Methods

Primer: Defining World History

Merry Wiesner-Hanks

Overview

World history is the study of the past at the global level. World historians use a wide spatial lens, though they do not always take the entire world as their unit of analysis. They tend to de-emphasize individual nations or civilizations, and focus instead on regions defined differently, including zones of interaction, or on the ways in which people, goods, and ideas moved across regions through migration, conquest, and trade. Most world historians think that history should be studied on a range of chronological and spatial scales, including, but not limited to, very large ones. They often set the history of one time and place against other circumstances. Some world history has a narrow temporal framework, examining developments around the world in a single decade or even a single year. Other historians use an expanded time frame, beginning with the Big Bang to examine history on a cosmic scale. Histories of single commodities such as salt, sugar, or silver can be world history, as can those of single individuals, organizations, or ideas.

The modules in Methods present case studies that demonstrate how scholars interpret different kinds of historical evidence in world history.

Essay

World history is the study of the past at the global level. World historians use a wide spatial lens, though they do not always take the entire world as their unit of analysis. They tend to de-emphasize individual nations or civilizations, and focus instead on regions defined differently, including zones of interaction, or on the ways in which people, goods, and ideas moved across regions through migration, conquest, and trade. Most world historians think that history should be studied on a range of chronological and spatial scales, including, but not limited to, very large ones. They often set the history of one time and place against other circumstances. Some world history has a narrow temporal framework, examining developments around the world in a single decade or even a single year. Other historians use an expanded time frame, beginning with the Big Bang to examine history on a cosmic scale. Histories of single commodities such as salt, sugar, or silver can be world history, as can those of single individuals, organizations, or ideas.

In the twenty-first century, world historians are building on different national and regional roots and traditions to create a multi-vocal version of world history, working upwards and outwards from the available sources in multiple languages and from multiple sites. World history today is a research field, with academic journals, conferences, books, and research centers, as well as a teaching field, from primary school through post-graduate work. Scholars, teachers, and students have developed innovative approaches and materials, and regularly engage in debates about theory, methodology, and content on websites, blogs, and in print. World history is also a key part of public history, as museums, galleries, libraries, and other institutions seek to present their holdings in a broader context to promote understanding among their visitors and viewers.

People have actually been doing world history for a long time. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus set his story of the war between the Persians and the Greeks within the context of the world as he knew it, and the ancient Chinese historian Sima Qian told history through an encyclopedic presentation of events, activities, and biographies of emperors, officials, and other important people. Medieval chroniclers in India, Europe, and the Muslim world devised “universal histories” that began with the creation of the world, and from the fifteenth through the nineteenth centuries scholars, poets, nuns, physicians, obscure officials, former slaves, and others wrote histories with a broad scope. In the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century, however, the focus of most professional history—that is, history written by men trained at universities—became the nation-state, which fit with the rising importance of nations as political units and with growing nationalism. Western professional history joined the nation-centric histories of China, Japan, and other countries with long historiographic traditions to influence scholars in the new nations that were being formed through decolonization in the twentieth century; they also wrote national histories and developed courses in universities.

But after World War II, scholars and teachers began to challenge nationally-organized histories. In the United States, area studies programs at universities increasingly trained people to study many parts of the world, some professional historians began to write works with a broad scope, and college instructors and high school teachers created courses in world history. In Europe, the study of diplomacy gradually widened into imperial, international, and what was termed “overseas” history. Beginning in the 1980s, scholars in Asia, Africa, and Latin America critiqued much existing world and international history as overly centered on Europe, and posited different centers or called for a more polycentric world history. The 1990s brought other new directions, including transnational history, histoire croisée, Transfergeschichte, Atlantic World history, borderlands histories, connected history, world systems history, diasporic history, and many others. Some historians began to describe their field as global history, to reflect the increasing integration of world regions into a single system through globalization, though other historians see world and global history as the same.
Today world history has many shapes: the ball that is the planet, long thin trade routes, the barbells of comparative studies, the fuzzy lines of borderlands, the triangles of three-part comparisons, the daisy-like shapes of the spread of an idea in multiple directions, the borderless cosmos, the knotted webs of networks, the tangles of migration and trade. All of these enable a deeper understanding of the past and the complex processes of change, development, and transformation that human beings have generated and driven through time.

For Further Reading:
Doug Northrup, Blackwell Companion to World History.

Primary Sources

Annotation:

On a typical world map, such as the classic Mercator projection, Greenland appears misleadingly enormous – yet few observers pause to note the inaccuracies. Mapmakers rarely question other basic assumption, such as drawing north at the top. But if the Earth resembles ball spinning through space, are ‘up’ and ‘down’ so self-evident? Better maps can provide fresh perspective, and make viewers aware of unspoken assumptions. The Hobo-Dyer projection shows accurately the relative size of different land areas, while preserving north/south and east/west lines of bearing. It also gives the Southern Hemisphere visual prominence, imagining a globe that has been re-centred Down Under.

How to Cite This Source
Merry Wiesner-Hanks Primer: Defining World History in World History Commons,
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