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Global History?


The London Review of Books is proud of Alan Bennett’s contention that it is “the most radical literary magazine we have”. Its reputation for radicalism is part of what makes Linda Colley’s most recent essay for the magazine so interesting. Colley, who is perhaps best known for her work on nations and nationalism, tackles in a review of a new volume entitled The French Revolution in Global Perspective the thorny issue of ‘global history’. The full article isn’t available to non-subscribers, unfortunately, but a few extracts give a flavour:

As to ‘global history’, the first book in English to incorporate that phrase in its title seems to have been Hans Kohn’s The Age of Nationalism: The First Era of Global History. Published in 1962, it formed part of a multi-volume series called World Perspectives, designed to address ‘our growing global age’. ‘Globalisation’, though, is a more recent coinage. It wasn’t until the 1990s that it noticeably infiltrated media and political chatter. Since then, the global turn in history writing has moved faster, made more noise, and spun in quite different directions.

The evolving effects of decolonisation and their intellectual repercussions have been one reason for this. On the one hand, postcolonial scholarship has tended to sweep aside earlier attempts at universal history, dismissing them as little more than celebrations of the modernising impact of the West. On the other, a dramatic rise in new research into Asian, South Asian, African, Latin American and Pacific histories has worked to challenge and modify interpretations of some of the set-pieces of the past. Thus accounts of the ‘first industrial revolution’ are now likely to address not merely Britain’s European competitors, but also the input of its slave plantations in the Caribbean, the role of textile technologies learned from India, and the degree to which all 17th and early 18th-century European powers lagged behind China economically. These trends in recent history writing – a deliberate and much greater stress on how major changes in the West in past centuries were triggered or moulded by developments elsewhere – have piggy-backed on and been reinforced by shifts in the postwar global order: Europe’s continuing decline, the resurgence of the great Asian powers, and the rise of new powers in Africa and Latin America.


The need for historians to continue investigating national and local history while also embracing and advancing what is useful in the global turn poses challenges for all universities, especially at a time of contracting resources. In many American history departments, more jobs have been created in non-Western history by means of reducing the number of appointments allocated to European history. In some universities, indeed, Europe is now increasingly treated as a homogeneous bloc, to be covered by a single historian. Manifestly, some rebalancing is necessary and overdue. Moreover, many American students – and growing numbers of European ones – tend now to prefer transnational and global history to courses devoted to a single country. But unless arrangements can be put in place to ensure that specialised research into particular countries continues in some universities at least, our understanding of the past will be impoverished and distorted. As always, much depends on what we think history should be for, and on what we want it to do.

Colley’s essay mentions much more besides – the role of Massive Open Online Courses in future university provision, the extent to which the French Revolution has been almost uniquely always interpreted in a global context, and the potentially flattening consequences of too strong an emphasis on global trends or a loosening of periodicity. There is often a baby in the bath-water!

The LRB’s reputation for radicalism is enough to underscore the fact that Colley’s counsel isn’t merely reactionary conservatism – but a real attempt simultaneously to open up and protect the discipline of history. That, in fact, is another good reason for students to browse the magazine from time to time – in its accessible intelligence, it will not only open you up to new periods of and ways of doing history … but, for those of you taking our HUMS courses, a solid grounding in complementary issues across a range of interconnected disciplines …

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