Primer: The History of Globalization

Diego Holstein
Map of the earth showing areas where lights can be seen from space at night


Globalization, defined here as the integration of an interdependent economy that simultaneously enhances cultural exchanges relying on the mobility of people, animals, plants, pathogens, objects, and ideas, is a useful concept for exploring connections across space and time. In this essay, scholar Diego Olstein traces the various ways the chronology of globalization has been understood by historians and social scientists and in doing so helps frame questions about what the concept might mean when applied to different points in world history.


The depiction of the history of globalization as the integration of an interdependent economy that simultaneously enhances cultural exchanges relying on the mobility of people, animals, plants, pathogens, objects, and ideas has resulted in multiple accounts. It is usual for central concepts in history such as slavery, feudalism, capitalism, imperialism, or modernity to generate a wide range of definitions, chronologies, and different research paths. The concept of globalization is no different, except in the unprecedented range of disagreement about its chronology. For some historians and social scientists, the history of globalization entails the past 30 years. For others, the last 100,000. For most, anywhere in between.

For many social scientists and some historians, the age of globalization dates to the second half of the twentieth century and represents an “entirely new epoch.” The reasons for this sharp break from the past are a new spatial dimension, “spaceship earth,” — the thrust into space and the resulting possibility of envisaging the globe as a unity — and the effects of new factors in human existence. Conspicuous among these factors are nuclear power, the information revolution — with satellite and cellular communications and the internet —, the rise of multinational corporations, acute environmental problems, and the emergence of a global consciousness.

With more historical breath, other historians compare this contemporary age of globalization with the economic integration brought by the industrial revolution in the second half of the nineteenth century. The result of this comparison is a group of similarities between “today’s globalization” and the “first great globalization” of 1850 – 1914. Measures of economic openness, exports to GDP ratios, price convergence, and rates of international capital flow are close enough in the final years of both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Moreover, during both periods a single hegemonic state — Great Britain in the 19th century, the United States in the 20th — had sufficient power to influence or coerce other states and international actors into a world political order conducive for economic globalization. By contrast, between these two waves of globalization world hegemony was contested during the two world wars resulting in the loss of previous levels of economic globalization.

This U-shaped scheme depicting one wave of globalization around 1850-1914 and another in the present, separated by a valley of de-globalization, contests the notion that contemporary globalization is an “entirely new epoch.”. Some social scientists have pushed back against this idea, and insist that only contemporary phenomena deserve to be named globalization. They dismiss the key indicators—trade, investment, and migration statistics— for being similar only in relative but not in absolute terms. In addition, the scale of contemporary telecommunications, air travel, world civil society associations, and global awareness are presented as additional arguments in favor of the uniqueness of current globalization.

Some historians have pushed globalization even further back. Those more attentive to path dependence dynamics challenge quantitative analyses that emphasize scale by asking the simple question: How many potatoes (or any other plant, animal, or germs) do you need to completely remake the demography, economy, society, and polities of whole continents? Such sweeping changes started happening because of the “Columbian” and “Magellan” exchanges, which took plants, animals, germs, and people around the world. From this early modern perspective, the beginning of globalization occurred once the globe was fully encircled and connected, which can be dated to the moment in which the Eastern Hemisphere became directly connected with the Western Hemisphere in 1571 via Manila. Since then, interactions through trade, migration, and the diffusion of plants, animals, and pathogens created a global system functioning as an organic whole. Cartographers, cosmographers, jurists, and philosophers responded through articulating a new global awareness.

However, before the emergence of this global awareness resulting from encircling the globe, societies had evolved in the two worlds apart that were the two hemispheres, whose residents were unaware of the existence of the other. And the same “how many” question – for example, how many seeds of rice or how many Yersinia pestis bacteria are needed to transform lives in several continents? – can be asked about these worlds apart. From such a hemispheric perspective, there were three major waves of “hemispherization” in the Eastern hemisphere that integrated economies and enhanced cultural exchanges. The most recent of these corresponds with the formation of the Mongol Empire and the commercial circuits that it facilitated between 1250 and 1350. Before that, beginning in the eighth century the spread of Islam led to an articulation of a network of cities through which people, knowledge, commodities, and plants traveled. The first instance of hemispheric outreach was the age of the Classical Empires of Eurasia in the first century of the common era, when political stability favored transportation, communication, trade, and migration on a hemispheric scale. The same was on the verge of happening on the Western Hemisphere at the time of the arrival of the Europeans, who disrupted that prospect and harnessed the local societies and economies while articulating the early modern globalization.

Some historians push globalization even further into the past by understanding globalization as a scaling up process of economic integration and cultural exchange starting locally and moving toward ever-larger spatial units ultimately covering the entire world. The rise of the first city-states some 5,000 years before the present would represent the first step in that direction. Or even the last Ice Age that allowed Homo Sapiens to migrate across the globe and populate all continents other than Antarctica.

This fast journey under the tracks of globalization had quickly brought us all the way to the migration of Homo Sapiens out of Africa, and exposed a multiplicity of departing points for the history of globalization. In view of that, some historians have concluded that it is better to think of “globalizations,” in the plural, rather than a single “globalization.” With this insight, we can arrange all the occurrences of globalization noted above into a coherent history of globalization. First, the population of the whole planet by humans and the emergence of the first cities in the wake of the agricultural revolution were preconditions for any process of globalization to occur. Second, the networks created between cities reached hemispheric dimensions during the Classical, Islamic, and Mongol hemispherizations. The hemispheric worlds apart became globalized starting with the circumnavigation of the planet and systematic global exchanges that followed. The industrial revolution accelerated and intensified this global economy during the nineteenth century. The information revolution did the same since the second half of the twentieth century. And here we are, in our global world long time in the making.

Primary Sources

World Light Map

Map of the earth showing areas where lights can be seen from space at night

In "38 maps that explain the global economy", Matthew Yglesias has captured for Vox the prominent features of our contemporary global economy and society. For example, this map from NASA is a composite satellite image that shows how each region of the world appears at night. The lights, Yglesias notes, serve as a rough proxy for the combination of wealth and population density. The collected maps in the Vox article can help you become familiar with and begin to analyze contemporary globalization. As historians, we should bring current globalization in dialogue with the past, but this is a two-way street: Going one direction, what are the past trajectories that landed us into these contemporary conditions described by the 38 maps? Going the other direction, what expressions of globalization or build-ups towards globalizations originating in the past are missing in these maps? This source is a part of the The History of Globalization methods primer.


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How to Cite This Source

"Primer: The History of Globalization," in World History Commons, [accessed May 28, 2024]