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World history is one of the oldest, most persistent, and most pliable forms of history writing. It can best be characterized by multiplicity: in the use of data from different times and places; in the blending of methods from a broad range of disciplines; in the diverse backgrounds, assumptions, and world orders of authors; and in the mixture of narrative styles and organizational concepts.

Outline

  1. Origins and Ancient Universal Histories
  2. Interactions, Exchange, and Universal History
  3. The Philosophical Turn
  4. The Rise of Mass Literacy
  5. A Proto–World History?
  6. Modernization, Dependency, and World-System Analyses
  7. The Relational Shift
  8. Widening Views of World History
  9. World History: Professional and Popular
  10. Bibliography

No simple methodological definition of world history is possible, for world histories vary widely in style, structure, and scope. Furthermore, a wide assortment of labels have been used to describe them, including “universal history,” “ecumenical history,” “regional history,” “comparative history,” “world systems history,” “macrohistory,” “transnational history,” “big history,” and the “new world” and “new global” histories. Despite terminological differences, however, world histories share the purpose of offering a construction of and thus a guide to a meaningful “world”—a “realm or domain taken for an entire meaningful system of existence or activity”—by historians or people in the past (Hughes-Warrington 2004, 4). Thus in this sense all histories are world histories. Where histories differ is in the degree to which the purpose of world construction is explicit.

Origins and Ancient Universal Histories

Herodotus (c. 484–430/420 BCE), commonly described as the “father of history,” is also credited for recognizing that history can be a means for understanding the world. In his Histories, Herodotus delimited the military and political history of the Greeks in part by discrimination from barbarian “others,” and thus established the link between world history writing and actual and desired world orders. Studies of the field typically begin at a later point, however, with the emergence of the genre of “universal history.” “Universal history” has at least four meanings. It denotes, first, a comprehensive and perhaps also unified history of the known world or universe; second, a history that illuminates truths, ideals, or principles that are thought to belong to the whole world; third, a history of the world unified by the workings of a single mind; and fourth, a history of the world that has passed down through an unbroken line of transmission.

History Research PaperUniversal history is conventionally thought to have emerged with the Greek writer Ephorus (405–330 BCE) and the climate of cosmopolitanism engendered by the conquests of Alexander of Macedon (Alexander the Great, 356–323 BCE). Raoul Mortley (1996) has also tried to demonstrate the influence of Aristotelian philosophy on the emergence of the genre, but the survival of less than 5 percent of Hellenistic literature makes the formulation of general explanations difficult. Additionally, it is not always clear whether extant histories might have been parts of universal histories: for example, commentators have argued that the Anabasis Alexandri and Indica of the Roman historian Arrian (c. 92–c. 180 CE) were originally united. Even José Miguel Alonso-Núñez’s more inclusive description of the first universal historians as those who dealt “with the history of mankind from the earliest times, and in all parts of the world known to them” is problematic, because it masks the contribution of those—particularly women—who composed biographical catalogues (Alonso-Núñez 1990, 197). While not exhaustive in time or space, biographical catalogues were designed to illuminate universal social, moral, or political principles.

Any history of the field must also take into account the rich tradition of Chinese and Islamic universal history writing, which dates from at least the third century BCE and the ninth century CE respectively. It is likely, too, that the genre of universal history has a relationship with both oral and written creation or initiation stories told by peoples around the world since the foraging era. Universal history, and consequently world history, are thus not simply Western documentary forms bestowed upon the world through diffusion.

Ancient universal history writing flourished after campaigns of political expansion, the advent of standardized systems of chronology, and the spread of monotheistic religions such as Christianity and Islam. Writers followed no single template, and their works varied widely in scope, structure, and world vision. A particular view of universal history might be adopted for a host of reasons, both intellectual and pragmatic. Polybius (c. 203–120 BCE) and Diodorus of Sicily (c. 90–21 BCE), for instance, agreed that the truth of history was to be gleaned by treating it as a connected whole, but whereas Polybius’s decision was based on an observation of the spread of Roman power, Diodorus assumed the existence of a universal human nature.

Variations were also evident across cultural and religious groups. For example, as viewed by Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 263–339 CE), St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430), Paulus Orosius (fl. 414–417), and Bishop Otto of Freising (c. 1111–1158), God’s work in the world and the victory of Christianity were to be narrated through a seven-age framework that had been adapted from Jewish works like Josephus ben Matthias’s Jewish Antiquities (93 CE). Islamic writers like Abu Ja’far al-Tabari (c. 839–923) also saw universal history as structured through successive ages, though more commonly three than seven, and infused their accounts of events with predictions of future judgment. Furthermore, these accounts derived their status as universal histories in part because of their construction out of isnads: unbroken chains of transmission. For many Islamic writers of the Abbasid dynasty (749/750–1258), universal history thus entailed both chronological and historiographical continuity. Exceptions like Abu Al-husayn ‘ali ibn Al-husayn Al Mas’udi’s (c. 888–957) chronologically, philosophically, and geographically arranged Muruj adh-dhahab wa ma’adin al-jawahir (The Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems) were given a highly critical reception. Later writers eschewed isnads as a narrative and methodological intrusion and built upon Al Mas’udi’s approach. Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406), for instance, combined philosophy, geography, and social theory in his Kitab al-‘Ibar.

Chronologically arranged universal histories were also produced in China, as Sima Guang’s (1019–1086) Zi Zhi Tong Jian (Comprehensive Mirror to Aid in Government) attests. But it is the synchronic, encyclopedic structure of official Chinese histories that most sets them apart from other historiographical traditions. A four-part division of histories into imperial annals (benji), tables (biao), treatises (shu), and biographies or memoirs (juan or liezhaun) was established by the first four official histories—the Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian) begun by Sima Tan (d. c. 110 BCE) and completed by Sima Qian (145–80 BCE); the Hanshu (History of the Former Han Dynasty) by Ban Gu (32–92 CE); the Sanguozhi (History of the Three Kingdoms) by Chen Shou (d. 297 CE); and the Hou Hanshu (History of the Later Han) by Fan Ye (398–445 CE). The first part of each work documented major events in imperial families; the second, month-to-month events for government offices; the third, knowledge concerning an enormous range of activities; and the fourth, accounts of virtuous and infamous individuals and collective biographies. Though modified, this structure was employed in official histories right up to Qingshi gao (Draft History of the Qing Dynasty, 1928).

Interactions, Exchange, and Universal History

The growth of intellectual, economic, and sociopolitical networks of exchange in the foraging and agrarian eras prompted the defense, augmentation, and revision of universal and later world historical views. Labels and typologies were used to bestow respect upon, to accommodate, or subjugate newly encountered peoples. In many European universal histories, for instance, race and gender typologies coalesced in narratives of the stagnation of the effeminate East and the progressive perfection of the masculine West. Some writers used other cultures to make criticisms about their own: to take one example, Voltaire (1694–1778) used the history of China in Essai sur les moeurs et l’espirit des nations (An Essay on Universal History) to highlight the savagery, superstition, and irrationality of Christian Europe. Corresponding examples from outside Europe may also be found, like Wei Yuan (1794–1856), who compared the historical paths of Europe and China in Haiguo Tuzhi (Illustrated Treatise on the Sea Kingdom) based on the argument that learning the superior technology of the Europeans could be a means to control them. Universal histories were also used to promote the interests and ideals of particular social groups: for example, Philip Melancthon (1497–1560) and the bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627–1704) saw universal history as an excellent means to defend Christian beliefs. Promoting a different cause, in The Book of the City of Ladies (1405), Christine de Pizan narrated a hierarchical universal history of female warriors, good wives, and saintly women to empower female readers to aspire to the city of womanly virtue. Joseph Swetnam, on the other hand, argued in his pamphlet The Arraignment of Lewd, Idle and Forward Women (1615) that women are, like the rib that they were fashioned from in the Judeo-Christian creation story, “crooked by nature.”

Universal histories proliferated after the aggregation of printing technologies in fifteenth-century Europe. This made decisions on the proper means of researching, writing, and reading them increasingly urgent to many writers. In Method for the Easy Comprehension of History, for example, Jean Bodin (1530–1596) advanced the notion that the logical order of universal history was chronological, from the general to the specific, and from Europe outward to the rest of the known world. “Mis-order,” in his view, could weaken the powers of the mind. Conversely, Christopher Cellarius (1638–1707) argued for the tripartite division of history into “ancient,” “medieval,” and “new” periods.

The Philosophical Turn

Over the course of the seventeenth century more universal historians endeavored to establish a proper “scientific” or “philosophical” foundation for history. What these terms meant varied from place to place. In Scotland, for instance, “conjectural historians” such as Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746), Adam Smith (1723–1790), Adam Ferguson (1723–1815), John Millar (1735–1801), William Robertson (1721– 1793), Dugald Stewart (1753–1828), and David Hume (1711–1776), worked to explain the origin of human sociability, a “moral sense” that would account not only for human community but also for human progress. The Italian scholar Giambattista Vico (1668–1744), on the other hand, saw the Latin language, Roman law, and the Homeric poems as a point of entry into the “scientific” study of the course and recourse of nations’ histories. French historians like Fontenelle (1657–1757), Étienne Bonnot de Condillac (1715–1780), the Marquis de Condorcet (1743– 1794), Anne-Robert-Jacques de Turgot (1727–1781), and Jean Étienne Montucla (1725–1799) tracked the history of the “human spirit” or mind from barbaric beginnings to the height of enlightened, mannered “civilization.” In Germany, Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744–1803) adopted an organic view, outlining the unique features of cultures in childhood, infancy, manhood, and old age. Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) detected reason in the long history of humanity’s “unsocial sociability,” Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886) sought the “holy hieroglyph” or mark of God and meaning in world cultures, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) detected “progress of the consciousness of freedom” in the movement of world history from the East to the West (Philosophy of History 1956, 19). Later in the nineteenth century, Karl Marx (1818–1883) inverted Hegel’s philosophical program, suggesting that the material conditions of life shape human freedom, not the other way around. Chinese historians, too, including Guo Songtao (1818–1891), Xue Fucheng (1838–1894), Wang Tao (1828–1890), Yan Fu (1854–1921), and Liang Qichao (1873–1929), increasingly urged the recognition of world history as a narrative of struggle for technological supremacy.

The Rise of Mass Literacy

Universal histories designed for mass consumption were also produced. Reader, reviewer, and publisher demands for morally edifying works favored the production of overtly didactic texts, often in the form of biographical catalogues. This type of writing proved particularly popular with middle-class women, who were given access to works designed to describe a world order in which women were the domestic companions of men. Notable examples include Mary Hay’s Female Biography, or Memoirs of Illustrious and Celebrated Women, of all Ages and Countries (1803); Lucy Aikin’s Epistles on Women, Exemplifying Their Character and Condition in Various Ages and Nations with Miscellaneous Poems (1810); Anna Jameson’s Memoirs of Celebrated Female Sovereigns (1832); Laure Junot’s Memoirs of Celebrated Women (1834); Mary Elizabeth Hewitt’s Heroines of History (1852); Sarah Josepha Hale’s Woman’s Record (1853); Mary Cowden Clarke’s World-Noted Women (1858); Sarah Strickley Ellis’s The Mothers of Great Men (1859); and Clara Balfour’s Women Worth Emulating (1877). While often dismissed as methodologically impoverished, many of these works acted as conduits for womanist and reformist thought. Lydia Maria Child’s The History of the Condition of Women, in Various Ages and Nations (1835), for example, is underpinned by arguments against slavery and for female suffrage.

A Proto–World History?

From the eighteenth century, existing ideas about universal history came to be seen as increasingly out of step with the specialized national research that accompanied the professionalization of history teaching, research, and writing. Some accommodation was achieved through the production of multiauthor, multivolume universal history compendia or encyclopedias, but this in turn spurred H. G. Wells (1866–1946) to define universal history in part by the “unity of presentation attainable only when the whole subject has been passed through one single mind” (Wells 1920, 2). It is assumed by many historiographical commentators that Wells’s efforts were akin to Canute’s attempt to defy the tide. In their view, universal history was a proto–world history that was ushered aside in the twentieth century as speculation was replaced by rigorous forms of analysis and a greater respect for primary evidence. Universal history, however, survives in many forms, such as philosophies of history (e.g., Raymond Aron, The Dawn of Universal History, 1961, and Daniel Dennett, Freedom Evolves, 2002); compendia (UNESCO’s History of Humankind, 1963); the fusion of science and history in the subfield of “big” history (Fred Spier, The Structure of Big History, 1996, and David Christian, Maps of Time, 2004); and, of course, encyclopedias such as this.

Universal history did not disappear in the twentieth century; it simply became one of a number of approaches to the writing of what was increasingly called “world history.” Roughly contemporary with Wells’s Outline of History were Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West (1918–1922); Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents (1930); Arnold J. Toynbee’s A Study of History (1932–1961); Jawaharlal Nehru’s Glimpses of World History (1934); Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization (1934); V. Gordon Childe’s Man Makes Himself (1936); Pitirim A. Sorokin’s Social and Cultural Dynamics (1937); Norbert Elias’s The Civilizing Process (1939); José Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation (1944); Mary Ritter Beard’s Woman as Force in History (1946); Karl Jaspers’s The Origin and Goal of History (1947); José Ortega y Gasset’s An Interpretation of Universal History (1949); and Christopher Dawson’s The Dynamics of World History (1956). Though they present a wide range of foci—psychological, religious, political, philosophical, sociological, cultural, archaeological, and technological—a common interest in the trajectories of civilizations spans these works. In Spengler’s view, for example, Western civilization was “Faustian” because the limitless ambition of its people was likely to be its downfall; similarly, when Toynbee began A Study of History, he detected a number of suicidal tendencies in Western civilization. During the composition of volume six of twelve, however, he modified his view and concluded that the future would bring an age of universal churches or of selflessness or compassion.

Modernization, Dependency, and World-System Analyses

A more optimistic assessment of “modern” or “Western” civilization was also offered in the works of modernization scholars, who showed particular interest in the historical paths of development in the West that might be used to study and foster development in the “developing” world. Key contributions to modernization analysis included W. W. Rostow’s How It All Began: Origins of the Modern Economy (1975); Cyril Black’s The Dynamics of Modernization: A Study in Comparative History (1966); Reinhard Bendix’s Nation-Building and Citizenship (1977); and E. L. Jones’s The European Miracle: Environments, Economies, and Geopolitics in the History of Europe and Asia (1986).

A disparate group of neo-Marxist scholars disagreed, noting the inability of modernization scholars to explain Latin American economic development, and suggested an alternative in the form of dependency and, later, world-system theory. While modernization scholars looked to the internal characteristics of particular civilizations, dependency and world-system theorists stressed the need to study networks of economic and political exchange, and more particularly inequalities in the distribution of roles, functions, and power that fostered states of dependency. Dependency theory was advanced first in the writings of Latin American scholars like Paul Baran (The Political Economy of Growth, 1957) and then taken to a global audience in Andre Gunder Frank’s World Accumulation, 1492–1789 (1978) and Dependent Accumulation and Underdevelopment (1979). Frank’s work, in turn, influenced Immanuel Wallerstein, who went on to elaborate world-system theory in a series of works including the three-volume The Modern World System (1974–1989) and Historical Capitalism (1983). In The Modern World System, he argued that the system of the title originated in fifteenth-century Europe, was composed of a “core” (advanced industrial states), a “periphery” (weak states engaged in raw materials production), and a “semi-periphery” (intermediate states).

World-system analysis was combined with a range of methodologies, including anthropology (Eric Wolf, Europe and the People without History, 1982); archaeology (N. Kardulias [editor], World- Systems Theory in Practice: Leadership, Production, and Exchange, 1999); geography (Paul Knox and Peter Taylor, World Cities in a World-System, 1995); and cultural history (John Obert Voll, “Islam as a Special World-System”, Journal of World History, 1994). The range and scope of world-system studies also increased, with Leften Stavrianos (Global Rift, 1981), Janet Abu-Lughod (After European Hegemony, 1989), Frank (ReOrient, 1997), Frank and Barry Gills (The World System: Five Hundred Years or Five Thousand?, 1993), and Christopher Chase-Dunn and Thomas Hall (Core/Periphery Relations in Precapitalist Worlds, 1991) exploring Afro-Eurasian systems of exchange up to seven thousand years ago.

The Relational Shift

Postcolonial scholars also adapted dependency and world system theory. First brought to the attention of world historians with the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), postcolonial theorists enhanced political and economic criticisms of colonialism with cultural analyses. Representation and language are crucial for the construction of an “other”: for example, Marshall Hodgson (Rethinking World History, 1993), Dipesh Chakrabarty (Provincializing Europe, 2000), and Ranajit Guha (History at the Limit of World- History, 2003) argued that the language, concepts, periodization, and structure of world histories can minimize and even mask the historical activities of those “outside” the West. World historians with an interest in postcolonial themes, such as Michael Adas (Islamic and European Expansion, 1993) and Margaret Strobel (Gender, Sex, and Empire, 1993), sought to balance the demands of aligning the experiences of colonized subjects and recognizing the specificities of race, class, nationality, religion, sexuality, epistemic, social, political, and economic hierarchies, and gender relations.

Dependency, world-system, and postcolonial world histories formed part of a wider shift in the twentieth century toward the study of relations between peoples across the globe. This shift is clearly discernable over the long career of William H. McNeill, often taken as a central or “father” figure in twentieth-century world historical studies. While the theme of diffusion shaped his first major world historical work—The Rise of the West (1963)—the depth and breadth of his interest in world historical webs of interaction emerged more fully in Plagues and Peoples (1976), The Pursuit of Power (1982), Keeping Together in Time (1990), and The Human Web (2003, with J. R. Mc- Neill). Human interaction on the largest scale—over the globe—was also the subject of new global historical studies. New global historians like Bruce Mazlish and Ralph Buultjens (Conceptualizing Global History, 1993), Anthony Hopkins (Globalization in World History, 2001), Roland Robertson (Globalization, 1992), Manuel Castells (The Information Age, 1996–1998), and Arjun Appadurai (Modernity at Large, 1996) looked to economic, anthropological, political, and cultural evidence to track the phenomenon of globalization—the emergence of an integrated anthropogenic globe—over the course of the twentieth century.

Transnational, comparative, new imperial, and new world historians were also interested in human interaction, but their works were smaller in spatial and temporal focus than those of other world historians. This contraction may be explained by reference to, among other factors, the perception that the recent explosion in evidence made large-scale synthesis too demanding, and postmodern and postcolonial claims that large-scale narratives were instruments of intellectual imperialism. Of particular interest to these writers were phenomena such as intergovernmental organizations, internationalist movements, technological exchange and diffusion, migration and diasporas, cultural hybridity, and transnational corporations. For example, trade and cultural diasporas centered on the Mediterranean, Indian, Atlantic, and Pacific Oceans were analyzed by Fernand Braudel (The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Era of Philip II, 1949); Philip Curtin (The Atlantic Slave Trade, 1969; The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex, 1990; Cross-Cultural Trade in World History, 1984); Niels Steensgard (The Asian Trade Revolution of the Seventeenth Century, 1974); K. N. Chaudhuri (Trade and Civilisation in the Indian Ocean, 1985; and Asia before Europe, 1990); Eric Jones, Lionel Frost, and Colin White (Coming Full Circle, 1993); John Thornton (Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400–1680, 1992); and Adam McKeown (Chinese Migrant Networks, 2001).

Widening Views of World History

Relations of power were also of central concern to world historians studying both women and gender. Gender history is not women’s history, but rather the study of varying relations between constructed gender categories. For example, Michel Foucault noted the shifting shape of “sexuality” across ancient and modern history (The History of Sexuality, 1976–1984), and Ida Blom has demonstrated how varying gender systems shaped understandings of the nation-state (“World History as Gender History,” in Dunn 2000, 446-61). More recently, Marilyn Morris (“Sexing the Survey,” World History Bulletin, 1998), Merry Weisner-Hanks (Gender in History, 2001), and Judith Zinsser (“Gender,” in Hughes-Warrington 2004, 189–214) have drawn attention to the gender of world history writing, and argued that favored concepts, narrative forms, and even periodization frameworks have served to render the experiences of many women and men invisible.

In the second half of the twentieth century, world histories took an increasing interest in the ways in which the organic and inorganic environment have both shaped and been shaped by human activities. Jared Diamond, for instance, looked to the role of environmental factors in the emergence of the divide between the “developing” and “developed” worlds (Guns, Germs and Steel, 1998), and Brian Fagan considered the role of climatic phenomena like El Niño in shaping historical events (Floods, Famines and Emperors, 2001). In contrast, Mike Davis stressed the opportunistic use of El Niño by colonial powers to create a world market economy (Late Victorian Holocausts, 2001), and John R. McNeill outlined growing awareness of the impact of human activities on the Earth, from the pedosphere (the Earth’s continental crust, rocks, and soil) to the stratosphere (Something New Under the Sun, 2000). Other writers have drawn upon conceptual models and theories from the natural sciences to explain historical changes: for example, in Nonzero (2000), Robert Wright looked to game theory; Stephen J. Gould (Wonderful Life, 1989) and Murray Gell Mann (The Quark and the Jaguar, 1994) disagreed about whether evolution implied increasing complexity; and Eric Chaisson tracked increasing energy flows from the big bang to the evolution of humans (Cosmic Evolution, 2000). More radically, too, writers like Dorion Sagan and Lynn Margulis (Microcosmos, 1986) even questioned the privileging of human actions and argued for a world history centered on cells.

World History: Professional and Popular

While the twentieth century saw the emergence of organizations, journals, conferences, Internet discussion forums, and syllabi focused on world history, the field was not and likely will never be of interest to trained specialists alone. John M. Roberts (The New Penguin History of the World, 2003) and Mark Kurlansky (Salt: A World History, 2002) are just two of the many writers who have produced world historical works for the benefit of nonspecialist readers around the world. World history is and likely will continue to be characterized by multiplicity: first, in the use of data from different times and places; second, in the blending of many methods from a broad range of disciplines; third, in the diverse backgrounds, assumptions, and world orders of authors; and finally, in the mixture of narrative styles and organizational concepts. For this reason, it makes sense to speak of “world histories” rather than of “world history.”

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See also:

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