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Organizing World History


Introduction to the Forum on Organizing World History

Rick Szostak


     This is an exciting time in the field of world history. Recent research in the field allows the textbook author to achieve comparisons across societies and detail inter-societal connections to a degree that would not have been possible just a decade or two ago. Yet this new research exacerbates a problem that has long plagued the field: How can we organize our vast understandings of world history in such a manner that they are coherent? How, in particular, can we help our students to see how the histories of Assyrians and Aztecs and Polynesians are connected? Instructors and students of courses in world history often express a desire for greater coherence.

     The four essays in this forum take quite different approaches to the task of organizing world history. It is thus worth placing some emphasis at the outset on areas of agreement. Most obviously, we all see value in exploring strategies for organization. We all thus at least implicitly appreciate that world history is more than the sum of its parts: It is important that we narrate a set of historical events and processes, but absolutely critical that we not just do that. And we then agree on the value of being self-conscious of the goals of world history, and of then communicating our goals and strategies explicitly to students.

     Coherence can be seen as a goal in its own right. Unless scholars and students can somehow organize their understandings of different events and processes they will too easily forget what they have learned. Yet the authors in this forum point to several other important purposes served by organizing world history. Most obviously, perhaps, it is hoped that organizing history will allow students to better understand the purpose and practice of history (with multiple authors encouraging us to acquaint students with historiography and historical controversy). Importantly, students can better understand the very complexity of history if we provide them with strategies for coping with that complexity. And an organized and thus more comprehensible world history allows students to appreciate our common humanity: that not only did different regions of the world interact but that different societies reacted to common challenges often in similar ways. In other words, an organized world history should be an inclusive world history. Students can then develop their own multi-faceted personal identity by reflecting on their place in history. And they are better able to draw lessons from an organized history. (Different authors highlight different lessons that might be learned.) Multiple authors stress the possibilities for skill acquisition—and especially critical thinking—associated with particular organizing strategies.

     Three of us—Stephen Morillo, Jonathan Reynolds, and me—are authors of textbooks that reflect our views regarding organization. We each with varying degrees of subtlety invite our readers to look at our books for further explication of our approaches. This may be a moment in the development of world history that invites reflection on our goals as a field and the best strategies for achieving these.

     Though we agree on much we each also recommend a different set of organizing devices or principles. Jonathan stresses the value of an emphasis on "motion." Stephen emphasizes the importance of networks and hierarchies (both of which lend themselves to the use of diagrams). Mark Ciotola describes the use of diagrams—of bubbles or logistic curves—that describe resource use through time, and can be applied to a wide range of historical transformations. I speak of flowcharts and evolutionary analysis. Stephen and I stress the utility of in-text boxes, but of different sorts.

     It is noteworthy that three of us use diagrams as organizing devices. Though diagrams may necessarily simplify complex historical realities, they can powerfully communicate core ideas. The student familiar with a diagram can hopefully structure more complex understandings around that diagram.

     Stephen and I engage in our articles in a conversation about several important issues, including how world historians should approach meta-narrative and narrative itself. Stephen and I agree about much more than we disagree. But I hope that the conversation illustrates that the practice of organizing world history must be grounded in some deep philosophical reflection on the nature and purposes of world history.

     I have made no attempt to encourage any consistency in style across these papers. I enjoyed reading each paper too much to want to interfere with authorial voice. Each author obviously cares about their subject matter and has been thinking about these issues for some time. We all clearly enjoyed the opportunity to reflect on the purposes and possibilities for organization. We hope that these contributions encourage an ongoing conversation.

     I will likewise eschew the common editorial practice of summarizing each essay. Each essay guides the reader forward without any need for me to intervene. Each focuses on a unique set of organizing devices or principles. But each inevitably engages along the way with questions about the value of organization in general and the purposes that particular organizing strategies can achieve.

     I would close by thanking Marc Gilbert for encouraging us to put together this forum. And I would note that this forum would have been impossible without the existence of the World History Association, and of its 2016 conference in Ghent at which the idea for this forum originated.

Rick Szostak is professor and chair of the Department of Economics at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He is the author or co-author of 14 books including Technology and American Society: A History (third edition in progress for Routledge) and Interdisciplinary Research: Process and Theory (2017). He can be reached at


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