What is Global history?

By Sebastian Conrad, Fellow 1999-2000


Sebastian Conrad was a Fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg in 1999/2000. Since 2010, he has been Professor of History at the Freie Universität Berlin. He joined the Academic Advisory Board of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin in 2012. He has published on issues of colonialism and post-colonialism, trans-nationalism, intellectual history, and historiography. 

“All historians are world historians now,” C. A. Bayly has declared, somewhat provocatively – only to add, “though many have not yet realized it.” (1) Indeed, there can be no doubt that global/world history is currently booming. In the United States, and in the Anglophone world more generally, it has been the fastest-growing field within the discipline in the last decades. Also in parts of Europe, as well as in East Asia, global history is on the rise and is increasingly being taken up enthusiastically by a younger generation of historians. Journals and conventions are appearing everywhere, and in many places “global dimensions” have become an almost obligatory part of successful project proposals. But does this rise in popularity make every historian a global historian? What kind of global history is meant by this? And why is this happening now?

There are many reasons for this boom. Above all, interest in global processes increased significantly after the end of the Cold War, and then again after September 11, 2001. As “globalization” became the current key word, the necessity to go back in time and explore the historical origins of the process appeared immediately self-evident. In many places, in particular in immigrant societies, global history is also a response to social challenges and to demands to create a more inclusive, less narrowly national perspective on the past. The curricular shift from Western Civilization to global history in the United States is a typical result of such social pressures. Within the academy, such trends have reinforced the dissatisfaction with the long-standing and pervasive tendency to conceive national histories as the history of discrete, self-contained spaces. (2)

In addition, the communication revolution since the 1990s has had an important impact on our interpretations of the past. Historians – and their readers – are traveling and experiencing the world in unprecedented numbers. The Internet and increased mobility have facilitated the networking of historians and made it possible for global forums to emerge, even if the voices from formerly colonized countries are often barely discernible. As a result, historians are today dealing with a large number of competing narratives, and they see potential precisely in this diversity of voices. And finally, the network logic that is encouraged by computer technology has also affected the thinking of historians. Writing history in the twenty-first century is different from what it used to be.

Why global history? Beyond internalism and Eurocentrism

Global history was born out of the impression that the tools historians use to analyze the past are no longer sufficient. Globalization has posed a fundamental challenge to the social sciences and to the dominant narratives of social change. Entanglement and networks characterize the present moment, which has itself emerged from systems of interactions and exchange. But in many respects, the social sciences today are no longer adequately able to pose questions and generate answers that help to understand the reality of a networked and globalized world.

In particular, two “birth defects” of the modern social sciences and humanities stand in the way of a systematic grasp of processes that span the world. Both of them trace back to the formation of the modern academic disciplines in nineteenth-century Europe. First, the genesis of the social sciences and humanities was tied to the nation state. In their themes and questions, but also in their societal function, fields like history, sociology, and philology remained tied to a country’s own society. Beyond that, the “methodological nationalism” of the academic disciplines meant that, theoretically and beyond individual cases, the nation state was presupposed as the fundamental unit of investigation, the territorial state as the “container” of society. The commitment to territorially bounded containers was more pronounced in the field of history than in some of the neighboring disciplines. Knowledge of the world was thereby discursively and institutionally pre-structured in such a way that the constituting role of exchange relationships tended to be blocked from view. History, in most quarters, was limited to national history. (3)

Second, the modern disciplines were deeply Eurocentric. They placed European developments in the foreground and saw Europe as the central driving force of world history. Even more fundamentally, the conceptual toolbox of the social sciences and humanities stylized European history into a model of universal development. Ostensibly analytical terms like nation, revolution, society, and progress transformed concrete European experience into a (universalistic) language of theory that presumably applied everywhere. Methodologically speaking, then, through this imposition of particular categories on everybody else’s past, the modern disciplines rendered all other societies colonies of Europe. (4)

Global history is one attempt to face these challenges and to overcome the two birth defects of the modern disciplines. It is thus a revisionist approach – even if it builds on a whole series of forerunners, as issues such as migration, colonialism, and trade have long been of interest to historians. The interest in examining cross-border phenomena may not in itself be new; but now it comes with the claim to change the terrain on which historians think. Generally put, therefore, global history has a polemical dimension, as it mounts an attack on many forms of container-based paradigms, chief among them national history. As we will discuss in more detail in chapter 4, it is a corrective to internalist, or genealogical, versions of historical thinking that try to explain historical change from within.

At the same time, and beyond issues of method, global history aims to effect a change in the organization and institutional order of knowledge. In many countries, history was long equated in practice with that country’s own national history; most Italian historians work on Italy, most of their Korean colleagues study Korea; virtually everywhere, generations of students were initiated by handbooks narrating the national past. In that respect, the call for global history is also a call for inclusiveness, for a broader vision: other pasts were history, too.

And even where faculties are well staffed and prepared for broader coverage, they tend to present the histories of nations and civilizations as monads, in isolation. The Chinese textbooks on world history, for example, categorically exclude China – as the national past is taught in a different institute. The compartmentalization of historical reality – into national and world history, into history and area studies – means that parallels and entanglements cannot come into view. The case for global history is thus also a plea to overcome such fragmentation and to arrive at a more comprehensive understanding of the interactions and connections that have made the modern world.

Global history is certainly not the sole game in town; it is not an approach that is fundamentally superior. It is one approach among many, and is better suited to addressing certain questions and concerns than others. Its core concerns are with mobility and exchange, with processes that transcend borders and boundaries. People, ideas, and institutions are among the key subjects of this approach.

As an initial and still very general approximation, global history describes a form of historical analysis in which phenomena, events, or processes are placed in global contexts. There is disagreement, however, on how that is best achieved. Numerous other approaches – ranging from comparative and transnational history to world and big history, to postcolonial studies and the history of globalization – currently compete for scholarly attention. Just like global history, they undertake to come to terms with the connectivities of the past.

These different paradigms each come with an emphasis of its own; we will take up some of the most prominent variants in chapter 3 below. However, one should not exaggerate the distinctions between them; there are also many commonalities and areas of overlap. In fact, it has proven difficult to rigidly define what makes global history specific and unique. And if we look at the actual usage of the term, the task does not get any easier. Any superficial look at the current literature immediately reveals that the term is used, and hijacked, for a variety of different purposes; frequently, it is employed interchangeably with other terms. Its widespread use displays both the attractiveness and the elusiveness of the concept, rather than its methodological rigidity. (5)

Three varieties of global history

In this situation of eclecticism and theoretical confusion, it may nevertheless be helpful to heuristically distinguish different reactions to the challenge of the global. Glossing over some of the specifics, they may be said to fall into one of three camps: global history as the history of everything, as the history of connections, and as the history of integration. Let’s take them up in turn.

First, one way to approach global history is to equate it with the history of everything. “Global history, strictly understood, is the history of what happens worldwide,” write Felipe Fernández-Armesto and Benjamin Sacks, “across the planet as a whole, as if viewed from a cosmic crow’s nest, with the advantages of immense distance and panoptic range.” From such an omnivorous perspective, everything that ever happened on earth is a legitimate ingredient of global history. (6)

In actual practice, this has led to very different strategies. The most prominent versions are the works of large-scale synthesis that attempt to capture global reality in a specific period. The nineteenth century, for example, has found several sophisticated biographers, while others content themselves with a global panorama of a particular year. Still others have extended the scope and portrayed whole millennia, if not the “history of the world” tout court. In the case of big history, the scale is expanded still further, ranging from the big bang right into the present. Whatever the scale, the general mode is identical: The “global” here refers to planetary comprehensiveness. (7)

In similar ways, historians have chosen to trace a particular idea or historical formation through the ages and across the planet. Particularly convincing examples of this kind of work are studies on the global history of empire that chart imperial formations and their strategies of population management from Ancient Rome (or from Tamerlane) to the present. (8) But in principle, any object is good enough and is eligible for a global biography. We now have global histories of kingship and of courtesans; histories of tea and coffee, of sugar and cotton, of glass and gold; histories of migration and trade; global histories of nature and of religion; histories of war and of peace. The examples are legion.

While the term global history may thus suggest worldwide coverage, this is not necessarily the case. In principle, anything can become a legitimate subject for global historians: global history as omnibus. A study of South African mine workers in Witwatersrand, of the coronation of Hawaiian king Kalakaua, and of a village in thirteenth-century Southern France is then potentially also a contribution to global history. Once it is established that global history is everything, everything can become global history. This is less absurd than it seems. The situation was not so different in the days when national history reigned supreme. Here, too, coverage did not necessarily extend to the nation as a whole. Nobody would doubt, for example, that a biography of Benjamin Franklin or an in-depth study of the automobile industry in Detroit are also contributions to the history of the United States. Once the overall framework of national history was established, everything within that container seemed a natural ingredient.

The same is true for the all-in version of global history. Studies of the working classes in Buenos Aires, Dakar, or Livorno can contribute to a global history of labor, even if they do not explore those global horizons themselves. This is particularly so if historians take account of and are inspired by studies on similar phenomena, such as Dipesh Chakrabarty’s book on jute workers in Bengal or Frederick Cooper’s study on the dock workers in Mombasa. (9) The global history appeal is enhanced when historians conduct their studies with similar cases in mind and with books on related subjects in other parts of the globe on their reading lists.

A second paradigm in the field puts the focus on exchange and connections. This is the most popular form research has taken in recent years. The general insight is that no society, nation, or civilization exists in isolation. From the earliest times on, human life on the planet was characterized by mobility and interactions. Therefore, such movements form the privileged subject of a global history understood primarily as the history of entanglements. This infatuation with connectivity complements, and thus corrects, what we could call the frugality of earlier frameworks that more or less stopped the intellectual journey at the borders of the nation-state, empire, or civilization.

There is no limit to the topics that can be studied from such a perspective, ranging from people on the move to circulating ideas and trade across distances. Again, the reach of the networks and connections may vary and does not have to be planetary. The extent of these relationships depends on the subject matter and the questions asked: trade in the Mediterranean, the Hajj across the Indian Ocean, chain migrations between China and Singapore, diplomatic missions to the Vatican. In all of these instances, the interconnectedness of the world, which can be traced back over centuries, is the starting point for global historical research.

Both versions of global history discussed so far apply in principle to all places and to all times. This is different with the third and narrower approach that presumes some form of global integration. As we will discuss in more detail below (chapters 4 and 6), this refers to patterns of exchange that were regular, sustained and thus able to shape societies in profound ways. There have always been cross-border exchanges, but their operation and impact depended on the degree of systemic integration on a global scale.

This is the direction most of the more sophisticated recent studies have pursued. Take as one example Christopher Hill’s work on the emergence of modern history writing in France, the United States, and Japan in the late nineteenth century. In this book, the author does not analyze the three cases in relation to the traditions of writing about the past in all three countries, as a more traditional historiography was prone to do. Neither is the focus primarily on the connections between them. Rather, Hill places all three nations in the context of domestic change and global transformations. All three societies faced the challenge of internal upheavals – the United States was recovering from Civil War, France from defeat by Prussia, while Japan reshaped its polity in the wake of the Meiji Restoration. At the same time, they were enmeshed in the fundamental restructuring of world order by capitalism and the international state system. At this juncture, history writing served as a means to conceptualize the different position of each nation within this larger and hierarchical order and to make the emergence of the nation-state seem necessary and natural. Analytically, then, the emphasis is on the possible global determinants that shaped the historical narratives emerging in the three places. (10)

In this vein, historians have explicitly situated particular cases in their global contexts. They seek to explain “the contingencies and ground-level processes of human activity with[in] the structures that are at once the products and the conditions of that activity.” (11) In this reading, the global becomes the ultimate frame of reference for any understanding of the past. In principle, such contextualization is not confined to the most recent past, and can be applied to various periods; the degree of integration, however, may in some instances be rather weak. The more the world has transformed into a single political, economic, and cultural entity, however, the stronger the causal links on the global level. As a result of the proliferation and perpetuation of links, local events are increasingly shaped by a global context that can be understood structurally or even systemically.

Process and perspective

Global history is both an object of study and a particular way of looking at history: it is both a process and a perspective, a subject matter and a methodology. In this Janus-faced character, it resembles other fields/approaches in the discipline, such as social history and gender history. In practice, the two dimensions are usually linked, but for heuristic purposes, we can keep them apart. Generally put, we can differentiate between global history as the perspective of historians, as the perspective of historical actors, and as a scale of the historical process itself. (12)

When historians opt for a global perspective, they in some ways create the global that is at issue. This is apparent in the case of comparisons, in particular when such comparisons do not rely on exchange between both cases or on strong causal links. If we compare, to take a typical example, the Roman Empire and Han China, the global perspective is entirely in the eye of the beholder. There were hardly any significant links between these two cases, and an encompassing world economy had not yet emerged. When we then compare the strategies of conquest and border control and of population management and the negotiation of ethnic and religious difference, we need to assume a global history of empire as the yardstick against which to measure both cases. The “global” can then not be read off the historical record, but is a construct of the historian.

In general, global history is one perspective among others. It is a heuristic device that allows posing questions and generating answers that are different from those created by other approaches. The history of slavery in the Atlantic world is a good example. Historians have inquired into the social history of the slave population, their working conditions, and their community formation. They have used a gender approach to speak about families and childhood, sexuality and masculinity. The economic history of slavery has been very prolific, focusing on productivity rates, on life standards compared with other workers and indentured servants, and on the macro-economic impact of plantation production. However, the experience of slavery and the slave trade can also be placed in a global context. Apart from the issues already mentioned, this would put different issues on the agenda: the creation of a transatlantic space in the “Black Atlantic;” the repercussions of the trade on societies in West Africa; the connections to complementary slave routes across the Sahara and the Indian Ocean; the comparison with other forms of enslavement; and so forth. Global history as a perspective highlights particular dimensions of the slave experience, while potentially being less attentive to others.

An important effect of treating global history also as a perspective is that research does not necessarily have to encompass the entire globe. This is an important caveat. The rhetoric of the global may suggest limitless coverage; but many topics are best studied in more confined spaces. This also means that most global history approaches do not attempt to replace the established paradigm of national history with an abstract totality of the “world,” i.e., to write a total history of the planet. It is often more a matter of writing a history of demarcated, i.e., non-“global,” spaces, but with an awareness of global connections and structural conditions. Global history, then, is not a synonym for macro-history. The most interesting questions often arise at the intersection of global processes and their local manifestations.

On the other hand, however, global history is not solely a perspective. Any attempt to contextualize globally will have to consider the degree and quality of the entanglements of the world. The implications of the Vienna stock market crash in 1873 were not the same as those of the economic crises of 1929 and 2008 – simply because the degree to which the world economy and the media were integrated in the 1870s had not yet attained the density of later years. In this respect, global-history-as-perspective is also, often implicitly, tied to assumptions about the ability of cross-border structures to impact on events and on societies. We will return to this tension between process and perspective in the chapters that follow. (13)

Promises and limits

The global history trend currently seems unlikely to halt, and it has already helped to bring about some significant changes in historical scholarship. One clear indication of this is the fact that the major history journals, such as the American Historical Review and Past & Present, have increasingly published work in this new field. Global history has long ceased to be merely a niche or sub-discipline; it has turned into a broad trend that extends to both research and teaching. Specialized journals, book series, and conferences have created forums for scholars to exchange ideas and discuss research. These forums do not exist in parallel to the rest of the discipline; they are not a luxury that one must be able to afford. This differs from the situation even in the twentieth century, when “world history” was an occupation of established and generally older historians. Today even dissertations may pursue a global agenda. The approach has also entered teaching, in individual seminars or entire degree courses. It is also interesting to note that the debate is advanced in very diverse quarters. Environmental and economic historians are as interested in the global historical context as social and cultural historians. A global history perspective can essentially be integrated into all aspects of historical scholarship.

In the light of the interconnectedness of today’s world, it is difficult to imagine that this trend could simply be reversed anytime soon. At the same time, there are also many obstacles to overcome. Institutionally, creating space for the new approach may remain an arduous process. Even in Western Europe or the United States, it can by no means be taken for granted that the discipline of history, so heavily dominated by the history of the nation, will be open to concerns of a global historical scope. And even where global perspectives have garnered general support, they compete with other approaches for funds and positions. Every hire in global history may mean sacrificing a position in medieval history or other time-honored fields of the national past. Global history does not come for free. (14)

All in all, the rise of global perspectives is an important development that helps us move away from a merely partial view of reality. As territorial boundaries can no longer be assumed as given, history as a result has become more complex. In retrospect, some older studies may come to seem like discussions of a football match that look at only one of the two teams, to say nothing of other factors such as the audience, weather conditions, and league ranking. Global history opens up a view of processes that were for a long time invisible, or at least considered irrelevant, within the knowledge systems of the academy.

In important ways, then, this is a welcome and in some respects even liberating development. However, here, too, the adage applies that everything new comes at a price. A global history approach is not a panacea or a passe-partout. Not every research question requires a global perspective; not always is the global context the most central. Not everything is linked and connected to everything else. It is therefore important not to regard global history as an absolute – neither the historiographical perspective nor the reach and density of the entanglements it explores. In every situation, a whole range of forces are at play, and the cross-border, let alone global, processes are not a priori the most important of them. Many phenomena will continue to be studied in concrete, precisely demarcated contexts. It will be difficult to go back and to forsake the insights that the global turn has generated. At the same time, the rise of global history must not cause us to lose sight of historical actors who were not integrated in extensive networks and to turn them into victims of a current obsession with mobility, circulation, and flows.

  • (1) C. A. Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World, 1780–1914, Oxford (Blackwell) 2004, 469.
  • (2) Anthony G. Hopkins (ed.), Globalization in World History, London (Pimlico) 2002; Thomas Bender (ed.), Rethinking American History in a Global Age, Berkeley, CA (University of California Press) 2002.
  • (3) Kenneth Pomeranz, Histories for a Less National Age, American Historical Review 119 (2014), 1-22; Immanuel Wallerstein et al. (eds.), Open the Social Sciences: Report of the Gulbenkian Commission on the Restructuring of the Social Sciences, Stanford, CA (Stanford University Press) 1996.
  • (4) For the notion of birth defects, see Jerry H. Bentley, Introduction: The Task of World History , in: Bentley (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of World History, Oxford (Oxford University Press) 2011, 1-16.
  • (5) Dominic Sachsenmaier, Global History, Version: 1.0, Docupedia-Zeitgeschichte, 11 Feb. 2010, http://docupedia.de/zg/Global_History?oldid=84616.
  • (6) Felipe Fernández-Armesto and Benjamin Sacks, Networks, Interactions, and Connective History, in: Douglas Northrop (ed.), A Companion to World History, Oxford (Wiley-Blackwell) 2012, 303-320, quote: 303.
  • (7) Examples include: for the nineteenth century, C. A. Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World, 1780–1914, Oxford (Blackwell) 2004; Jürgen Osterhammel, The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century, Princeton (Princeton University Press) 2014; for years, Olivier Bernier, The World in 1800, New York (Wiley) 2000; John E. Wills, 1688: A Global History, New York (W. W. Norton) 2002; for the last millennium, David S. Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some are so Rich and Some are so Poor, New York (Norton) 1998; for the world, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, The World: A Brief History, New York (Pearson Prentice Hall) 2007; for big history, David Christian, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History, Berkeley (University of California Press) 2004.
  • (8) John Darwin, After Tamerlane: The Global History of Empire, London (Penguin Books) 2007; Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper, Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference, Princeton (Princeton University Press) 2010.
  • (9) Dipesh Chakrabarty, Rethinking Working-Class History: Bengal 1890–1940, New Haven (Yale University Press) 1987; Frederick Cooper, On the African Waterfront: Urban Disorder and the Transformation of Work in Colonial Mombasa, New Haven (Yale University Press) 1987.
  • (10) Christopher L. Hill, National History and the World of Nations: Capital State and the Rhetoric of History in Japan France and the United States, Durham, NC (Duke University Press) 2008.
  • (11) Arif Dirlik, Performing the World: Reality and Representation in the Making of World Histor(ies), Journal of World History 16 (2005), 391–410, quote: 396.
  • (12) Samuel Moyn and Andrew Sartori, Approaches to Global Intellectual History, in: Moyn and Sartori (eds.), Global Intellectual History, 3-30.
  • (13) See the very useful discussion in Jürgen Osterhammel, Globalizations, in: Jerry H. Bentley (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of World History, Oxford (Oxford University Press) 2011, 89–104.
  • (14) Christopher Bayly, History and World History, in: Ulinka Rublack (ed.), A Concise Companion to History, Oxford (Oxford University Press) 2011, 13.