Re-examining the Study of History: from prejudice to relegation (Part-I)

Re-examining the Study of History: from prejudice to relegation (Part-I)

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Reviewing the famous book of Sebastian Conrad

Conrad, S. (2017). What is global history?

The Battle For Global History Image © The Radical Outlook

By Shahzada Rahim

Background

Till today, we have been studying history through western-oriented methods that include speculations and western idealized knowledge. For instance, the word ‘Orientalism’ is the very fictitious idea of the Occident to declare colonized world as inferior and uncivilized. The classical and neo-classical history, we read today is completely based on the territorial logic that is a bit awkward and primordial to understand the language of history.

History beyond Internalism and Euro-Centrism

If we overhaul the domain of social sciences; there are two birth defects of social sciences and Humanities: First, the genesis of social sciences and humanities is tied to the Nation-State. And, beyond this is a methodological nationalism of the academic discipline. Theoretically, the nation-state presupposed as the fundamental unit of investigation and territorial entity remained as the ‘container’ of the society. In a nutshell, History is tied and limited to national history. Secondly, the modern academic disciplines are completely Euro-centric. And, this places Europe as the center of everything and declares it as the forerunner and major driving force of global history.[1]

Moreover, it perceives European history as a model for universal development and this simple thing is that the entire historian thinks via the European terrain. Basically, Global History aims at affecting change in organization and international order of thinking. This is gross compartmentalization of historical reality into national and world history, history into area studies to avoid the parallel entanglement. In the framework, Global History can be defined as a form of historical analysis in which phenomena, events, and processes are placed in the global context. But, today there is a wider debate over big history, post-colonial history, and history of globalization.

Three Varieties of Global History

The first variety is to equate global history with the history of everything; it is the history of what happens worldwide. In the latter context, whatever happens on earth is the ingredient of global history. Perhaps, this ranges from the history of tea, coffee to the history of war, peace, and conflict — Global History as Omnibus.

The Global history as a perspective is tied to assumptions — likewise, the dialect between the perspective and process is very different. Historically, there is needed to keep the perspective and process apart. It is because; these two chronologies do not neatly correspond to each other. Therefore, there should be a global historical scope while writing the national history.

The second variety focuses on exchange and connections. Throughout human history, human societies and civilizations have always been in contact. There was a gross movement of people, culture, traditions, morals, and goods. Finally, this intellectual journey came to halt at the border of the nation state, empires and civilization. [2] In the recent decades, the epic migration of people has created inter-connectedness and inter-relations. In this regard, the word ‘Global’ can be contextualized as the student of global past. Therefore, global history is the object of the study, subject matter and methodology. The perspective of historians can be different from the historical process itself — for instance, the experience of slavery and slave can be put in the same context.

Similarly, many historians treats global history as the perspective — for instance an economic and gender history but this perspective does not encompass the entire globe. On the contrary, many people do not place the paradigm of national history with the abstract totality called ‘world’ — the macro-history V/s micro-history. Moreover, it is a fact that we cannot understand the history of a single nation without understanding its connections with the global history. For instance, the implication of the Vienna stock market crash in 1973 was not same as those of the Great Depression of 1928 and 2008. [3]

In this regard, the Global history as a perspective is tied to assumptions — likewise, the dialect between the perspective and process is very different. Historically, there is needed to keep the perspective and process apart. It is because; these two chronologies do not neatly correspond to each other. Therefore, there should be a global historical scope while writing the national history.

On the other hand, there is a big difference between the global context and global perspective. Every research project does not require global perspective but there must be a global context at the center.

A short history of thinking globally

Imagining the world has never been automatic outcome of global integration — in order to understand the conception of the ‘Global’, then we need to understand how the world have changed over time. It was in the Eurasian Region where the global consciousness began to emerge especially, when Europe emerged as a continental Hegemon through material and national development. Perhaps, all the historians from Herodotus to Ibn-Khuldoon had written the history in their own perspective by considering the world around it.

It was the cross-continental migration in the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, which has changed this popular trend. For instance, the greater interaction of the Americas with Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Africa has given birth to a cognitive and cultural challenge that became an alternative to dynastic/imperial historiography. Many historians believed that western India was populated by migrants from Asia — for instance, Henrich Martin of the Hamburg recorded this. Finally, it was Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the Americas that has opened the consciousness of Historians.

In the ancient ‘Egyptian Chronicles’ all the non-Egyptians were considered as ‘vile enemies’ besides treaties and peace between them. It is because, for Egyptians, only their homeland was rationally ordered world while the rest of the world was alien to them. Famous Greek historian, Herodotus in his nine volumes of history declared the struggle between the Greeks and Persians as the fight between freedom and despotism — orients v/s occident. In this way, he has given birth to his dialectics of civilization, the battle between two contradictory forces; civilization V/S barbarism, which indeed still shapes the historiography of our time — his dominant ideology was ‘Othering’.

It was the contact of Greeks with the other civilizations that gave birth to the word ‘Barbarism’. It is because; all the great historians of the past have described other societies through their own inherent logic. In this way, the moral categorization of other groups has prevailed through this logic — the world historical model was not present during the ancient time. For instance, Ibn Khuldoon (1332–1408), based his famous masterpiece ‘Al-Muqadma’ on causal explanation.[4] Likewise, the earlier political model was typical because, it emerged with the Christians as the ‘Kingdom of God’, and with Islam as ‘Dar-ul-Islam’, which means the ‘House of Islam’.

The earlier Historical Models: world History in the Sixteenth and Eighteenth century

It is a fact that the Ecumenical History remained very popular till the dawn of the nineteenth century, when it began to change. Basically, it was the cross-continental migration in the sixteenth and eighteenth century, which has changed this popular trend. For instance, the greater interaction of Americas with Asia, Middle East, Europe, and Africa has given birth to a cognitive and culture challenge that became alternative to dynastic / imperial historiography. Many historians believed that western India was populated by migrants from Asia — for instance, Henrich Martin of the Hamburg recorded this. Finally, it was Christopher Columbus voyage to the Americas that has opened the consciousness of Historians. [5] It was the Historical contribution of the classical Historians of the late 16th and 18th century, which gave birth to historical models. It was famous British historian Edward D. Gibbon, who wrote about the ‘Rise and fall of Roman Empire’ developed a kind of new historical method. Basically, it was the work of Voltaire (1694–1778) and Edward Gibbon (1737–1794) which covered the history of the Eurasian continent, from the decline of Roman Empire to the rise of Mongols in Central Asia and till the conquest of Constantinople by Turkmen in 1458.

World History on the Age of Western Hegemony

With cultural and industrial triumph of the west, the conventional historiography went under severe development via methodological perspective. The west calls this new method as rational and empirical against the mythical and religious method of the past. But, in the recent years, the modern European scholarship went under severe decline because of the rise of post-colonial studies that overshadowed so-called modernization imperative and deemed in terms of the imposition of the cultural values and manifestation of Imperial Hegemony.[6] Their claim is right, because the world order dominated by Europe compelled the rest of the world to accept their version and interpretation of past-history.

the interpretation of history always responds to the changing geopolitical balance of power. Today, many post-colonial historians claim that, there is a sound presence of the Euro-centric worldview in the history. There is a imprint of the geopolitics on history because of the integration of the globe under European hegemony — the post-colonial critique.

Finally, with the ascendency of the liberal world order in the nineteenth century across Europe called the ‘Nation’ as the driving force of history with their general perspective of ‘Modernization’. On the contrary, the Positivism of Augustus Comte and the social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer also played a Great role in shaping Western version of the historical method. Moreover, the positivist enlightenment historiography involves progress, science, secularization and liberal freedom. Perhaps, this method fits naturally with the power politics, international state system and the free trade regimes. Likewise, this has led to the standardization of the historical analysis. Today there is a need of correction in this standard method of historical analysis that took the historical totality for granted. [7]

On the contrary, the interpretation of history always responds to the changing geopolitical balance of power. Today, many post-colonial historians claim that, there is a sound presence of the Euro-centric worldview in the history. There is a imprint of the geopolitics on history because of the integration of the globe under European hegemony — the post-colonial critique.

It was the face of global integration through imperial structure, and expanding markets, the Euro-centric historiography became the natural basis of history. Likewise, the Euro-centric conception of space and time must be understood as a result of global hierarchies and asymmetrical geopolitical structures.

Hegel in his famous ‘lectures on the history of philosophy’ reduced the history of non-Europeans to pre-history — such as his infamous metaphor, Africa as the ‘Land of Childhood’. Whole lectures are filled with metaphors such as “the history of Aryan race is often literally labeled as the world history”. It was another famous German philosopher Karl Marx, who developed a new version of material approach towards history by saying that; “it was the bourgeoisie exploitation of the world market that has given birth to the major cosmopolitan centers across the west”. Likewise, in the sub-continent, it was famous literary writer Ribindranath Tagore, who based his understanding of history through a dichotomy between the material west and spiritual East.

The Marxist model of Historical development is based on the deductive approach, which considers empirical research as the theoretical priori. Especially, the world system theory emerged as a major reaction against the existing theories, which can be explained infamous dictum of Lenin “the world history of one Country”.

The World History after 1945

It was famous Historian Arnold J. Toynbee in the middle of the twentieth century wrote a famous book ‘Study of History’ which was published in twelve separate volumes. In his book, Toynbee divided the world into twenty-one civilizations; each is characterized by specific culture, religion and with their own international logic that would explain its rise and fall. With this famous masterpiece, he became one of the renowned historians of the contemporary era. Besides, it is a fact that till the 1990s, the world history remained in peculiar conditions because the existing nations of the time laid down much of their focus on national history and it was the Euro-centric oriented historical method that became the yardstick for writing national history.

When William McNeil wrote his famous book ‘The Rise of the West’ in 1963, it swiftly became a cornerstone for the meta-narrative of the Euro-Centrism and its hegemony. Moreover, in the modernist discourse, the book has projected the occidental traditions based on the European enlightenment and industrial achievement. [8]On the contrary, Toynbee projected the idea of civilization in the study of history while William McNeil projected the idea of modernization — unlike the Marxist tradition of historical materialism. Moreover, the fact cannot be denied that after 1945, the Marxist historical tradition became very popular not only in the Soviet Union but also in the Eastern Europe, Latin America, India, Italy, and Spain. It is because; after the communist revolution in Russia and China, the discourse of world history was institutionalized. The specialized institutes and departments were established across China to develop world history.

Basically, the Marxist model of Historical development is based on the deductive approach, which considers empirical research as the theoretical priori. Especially, the world system theory emerged as a major reaction against the existing theories, which can be explained infamous dictum of Lenin “the world history of one Country”. In this regard, famous French philosopher Immanuel Wallerstein provided a substantive global context to study world history instead of just relying on the abstract logic of historical development. Wallerstein claimed that all the regions and nations of the world have been gradually incorporated into the European world system — its history. In this way, Immanuel Wallerstein gave birth to a new historical scholarship of the critical perspective.

This criticism was based on the fact that ‘Backwardness’ and ‘Poverty’ were not because of the local traditions rather because of the dynamics of the global economy. More precisely, the consequences of these traditions led to the further integration of the structures of global Capitalism.

Finally, this new perspective has challenged the Euro-centric assumptions by involving various clusters of social engineering ranges from gender history to literary history. Moreover, the specialization in regional history with a broader perspective has also put a major challenge to the very concept of William McNeil’s “Rise of the West”. In this way, the rise of non-western perspectives challenged the Euro-centric meta-narratives of world history. on the other hand, the rise of postcolonial studies and its proponents have basically dumped the very Euro-centric narratives of the west.

On the contrary, the work of the post-colonial writers has developed a full-fledged criticism against the so-called western-civilizing mission — the so-called universal path to development. Moreover, this critical perspective has given birth to the anti-imperialist protests such as the worker’s movement in France in 1968. Especially, with the development of the dependency theory, which was mainly developed by the Latin American Social Scientists have staunchly criticized the United States model of development towards the South.

This criticism was based on the fact that ‘Backwardness’ and ‘Poverty’ were not because of the local traditions rather because of the dynamics of the global economy. More precisely, the consequences of these traditions led to the further integration of the structures of global Capitalism. Likewise, the establishment of the subaltern groups in India paved the way for the development of subaltern studies that put a huge challenge to Euro-centric assumptions. Because they attempted to write the history through the perspective of ‘Sub-altern’ and ‘marginalized’ classes — the history from below.

This group used the models developed by Gramsci, Derrida, Edward Said, and Michel Foucault. With the dawn of the twentieth century, world history writings have diversified and a united criticism came to the forefront to challenge the Euro-centric assumptions and meta-narratives. Throughout history, the world under the discussion has been never ‘same’ because it has changed over time.

Competing Approaches and theories

It is a historical chronology that has compartmentalized history into different categories such as the history of colonialism and imperialism, history of mobility and migration, and the history of the environment. Basically, the graveyard challenges are emerging out of nothing. There are also some areas of intellectual history that are very different from ordinary history. In the academic marketplace, the global history is suffering from severe crisis — there are five major approaches:

  1. Comparative studies
  2. Transnational studies
  3. World-system theory
  4. Post-colonial studies
  5. The concept of multiple-modernities

Here the point is to be noted that, there is a sharp difference between these paradigms. They often go beyond the interpretive hegemony of the west — for instance, historical scholarship and the project of state-building. [9]


Author

Shahzada Rahim is a Geopolitical analyst and International Relations, Expert.


Endnotes

[1] What post-colonial experts often proclaim; “we have read a lot of history, and now it is time to realize it”.

[2] The fact cannot be denied that we are being introduced to history by narrating the national past — it is time the world history needs a broader vision.

[3] There are two sub-discipline of history; Gender history and economic history.

[4] Moreover, it is fact that all the historians have constructed the world through the perspective of their own ecumene — while the others were judged through moral and political canon.

[5] Mustafa Ali, a famous Ottoman Historian wrote a famous book on this “the essence of History” published in 1541.

[6] The world historical perspective has developed multiple genealogical and historiographical traditions that gave birth to the Modern historical method.

[7] Basically, the theorists and the pioneers of the post-colonial studies have remained attached to the notion of the diffusion of European idea.

[8] The famous modernist historical discourse of William McNeil has divided the world into two portions: developed means occident and under-developed means Orient — the same historical pattern was followed after decolonization.

[9] The concrete assumption about globalization overcoming borders is not timeless. It was aimed at reconstructing the western meta-narratives of the world history.


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The Radical Outlook

The Radical Outlook is an online news web Portal designed for in-depth news analysis from the Eurasian region and beyond. It is Founded by a geopolitical analyst Shahzada Rahim.
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