ‘great story impulse’ that has driven intellectual and imaginative domain since the emergence of man. How can we map the four conceptual-narrative categories onto this millenarian ‘great story impulse’?
In terms of ‘divergence’, examples are taken from, for instance, Wilhelm Schmidt, who argued that all religions were originally monotheistic, the Jesuits, who argued that the Chinese were not alien or barbaric, but that their culture evolved from the same roots as those of Europe and the Middle East, and the narratives of great epochs of global migrations from either Africa or Northeast Asia. With ‘convergence’ Crossley takes up the example of the origin of agriculture which has not been explained adequately through diffusionist or ‘divergence’ theories. She supports the idea that the global expansion of agriculture can be explained by the theories of human development taking place in different places, implying that agriculture has multiple origins. Crossley then goes on to critique the Marxist discourse of transformation from feudalism to capitalism, Weber’s modernization theories, and Kuhn’s science-centric narrative of modernity—all of which Crossley tends to see as Euro-centric, or at least informed by European historical experiences. However, through using the theory of ‘convergence’ by Dutch economist Jan Tinbergen, Crossley argues that ‘there are important dialects of dialectics, and contradictions over the contradictions, that still keep Marx and Engels at the center of speculation that humanity may be subject to universal material forces that will eventually vanquish all cultural estrangements’. Crossley takes up these points with regard to the second and fourth categories.
In terms of ‘contagion’, Crossley, not surprisingly, touches on themes that political scientists and sociologists, including Hegel, Marx, Kuhn or Weber, did not seriously consider. This takes her to the broader field of environmental history. Drawing on Alfred Crosby (1), William McNeill (2),Jared Diamond (3) and Sheldon Watts (4), Crossley shows that global history has been fostered no less convincingly by diseases, contamination, germs and biological elements than by ideologies and social and economic forces. With regard to the last of her categories, ‘systems’, Crossly depends on Pirenne’s argument that material interactions between different systems, such as trade, fostered historical transformations of global scale. For instance, Europe’s economic rise owed much to interactions between systems: ‘Islamic empire’s economy and the local economies of Europe interacted in such as way as to transform Europe itself…the Islamic trade system was the originating actor, and Europe the reactive one’ (p. 88). Crossley then draws on Braudel’s ecology of sea and land routes around the Mediterranean and Wallerstein’s world system that extends Braudel’s study by attempting to explain the global political economy of dependency. But, as Crossley takes it from the critique of Wallerstein by Andre Frank, a more materialistic and objectivist world system view has since been liquidated by cultural theories and subjectivity.
So, Crossley responds to her question, ‘how to tell a story without a center’?, through multiple stories with multiple centres. She seems to be happy about it, because she does not particularly strive to see a distinction or convergence between ‘global’ and ‘world history’. By not pinning the possibility of a global history on the postmodern condition only, Crossley takes a different path to that of Bruce Mazlish, who sees a clear distinction between ‘global’ and ‘world history’. For Mazlish, global history seeks to attain objectivity by undermining the subjective agencies of culture and concentrating more on the materially oriented disciplines such as artificial intelligence, epidemiology, neurology, paleobotany and so on. Crossley, on the other hand, does not deal with this problem of the distinction between ‘world’ and ‘global’ history because she does not point to a single origin or discourse of global history - neither to the teleology of Hegel and Marx or more recently of Francis Fukuyama, Samuel Huntington or Bruce Mazlish. It is in this context that Crossley finds that ‘actual history of human diversity is more football-like, vase-like, or violin-like than pyramidal’ (p.120). This approach makes the book a far more interesting and nuanced statement of global history. If she fails to tell a story without a centre, she does it with the conviction that there is no culminating point in global history and that no amount of disciplinary materiality can achieve objectivity in global history. Her points are quite simple: ‘history as we know it is written in language, usually prose (as contrasted to pictures, equations, dances, or melody lines), which is linear and subject to perceptions of writer and reader’ (p.106).
Thus although Crossley uses four broad categories to analyze global history, she remains perceptually plural. But this categorization, at the same time, can prove problematic in terms of global history’s thematic reach. She suggests this structure seems to be the ‘most heuristically valuable’. But the heuristic value of it does not solve the problem of ontological fluidity of disciplines and discourses. For instance, the problem of categorization between ‘convergence’ and ‘divergence’ is not merely related to the way how a phenomenon can be explained by both these categories, but to a more important problem as to how to locate globality in an event or a series of events that are not informed by any of these specific categories. For instance, how do we grasp the ways in which the global concourse of ideas, events and practices have dislocated not only Europe but many other ‘indigenous’ claim to ethnocentrism across the world, as the recent work of C. A. Bayly (5) perceptively shows. Within the categorical limits set by herself, Crossley finds no broader space for issues like the evolution of the middle class, multinational corporations, or environmental resistance at the global level.
At the end this is an exercise in capturing historiographical debates, thus offering a crisp summary of many major works in the area along with the intervening glittering insight of the author herself. But more than anything else, most of Crossley’s readers may relish the fact that her ‘football’ of global history takes a flight clearly above the apex of the ‘pyramid’ of global history.
- Alfred Crosby, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (Westport, CN, 1972).Back to (1)
- William McNeill, Plagues and Peoples (Oxford, 1977).Back to (2)
- Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies (London, 1997).Back to (3)
- Sheldon Watts, Epidemics and History: Disease, Power and Imperialism (New Haven, CT, 1997).Back to (4)
- C. A. Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World 1780–1914: Global Connections and Comparisons (Malden, 2004).Back to (5)
Iftekhar Iqbal's review has the effect on me of a truly brilliant commentary – it makes me want to go back and write the book again. I think the outcome would be largely the same, but I would have to consider underscoring the fact that I see ‘world’ history and ‘global’ history as very distinct genres, having (for me) different value. Professor Iqbal's statement ‘So, Crossley responds to her question, “how to tell a story without a center?”, through multiple stories with multiple centres. She seems to be happy about it, because she does not particularly strive to see a distinction or convergence between “global” and “world history”’ puzzles me.
The book is about narrative strategies used both in what I would call (along with Mazlish and others, whom I invoke in the book) ‘world’ and in what I would call ‘global’ histories; I note that on pp.106–7 I even call the words themselves antithetical. My conviction is that as a narrative strategy world history is coherent and accomplished (though still able to be extended to new narrative centers), while global history faces the continuing paradox of attempting to tell a story without a center. Of the two genres, I regard global history as the more important. It is also the more difficult, as some authors lean away from the materialist approach which, in the book, I regard as exemplified (though not perfected) by Andre Gunder Frank. The idea that I do not strive to see a distinction (convergence may be another question – it is true I do not see how they can converge) between world and global history is startling to me, and will be to many of the colleagues who have heard me going on about this, excessively, for years. Indeed the first edition of The Earth and its Peoples was distinguished for its conscious attempts to pursue ‘global’ in preference to ‘world’ history. I think it is possible that I muted the extremes of my opinions on this in order to present a more teachable text. But I have given Professor Iqbal the impression that world histories with multiple centers would be a satisfactory substitute for pursuing (if never achieving) a truly global history. So, anywhere I give that impression (I am still looking for the misbehaving passages) I would certainly rewrite to better suggest – if not represent the degree of – my own convictions on this. Of course, we would still be dealing with genres, and narrative strategies; Professor Iqbal acutely cites my comments on language as a limit.
Cutting-edge directions in global history get pretty brief mention in the book, mostly because I was convinced that by the time the book came out, whatever I described would have been superseded by something I would then wish I had described instead. I hazily suggested the directions in which global history was tending, hopefully pointing at the ones that were more objective as contrasted to more cultural. When Professor Iqbal writes ‘Within the categorical limits set by herself, Crossley finds no broader space for issues like the evolution of the middle class, multinational corporations, or environmental resistance at the global level’, I'm sensing that I was not clear enough about the book's emphasis on narrative strategies. I do believe that all those particular important issues would fit handily within the narrative categories I reviewed (in fact I think that the middle-class theme might have slipped into the ‘convergence’ section in the discussion of Jan Tinbergen), but in any event I do stress in the book that the narrative archetypes I identify and with which I then identify certain authors are heuristic, porous and fungible. I am hoping – along with Professor Iqbal, I think – that new strategies might indeed emerge from the pursuit of the ever-receding object of a truly global story.
I am grateful to Professor Iqbal not only for his searching and generous comments, but also his polite omission of the fact that there is a ridiculous typo on p.1 of the book, giving the wrong publication date for Wells' Outline of History (a correct date is in the associated note, and there is more commentary on my errata page); this was corrected in later printings of the book. I close with thanks both to Professor Iqbal and to IHR's journal for this wonderful method of increasing scholarly exchange.