Why Do Expectations Persist that Global History Should Be History?

Pamela K. Crossley, Dartmouth College

The frequency with which books appear announcing a “new” approach to “global history” by invoking this or that theory from historical sociology is puzzling, since what we casually call “global history” obviously is and has always been historical sociology. It has never been history as conducted by historians. There is no archive of global history, no new global history data to be discovered, evaluated, refined into knowledge and narrative. That is the peculiar role of the historian, whose skills conform more precisely to the twenty-first century need for a science of credibility than those of nearly any specialists, should historians ever care to inform the world of it. History is not the study of the past, but the arts of arguing the probability that there is a past. It is in the final analysis a literary enterprise driven by the goal of wresting narratives of human experience from the evidentiary record.

By contrast “global” history is a derivative enterprise in which historical scholarship is harvested and husked, usually under the flail of one sociological theory or another (more or less obvious), to affirm that the past is largely predictable and future discoveries by historians will confirm it. Historians are not by definition trained to do global history (pace some graduate programs that produce global historians who can rarely fulfil the actual role of historians), but any historian can decide to take it up, as harpsichordists could decide to take up the pianoforte. It didn’t mean that the harpsichordist had become a pianist. It meant the harpsichordist could also play the piano. Both made music, but in very different ways.

This was not mysterious to the practitioners — Kohn, Crosby, Hodgson, Wallerstein, Eisenstadt, Moore, Arrigi among them, all of whom were straightforward in their practice of historical sociology — who are regularly invoked by self-described global historians today, and this has recently been stated effectively by Peter Vries in an essay in International Review of Social History (“The Prospects of Global History: Personal Reflections of an Old Believer,” 2019 https://doi.org/10.1017/S0020859019000099). I proposed in my little book What is Global History? (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008 — the title being inexplicably appropriated by a later author) that global history was in practice a choice of paradigmatic narrative. And, it cannot be otherwise. There is no gold mine from which you can extract watches, rings and Olympic medals. There is no sheep from which you can shear Campbell tartan.

Why would historians continue to propose so ebulliently the novelty of drawing theoretical resources from historical sociology? I think there are several reasons, some too obvious to point out without apology (so I apologise), some worth lingering over.

The first explanation for almost anything is ignorance, and it may apply in some cases. Only as long ago as when I was a graduate student, knowledge of theory — which almost always meant political science or sociology — was fading. Weber was only somebody to take pot shots at while invoking “orientalism” or “imperialism” or “Eurocentrism.” Wallerstein (along with Foucault, Bourdieu and de Certeau) was a necessary allusion, but alluding was good enough. I now think this was part of a trailing off of historiography’s substantial engagement with theory. In reading manuscripts over the past two decades, I have found an alarming number of younger authors who are rediscovering fire and re-inventing the wheel. An apparent lack of education in historiographies in their own fields leads too many of these younger authors to leap from their bathtubs exclaiming “Eureka!” over insights (which are truly their own) that are already well-embedded in the scholarship. I am willing to assume that a similar parochiality causes some who are doing “global history” and others to be unfamiliar with the history of “global history”.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.36253/cromohs-12614

Read Full Text: https://oajournals.fupress.net/index.php/cromohs/article/view/12614

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