Global Perspectives on Global History: Theories and Approaches in a Connected World

Global Perspectives on Global History: Theories and Approaches in a Connected World

What is global history? How does one study it? These are the main questions Dominic Sachsenmaier wants to answer. “It depends” seems to be his answer. Essentially, he argues against a single definition, rationale, and method for global history and shows the presence of multiple and equally valid global, historical perspectives. Debates in the United States, Germany, and China on global history all exemplify this variation.
For Sachsenmaier, strong forces have propelled the study of global history. To start with, an increasing number of historians have illustrated the inadequacy of the dominant Westphalian and Eurocentric paradigms which academia has taken for granted since the 19th century. Moreover, the forces of globalization, like immigration and global civil society, challenge historians to find new ways of understanding historical interdependencies. Luckily, these same forces provide historians with easier travel and communication opportunities that enable collaborative research extending beyond national boundaries.
Yet, no consensus exists on what global history entails. Confusingly, Sachsenmaier uses the term four different ways. First, global history is simply a historian’s work on a country other than her own. Second, it is a study that focuses on crossregional interactions. Third, it is a work that goes beyond the dominant, simple national narratives; it “complexifies” the historical record by bringing in marginalized voices. Finally, it is the recognition of diverse traditions of historiography in different parts of the world.
Human interest about the past is as old as antiquity, but the organized study of the past as an academic discipline is rather recent. Sachsenmaier traces the academic discipline of history to the nineteenth century. Before that, the writing of history was done with an unapologetic ethnocentrism in the name of one’s religion, culture, or state. With European colonization, the spread of the Westphalian nationstate model, and the emergence of modern universities in the 19th century, historians have focused on European categories, perspectives, and epistemologies. As a result of this myopic focus, the nationand state-centrism dominated the academia. Additionally, as state rulers controlled the purse, the majority of university-based historians embraced the ideals of the nation-state and wrote histories that were nationand state-centric.
In almost every corner of the world, academic historians have presented the nation as the main container of history (a community whose existence can be unproblematically projected back onto history), the state as the most civilized reflection of the nation’s aspirations, and the West as source of unquestioned dynamism in world history. Even if nationalist, Marxist, or liberal scholars differed in particulars, according to Sachsenmaier almost all of them accepted the notion of “scientific progress” and used European categories, concepts, and benchmarks as universal. These historians have largely molded history to fit into the narratives of nation, state, and European superiority.
Sachsenmaier describes how the aforementioned orientation started to decline in the 1970s. Scholars coming from different critical perspectives—dependency theory, subaltern studies, and postcolonial theory—started to object to premises privileging the nation and the state. The emergence of global history as an academic trend has been closely tied to these criticisms but has been also shaped by local factors.
In Sachsenmaier’s account, three factors are behind the rise of interest in global history in the US. First, the post-WWII preeminence of the US in world politics was associated with the funding of an array of area studies programs in American universities. Second, critical perspectives have been enormously influential in American academia. These critical voices questioned basic nation-state premise; this began with feminist theorists and critical race theorists, followed by dependency and postcolonial theorists, like Edward Said. Finally, in parallel with the pluralization of the American society, academia witnessed increasing racial and ethnic diversity and members of these groups pushed for a new understanding of history, one compatible with global history.
Compared to the US, the influence of global history in Germany has remained limited. Departing from the path of Weber and Spengler, the academy in post-WWII Germany turned inward. Sachsenmaier argues that this isolationist approach fit well with German academia’s strong tendency to thinking about history in national terms. Five factors have challenged this national focus: the interest in Germany’s brief—yet consequential—colonial adventure; Holocaust scholarship; the pluralization of German society; the interest in comparative history (which challenges the German self-understanding of sonderweg, special path); and interest in and available funding for interdisciplinary work.
Finally, Sachsenmaier discusses how the Century of Humiliation (1842-1949) shaped the Chinese mental map, fostering a keen interest in European, American, and Japanese histories. Following the Chinese Revolution, Russian history was added to the list and Marxist history dominated Chinese academic perspectives. Following the death of Mao, three factors changed the practice of academic history in China: an increase in Chinese academics with foreign PhD; the rise of Chinese economic and political prowess; and, less significantly, the influence of new critical perspectives, like dependency and subaltern theories. These influences led Chinese scholars to embrace global history and move away from Eurocentrism. Yet, these forces also strengthened the nationand state-centric narratives.
Sachsenmaier also elaborates on how the intellectual benefits of global history can be realized. He offers three: 1) focus on multilateral instead of nation-centric visions of the past; 2) the use of multiple perspectives, carrying an interdisciplinary ethos, and engaging in self-reflection; and 3) fostering cross-boundary academic collaboration. If all these are done in with changing academic structures and mental maps, interest in global history will provide new intellectual possibilities.
The weakening of the nation state, the decline of Eurocentric versions of history, and the increasing pace of globalization have all invited a reexamination of the past. These three case studies on global history illustrate uneven, complex, and varied understandings of global history. A global convergence on a single understanding of global history is unlikely. By analyzing these debates and presenting them clearly, Sachsenmaier provides a great service to historians and social scientists.