Organizing World History
The problem addressed by this forum is how to organize world history. The first point to acknowledge, it seems to me, is that the questions raised by this problem in fact apply to any project in history, whether individual course, overall curriculum, book or article, research institute, whatever. Every attempt to do history involves deciding how to organize a pile of data to make a sense of it — "a sense" because any pile of data will yield many different senses depending on what questions one asks of it. Some piles of data, for example those associated with ancient history, present problems because they are frustratingly small. But especially if what we count as data is taken broadly, even ancient data piles can expand rapidly, and for many if not most historical topics our data piles are so large as to present immediate problems of organization and selection.
This is why the questions must be asked with particular urgency of world history. The pile of data available to practitioners of world history, students and researchers alike, is well nigh infinite, even though it includes lacunae. Furthermore, the world history data pile in its infinitude obliterates many of the conventional bins into which the data pile is divided for historians of less universal topics. (We shall here nod in a friendly way to Big History and politely move on.) The divisions of nationality, chronology, and methodology, among others, that still shape hiring in academic history such that ads can unblushingly ask for an historian of gender and culture in 18th century France, are revealed for the artificialities they are by the scope of world history. Calling into question the implicit assumptions behind those divisions (nationality? really?) is of course one of the major benefits of doing world history. But it begs the question, again with particular urgency, of how to organize and therefore approach productively that vast pile of data.
Rick Szostak's paper1, around which this forum grew, frames this question in terms of teaching a world history course and consequently in terms of writing a world history textbook, something he and Jonathan Reynolds are doing, and I have done.2 The result is that "organizing" world history becomes, for him, a question largely of pedagogical techniques for presenting a body of material coherently in ways that benefit students. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, and in fact we have come to many similar conclusions independently. His "flow charts" serve a similar purpose as the diagrams of social structures, network connections, and cultural processes that I created for my text, presenting complex ideas in visual form to assist students in seeing them and in making comparisons and connections with them. I deploy boxed text in exactly the way he discusses, though across a more restricted range of topics, as I shall discuss further below. And again, in this more specific form of organizing a course or a textbook, the general questions about organization apply to any course or classroom-directed textbook about any historical topic. A good course or textbook on Anglo-Norman England, 1066-1166 (yes, that's my original academic home field) would benefit as much from the same principles of organization as a world history course.
I wish, however, to approach this qestion more broadly, primarily in terms of the process of organizing world history analytically as an historical topic. Doing so is not irrelevant to teaching and textbook level synthesis, but is grounded more in conceptualization than conveying material clearly. It is the other half in the usual process of historical research. Production of monographs based in archival research (the standard first half of research) harnessed to this sort of conceptualization is rarer in world history than in more traditional fields because its global scope complicates the archival collection of primary sources. But if the definition and gathering of sources is more broadly defined, what I'm aiming at is the conceptualization of world history for research purposes.
I believe there are a few basic principles for conceptualizing world history in this way. But before I discuss these and lay out some of my own uses of them, I need to acknowledge that Dr. Szostak's article includes one organizing principle that can be seen as falling into this category of intellectual conceptualizations: evolution. I note it because I find his presentation of it problematic in a couple of ways.
The Problem with Evolution. Dr. Szostak presents evolution in two somewhat contradictory ways. His subhead and some of his discussion calls what he promotes "evolutionary analysis", which implies that it is a particular conceptualization of world history of the sort I just introduced. Yet in introducing his discussion he calls it "a particular type of historical process", thereby associating it with the previous section on "Common Challenges", or historical situations that invite comparison of the processes by which different societies met such challenges. That is, he situates evolution as a part of the past, not as a metaphorical tool for analyzing the past. As a biological process, of course, evolution is a part of the past and the present. Where would we be without the evolution about 50 million years ago of grasses, whose seeds are the foundation of most complex hierarchical societies? Today, the rapid evolution of bacterial resistance to antibiotics is a critical problem. Nor has human evolution stopped. The spread around 10,000 years ago of the gene that allows humans to digest lactose past infancy, local evolution of malaria resistance, and so forth remind us that we are part of an evolutionarily biological world. But I think Dr. Szostak actually mostly means it in the metaphorical sense, so I won't belabor this particular difficulty. I think, however, that as a conceptual tool the concept of "evolution" is problematic in two ways.
First, as an analytical tool, the concept of evolution is metaphorically wrong. Dr. Szostak claims that, "Several of the themes that are commonly treated in world history — political and economic institutions, culture, technology and science, and art — evolve through time…." Well, yes in a broad, non-biological use of the word "evolve". But since Dr. Szostak then promotes the concept in terms of its prompting us to ask about mutations and selection environments, he's clearly got biological evolution in mind as the model. And in that stricter sense political institutions and so forth don't evolve.
Human culture certainly changes over time — that's what we historians always claim to study, change over time (Δ/t, as I write for my students to amuse myself). And biological groups change over time. But the mechanisms by which each does so are significantly different. Change in genetic lineages is limited to working with what's already there, while cultures can invent "mutations" out of thin air, borrow freely from other cultures, or even borrow extinct pieces of their own past. This difference has dogged evolutionary analyses of culture since Richard Dawkins invented the word "memes" as a cultural analogue to genes in the last chapter of The Selfish Gene in 1976.3 They simply don't work the same way, and since genetic evolution is the more restrictive process, shoehorning cultural change into the genetic model is bound to do it conceptual harm.
Furthermore, doing so threatens to naturalize cultural processes whose outcomes can then be seen as "natural" rather than as constructions constantly contested across multiple cultural divisions that are themselves cultural constructs. What this last point highlights, in other words, is that the unsound metaphor of process also contains hidden content, or what might be called the secret meta-narratives of evolutionary thinking. The natural process of evolutionary change, when applied to human culture, implies (or threatens to imply) two conclusions about human cultures. The first is that different cultures are the equivalent of different biological species, which are defined by their inability to interbreed productively. This sort of essentialism is, of course, not just miselading but extremely dangerous, as any look at the influence of white supremacist (or more generally ethnic nationalist) ideology on current politics shows. The second is, admittedly, based on a popular misunderstanding of biological evolution, but one so pervasive (especially in ethnic nationalist ideology) that we need to set up warning lights and police tape around it rather than promoting it, even unintentionally: it is that things progress through evolution, with humans at the top of the evolutionary ladder. But as evolutionary biologists consistently argue, life is a bush, not a ladder (or tree), and there is no "top", nor does evolution have a direction. We should leave a hierarchized march of progress in the "evolution" of human cultures to 19th century historians. Who, fortunately, are all dead.
I want to make explicitly clear that I am not accusing Dr. Szostak of promoting either of these conclusions. I simply point out that a bad metaphorical process can lead to bad stories about history, and evolution is, for history, a bad metaphorical process for analysis. Dr. Szostak himself says that evolution might be accused of violating his first principle of innocuousness by introducing an over-simplifying meta-narrative. He defends it by pointing to the analytical questions it invites. I don't think this lets evolution escape the problem because evolutionary analysis, as I have just argued, implicitly generates its own meta-narratives. Surprisingly, however, I also think that meta-narrative is not a problem per se: his concern about meta-narrative is misplaced.
In defense of meta-narrative. Dr. Szostak's two principles of innocuousness in creating devices for organizing world history are:
I think the second is wrong, in principle, and I will return to it later in discussing pedagogy. I think the first is narrowly correct but throws the conceptual baby out with the historiographical bathwater.
Let us start with a fundamental feature of human psychology plus some historiographical theory. We are a species that understands the universe and ourselves via metaphor and storytelling. If every picture tells a story, it is because we tell a story about every picture.4 And in doing so, each story teller creates his or her story from a particular "place" — not just an actual physical space, but a metaphorical place of multiple identities. One need not go all full-Hayden White with this point5 to reach the basic post-modernist conclusion that each historical story is grounded in selection of evidence combined with interpretation and therefore cannot attain any absolute level of "objective truth". Every historical story, if it is worth reading at least, will, by virtue of the fact that is is interpretive, have a point, maybe several. A point: in other words, a meta-narrative.
It is true that the literary conventions governing historical writing create the expectation among readers of history that historical stories will conform to scientific standards of use of evidence (even if the sense of "science" here is more the German Wissenschaft than the English sense of experimental physics).6 It is on this point that my defense of meta-narrative in world history rests, because there is bad meta-narrative and good meta-narrative. Bad meta-narrative is what gave meta-narrative a problematic reputation, as 19th and 20th century narratives about European superiority and Progress shaped all sorts of histories in racist, sexist, and classist ways that need no further explication here. But they were bad because the racist, sexist, etc. assumptions that underlay them came first and were brought to the evidence. If we approach the evidence without such preconceptions and allow it to guide our conclusions, as the ideal of scientific method posits, then what emerges should be closer to a good meta-narrative. (Yes, yes, what I just said above about perspective and interpretation seems to contradict the possibility of such an approach. Methodological reminder: science (and thus history as science) is a collective enterprise, whose collectivity helps it be self-correcting. And, as in natural science — a neglected point — "scientific" history never reaches The Truth, but can make an asymptotic approach to some truths (or at least better understandings of the past) couched as meta-narratives. In sum, if we look at the (incomplete, selected) evidence, generalize from it, leave our generalizations open to testing against further evidence and thus to modification if necessary, and view exceptions as invitations to further research, then we've got the foundations of good meta-narratives.
In other words, meta-narrative, as defined here, arises from generalization, and is therefore not just necessary for creating new knowledge from piles of evidence, but is almost certainly inevitable given the way our minds work. And without generalizations and other shaping of the evidence that constitute the process of working with piles of evidence to make a story, we have no history, merely antiquarianism. Thus, I think Rick's call for innocuous devices for organizing world history is not just a call to an unattainable Rankean ideal of objectivity, but a misleading one (especially to students) that elides its own unattainability.
Two key principles for making good meta-narratives. If we aim at being scientific rather than innocuous, then what we want are organizing principles for world history that allow us to arrange the vast pile of world history evidence in a way that makes it more comprehensible — to students or to any audience, including ourselves. Put another way, organizing world history is about our ongoing attempt to understand world history. How do we do this?
First, we recognize the necessity to boil it down. Generalization involves simplification. This, of course, is where doing world history runs afoul of the mindset ingrained in our profession that what historians do is investigate the interesting differences, the specific textures of individual cases. Generalization is for sociologists, political scientists, and other "social science" types; history is one of the humanities. Except that vast swathes of history are comfortably social science-oriented already, so let's toss that objection. What really matters, I suspect, is the level of generalization necessary to do world history, in which, in order to emcompass our topic on a truly global scale, we have to fly far higher than many historians are comfortable with. At usual history altitudes, to give a visual metaphor, the differences between forests of pine, maple, oak, ash, birch, and so forth are visible and may well be significant. From world history altitude, they're all forests, and contrast more usefully with deserts, steppes, and glaciated mountains.
So push the level of generalization up. Reduce the number of factors and categories making up the explanatory schema as much as possible. A good world history meta-narrative depends on a story with an appropriately limited cast of characters. This principle explains why world history shouldn't be a quilt of regional studies stitched together: from a higher altitude, from a more rigorously simplified level of generalization, new patterns, connections, and contrasts become visible that are not simply the sums of regional patterns. It also explains why comparison is such a useful methodology for world history: comparisons produce generalizations, and the bigger the comparisons, the bigger the generalizations. Finally, it explains my practical objection to Rick's use of flow charts and boxed text (though in theory both are excellent ideas): the number of factors that can show up in a flow chart diagram, or the number of topics (or even topic types) that can be boxed, are virtually infinite, and if we lack of a higher level of generalization then we have no principle for how to choose among the possibilities. This same principle of selection among possibilities makes generalization a tool for writing world history with productive brevity. All-inclusive coverage reflects inadequate generalization. A tighter story is a better story.
I concede the usual caveats about generalization. Lower level differences can be significant (at the lower level) and we should be able to zoom in on particularities when necessary. But the zoomed in image will be more comprehensible, and the meaning of the local variations more evident, if we've already established the big picture. And any generalization must admit that there will be exceptions: we are not looking for "Laws" of history, only "statistical" patterns. But the significance, indeed sometimes the existence, of the exceptions as exceptions is only visible, again, in the context of an established big picture. For me, however, these caveats warn us to generalize carefully, not to avoid generalization.
This last point leads to my second principle for making good (scientific) meta-narratives. Be explicit about what you're doing methodologically. There's a reason scientific papers include a "Methods" section. Scientists know it's not just the answer you arrive at but the way you got there that matters. The methods are what make science a vast collective enterprise that can build on itself: methods are roadmaps for how certain destinations were reached and so for how to reach new ones (and for others to check whether you really got there; we see your route, Mr. Columbus, and no, you didn't get to East Asia).
So talk about your method. Expose your asumptions. I built my world history text around a pretty simple (three or four moving pieces, depending on how you count one that has two parts) model. I also remind my readers fairly often that it is simply a model, that is a theory, that it isn't the only possible one, and that I'm using it to organize the evidence. The "be explicit" principle explains why the only sort of boxed text I deploy in the book is philosophical-methodological. One "Issues in Doing World History" box per chapter explores a point of methodology, theory of history, or historiographical controversy relevant to that chapter's topic. I expose my model and set it in the context of explicit discussion of method because an explicit model is always better than an implicit one (and if your model is not explicit it is implicit — there's no such thing as doing history without a model), in large part because it is open to inspection, criticism, and modification (and thus ideally for improvement). Explicit methodology is also therefore the safeguard against over-simplification.
Being explicit about method, like promoting generalization and simplification, runs against the grain of much historical writing. Many non-scientists, I believe, skim or skip the method sections of scientific articles because they want to "get to the story". And good story-telling elides the story-teller because the world of the story, not this world, is the point. Narrative, a central historical method for conveying the historian's findings, therefore militates aginst being methodologically explicit. Why? Because doing so interrupts the narrative flow. This is, remember, one of Rick's principles for making innocuous organizing devices: don't interrupt the narrative. So, having argued that being innocuous is neither desirable nor truly possible, I also argue that interruption is a good thing, especially pedagogically.
Pedagogy: Practice, Don't Preach. This counts as my third principle for making good meta-narrative: interrupt the narrative flow to reflect on what you're doing! Because that's what doing history (as opposed to simply telling an historical story) is about: teaching history should not be story-telling but an interactive exchange about story-telling and how to do it.7
This principle exposes the fact that Rick's organizing devices for world history, while nominally pedagogical, are really about writing a world history text. Because how is a class a narrative flow? The literature on the advantages of discussion and other forms of "active classroom" pedagogy over lecturing is so vast I hope I don't even need to even cite it. One conclusion this literature suggests is that a world history texbook should invite and encourage such pedagogy. A polished, hermeneutically sealed narrative does not. Making methodology and argument explicit does.
It also explains some of the reasons I built my own book around a model. Working with an explicit model forces students to do history, not just to learn (temporarily?) some content. And ultimately, we want students to do history — to become historians for themselves, even if only at an introductory level — because doing history is one very concrete way they learn all those other more abstract skills like critical thinking and informed citizenship that they should have.8 An explicit model encourages this. It acts as a theory that students can test with primary source evidence. It simultaneously acts as an intellectual tool for understanding and interpreting primary sources that might otherwise be opaque or appear to be an account of curiosities. And it creates a device for making productive comparisons.
Finally, putting a model, a generalizing theory, at the center of organizing world history is one solution, in textbook writing, to the problem of coverage. Someone always has a "vital fact" that must be added to textbooks that aim at "fair" or "comprehensive" coverage. The end result is a textbook like the one my kids had in high school, which was a one foot cube of every Vital Fact anyone could think of, totally unthematized, and which thus taught them nothing about the shape of world history. I doubt anyone even really read it. But if the goal is understanding, of doing history instead of memorizing historical "facts", then coverage becomes a non-issue, as students can be invited to look up a non-covered place and analyze it with the model. And my "be explicit" rule applies here: in my book I say very little about the medieval Tibetan Empire, except to say, "I'm not saying much about this fascinating place. Go look it up, if you're interested, and see how it fits the model." Indeed, Tibet is then one of the places I use in an assignment in which every students gets a specific non-covered place to research and draw a diagram of. A final advantage of making a model-based diagram instead of a narrative summary then appears: it forces them to see not just what we know about such places, but what we don't know, as there simply isn't evidence in some cases to fill in standard parts of the diagram.
In other words, they're doing history, not learning a canon.
I have so far been talking in general terms about the principles of organizing world history, though admittedly with specific nods to my own textbook. In this section, I hope to give more substance to these principles with some examples drawn from that textbook.
Periodization. Dividing up the pile of world history data chronologically can be the first step in organizing world history, though taking a purely thematic approach subordinates chronology to other principles. Periodization is a perrennial problem for historians and a global scale exacerbates it. On the principle of boiling it down, I decided (explicitly) to take a materialist-demographic approach. How have humans extracted a living from the environment? Three dominant forms have succeeded each other: hunting and gathering, agriculture, and industry. Each has been significantly more productive, that is supported more people, than the previous one. This is captured in a graph of total human population in the world, plotted on a log scale for both population and time so as to equalize rates of change. It looks like this.
Three "modes of production" (shall we say), three explosive periods of population growth (followed by levelling out), three eras: Hunter-Gatherer, Agrarian, Industrial. And each initiated by one of the Big Three revolutions in world history: what I call the "Cognitive-Linguistic Revolution", when our species learned to think and talk the way we do today (and which actually did not initiate but supercharged the Hunter-Gatherer mode), and the more familiar Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions. Analytically productive subdivisions of the scheme are simply chronological: an Early phase of explosive growth, a High phase of settled patterns, and a Late phase of maturity that sets up the next. Each phase can be characterized in terms of the elements of my central model (which I will explain next), like so:
I will mention two by-products of this basic periodization that I find analytically useful. First, it allows me to just about eliminate the word "modern" from the text (except to discuss its problems explicitly as a confusing and culturally variable moving target): for me, "modern" is better put as "Industrial" in terms of eras. And this leads to my strong belief that the period 1500-1800, usually referred to as the "Early Modern" age, is in fact far better characterized as the Late Agrarian age, a time of mature pre-industrial hierarchies, networks, and the cultures they generated, which was succeeded by a much less mature Early Industrial age that I also like to refer to as the Adolescent Modern, with all the pejorative implications the term sounds like it should have. Heh.
Anyway, that's what a boiled down, analytically explicit and coherent periodization of world history looks like to me.
Structures: The Elements of my Model. My text's model has three parts: networks, hierarchies, and culture, each represented digrammatically and each corresponding to the three fundamental structures within which every human has lived. A brief explanation of each:
Networks. Networks are the connections that tie various human communities together. See Jonathan Reynolds' excellent description of networks in his article,9 especially the sections on people, goods, and ideas in motion, as they describe the actual movement of these entities. (The motion he describes about the environment is metaphorical, as is his "motion of history", or historiography, and therefore fit more comfortably into my analysis of culture.)
Hierarchies. Hierarchies are human communities viewed in terms of their internal power structures, from simple to complex, from bands and tribes to chiefdoms, states, empires, and so forth. It turns out that most hierarchies in each broad era (Hunter-Gatherer, Agrarian, Indistrial) conform to a fairly standard pattern, as I will explain in a moment. Though in no way "fixed", hierarchies do form the more grounded counterpoint to the fluidity of network flows.
Culture. My model treats culture functionally, based on the metaphor of a movie screen. The cultural screen of a society is where images, representing political positions, cultural practices, religious and other ideologies — anything bearing on the fundamental questions of personal and communal identities and the meanings of life and the cosmos with which all human cultures are ultimately concerned — are projected (metaphorically and at times literally) by various parts of the society. Every cultural screen is also surrounded by a cultural frame representing the fundamental beliefs or unspoken assumptions the society holds about what the universe is like, and outside of which screen images are not normally projected.
This model, with each element of the model taken to be not fixed but dynamic and contantly under construction, is my analytic lens for organizing and analyzing the data pile of world history. It has allowed me to construct a couple of (what I think are) pretty interesting meta-narratives.
Meta-narratives. The first meta-narrative or overarching story is in fact so obvious that one hardly needs my model to see it, and many have in fact seen it before me with no real objections raised: the story of rising complexity. Here the model, especially the hierarchies part, simply provides a clear visual representation of the story, as this sequence of diagrams shows.
This diagram shows the simple, relatively egalitarian structures of bands and tribes, and the somewhat more complex structure of a chiefdom.
The even more complex structure of an Agrarian-Era state level hierarchy, organized along a top-to-bottom axis of class power and a front-to-back axis of gender power, is shown by this pyramid-shaped diagram.
Finally, this diagram shows the even more complex, three part structure of modern industrial hierarchies. So rising complexity is a visible meta-narrative.
The crucial story that this model allows me to tell, however, is itself more complex. Every human community had both its own internal organization as well as connections to other communities. In other words, networks and hierarchies intersected. But the nature of the two structures made (and continues to make) their points of intersection places of creative tension and sometimes conflict. This is because the two structures emerged as a result of individual actions that aimed at two very different sorts of goals, and so the structures themselves developed around sometimes conflicting purposes and generated different cultural values. A brief comparison of the fundamental characteristics of each type of structure reveals this tension.
Networks were horizontal structures. That is, they connected separate communities or societies without necessarily placing one over the other. This is because they were also cooperative. This is clearest in the case of the economic aspect of network connections: trade is by definition a consensual exchange of goods in which each party perceives itself as having received fair value in return for what it gives away. But the cooperative, or at least non-coercive, nature of networks also applies to the other sorts of exchanges that flowed through them. In addition, they were extensive, connecting communities that could be widely separated geographically and politically. Finally, they were (especially later, after the rise of state-level societies) focused on urban centers. The tentacles of trade and cultural exchange, of course, reached into the countryside of farming villages and pastoral lands, but the great centers of exchange tended to be cities.
Hierarchies, on the other hand, were vertical structures, as the name implies. The essence of a hierarchy was the ranking of social groups above and below each other. This is because they were coercive structures (especially complex hierarchies), which is another way of saying that they were political rather than economic. The coercion might take many forms (and be culturally justified, disguised, consented to, and so forth), but the central feature of a state or even the distributed power of a simple community was that it enforced individual compliance with orders, laws, or informal norms. That is, it made cooperation work in an unequal environment. Hierarchies were intensive. That is, a hierarchy focused its coercive power over the specific area under its control, and additions to that area tended to be contiguous. Finally, hierarchies, at least Agrarian ones, were based in rural production. They might have urban centers, and indeed cities were central to most (though not all) state-level societies. But the role of cities as centers of exchange in networks differed from the role of cities as centers of the concentration of power and of people who wielded power in hierarchies.
Although both networks and hierarchies became more complex and powerful over time, their relative importance shifted, as this diagram illustrates.
Down through the High Agrarian Era, or to about 1500 CE, the world consisted of hierarchies connected by networks: the experience of hierarchies was primary for most people. Between 1500 and 1800, as previously separate networks connected, the balance shifted toward greater equality. After 1800, the world increasingly became a global network divided into hierarchies: a world where network effects are arguably primary. That in itself is a pretty cool story that I believe is original to my text. But wait, as the old late night infomercials used to say, there's more! The creative tension at the intersection of networks and hierarchies, once recognized as a central driver in the story of world history, shows up in all sorts of places laden with analytical insights that take us well beyond a story told just from the perspective of either structure. I will note three important examples briefly.
First, the tension between network and hierarchy values and goals revealed by the model explains why many Agrarian societies generated political and cultural mechanisms designed to limit and denature the threat to hierarchy stability that network flows seemed to pose. These usually focused on that most typical group of network operators, merchants. Hierarchy elites almost never wished to cut off trade entirely (even had that been possible) — they wanted long distance luxury goods. But they also typically did not trust merchants, whose activities and values could easily be seen as subversive, a paradox I call The Merchant Dilemma. To solve it, hierarchy elites developed not just trade restrictions, tariffs, and sequestration of merchants (foreign and domestic!) into separate sections of cities, but cultural systems that had the effect of co-opting merchants such that network profits reinforced hierarchy values.
Given this "normal", hierarchy-dominated pattern, the network-hierarchy tension highlighted by the model also then reveals a deep structural aspect of the emergence of the Industrial Revolution. In some western European societies, not only did their hierarchies fail (by the "normal" standard) to properly contain and co-opt their merchants, they actually became infected with network values (ask me about the English Statute of Laborers of 1351) and promoted standard network mechanisms of doing business, above all capitalism (see joint Stock Companies). In the context of an increasingly powerful and globalizing network, this reorientation of certain hierarchies had momentous consequences, first among them the opening of space for industrialization to take hold.
Finally, however, the adoption by (some) hierarchies of (some) network values transformed but did not eliminate the tension between networks and hierarchies. Thus, the model's highlighting of that tension can help us explain the dynamics of one of today's most pressing political problems, the (re)emergence of ethnic nationalism (white supremacy in the US) and reactionary right wing politics as a major force in the developed world. Given today's material context of a pervasive global capitalist network and its associated massive flows of goods, capital, ideas, and people, the resulting conflict between network values (capitalism as an ideology, but also, and not necessarily congruently, human rights and environmentalism) on the one hand, and hierarchy values (nationalism, especially as a tool of leaders seeking greater power in modern industrial hierarchies) appears not just unsurprising but deeply rooted in world historical dynamics.
"The story of network-hierarchy tension" is, I believe, an example of the sort of useful meta-narrative one can tell about world history. As I claimed earlier, one can arrive at that sort of story by taking the vast pile of world history evidence and "boiling it down" — though not too far, as we need not just networks but hierarchies (and the cultural attitudes and mechanisms through which they interacted) to tell this story. At the same time, arriving at this story via an explicit model allows us not just to tell the story, but to show how we constructed the story, thus teaching our students not just the story but the mechanics of story telling. In other words, organizing world history via an explicit model helps us construct good — i.e. scientific — meta-narratives and to train the next generation of scientific critical thinkers.
This in turn invites students to critique the story you've told and to use the model (perhaps in modified form) to construct their own stories — in other words, to become historians themselves… which is our pedagogical goal, no? For by helping our students be good, critical, scientific historians, we help them join the conversation through which we all can construct humane identities and understand the cosmos a bit better.
And just so this doesn't end on too grandiose a note, let's have fun doing all this!
1 Rick Szostak, "Innocuous Organizing Devices for World History", World History Connected February 2018.
2 My own is out as: Stephen Morillo, Frameworks of World History. Networks, Hierarchies, Culture (Oxford University Press, 2013). The others: Jonathan Reynolds and Erik Gilbert, World in Motion: A Dynamic History of Human Kind (Pearson, forthcoming); Rick Szostak, World History: A Co-evolutionary Approach (In Progress).
3 Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford University Press, 1976).
5 Though I will happily go all "Nancy Partner on Hayden White" on it: Nancy Partner, "Hayden White: The Form of the Content"," History and Theory 37 (1998), 162-172.
6 Partner, "Hayden White", 171.
7 I am currently working with writer Lynne Miles-Morillo on the illustrating part of a graphic history, tentatively titled Surviving Cannibals. Hans Staden among the Tupi, Europeans, and Historians, which explores this point visually, using different grqphic styles to show levels of story telling, interpretation, and appropriation across several centuries of reception of Staden's story.
8 For an exploration of the potential contradictions inherent in teaching "global citizenship", however, see Stephen Morillo, "World History and the Social Sciences", Journal of the Indiana Academy of the Social Sciences (forthcoming).
9 Jonathan T. Reynolds, "Motion as an Organizing Principle in World History", World History Connected February 2018.
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