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Book Review


Jerry H. Bentley, ed., The Oxford Handbook of World History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. 613p. including index (cloth).


     Jerry Bentley's recent passing has left a big hole in the study of world history. Bentley pioneered the field of world history, founding the most important journal in the field, the Journal of World History, co-authoring the best selling world history textbook, Traditions and Encounters, and writing one of its most important recent books, Old World Encounters. Bentley's work added gravitas and focus to a field that had struggled to define itself and was seen by outsiders as too broad and not deep enough. As a result, Bentley will be deeply missed, not only by family and friends, but also by other world historians for whom he was an intellectual leader. However, before his death, Bentley made one more lasting contribution to world history in his editorship of The Oxford Handbook of World History. In so doing, Bentley brought together in one volume some of the best historians doing some of the most sophisticated conceptualizing in the entire field of history. The book goes a long way toward answering world history's critics and demonstrates the maturity and dynamism of the field. Its quality and usefulness will no doubt burnish Bentley's legacy.

     The Oxford Handbook is written at a very high level and will require some knowledge of world history and the study of the field to be accessible. The book will be most useful to teachers of AP world history and university professors, and should become a required text for world history graduate seminars. It can be opened and read from cover to cover, although not all chapters are equal in quality and readability, or it can be used as a reference book. It is large in scope and quite comprehensive, covering almost all the major topics that concern world historians. A chapter devoted exclusively to warfare would have made it even more encompassing.

     The first section of the book, called "Concepts", focuses on ways of conceptualizing world history. Taking a meta-historical approach, the authors analyze ways of thinking about world history as a whole. Michael Bentley (no relation to Jerry Bentley) looks at various theories of world history since the Enlightenment, Martin Lewis argues for the importance of geography for world history, especially big history, Luiji Cajani identifies the historiography of world history periodization, Matthew Lauzon analyzes the intellectual construct of modernity from the Renaissance to the present day with a strong emphasis on contemporary critical approaches to it, Jurgen Osterhammel distinguishes between the intellectually weak triumphalism of concepts of globalization in the late 20th century and the more critical approach of global history, and Patrick Manning constructs an epistemology of world history, although most of the article is a more general discussion of ways of knowing and the focus shifts to world historical knowledge only in his conclusion.

     These very sophisticated essays contribute greatly to our understanding of world history and are very useful in gaining an overall picture of the subject in historical and intellectual context. There is also some overlap between the chapters since most of them delve into the historiography of world history. The overlap, while a problem at one level, is actually welcome at another, since it suggests that the foundations and main goals of world history are well-understood and valued.

     Unsurprisingly, the theme that runs through most chapters is that world history in its most recent formulation since the 1960s represents a substantial improvement over older approaches. Several authors critique the Eurocentrism of Enlightenment "universal" histories written in the eighteenth century which mapped the progress of European civilization and others' barbarism, German intellectuals' focus on mostly European national histories in the nineteenth century, or twentieth century attempts to tell the narrative of history through the rise and fall of world civilizations as in Arnold Toynbee's The Story of History, begun in the 1930s. Toynbee's work was later dismissed for its attempts to force his Europe-centered schema onto the facts of history, ending with a predetermined outcome that his critics found deeply flawed.

     Getting rid of Eurocentrism has been a difficult and complicated process, however, as Jerry Bentley acknowledges in his introduction to the book. He points to two trends that show promise. The first is the recent comparative studies which treat Europe as simply one region to be compared with others such as Ken Pomeranz's work on China and Europe. The second is the study of global and local processes in all their dimensions without regard to particular nations. In the volume's debates over methodology, which take place mostly in the two Bentley chapters, Jerry Bentley's introduction and Michael Bentley's chapter on theories of world history since the Enlightenment, the battle lines are drawn similarly to other areas of historical study. Michael Bentley describes a modernist approach of empiricism and inductive reasoning clashing with postmodernism and postcolonialism which reject the claim of inductive reasoning and challenge the claim of unadulterated empiricism, instead arguing that perspectives distorted by Eurocentrism inform this empiricism. Unlike Jerry Bentley, Michael Bentley sees less room for cooperation between these two approaches and questions whether historians truly can escape from the Europe-centered approaches that have dominated the field for so long.

     The recent movement toward global history catches the attention of these historians, although there is not complete agreement on what global history is or whether it is an improvement over more established approaches to world history such as world systems theory or the longue duree (long stretches of time). Osterhammel endorses global history's study of the cross-sections of globalization through for example global trade or migration, which he believes has blunted Euro-centric narratives, and its critical and neutral stance as a big improvement over globalization theories which he finds vague and prone to celebrate "homogenization." On the other hand, Michael Bentley argues that global history has yet to demonstrate that these cross-sections actually contain explanatory power, that they can capture the essential motive power of globalization. This discussion gets at a much more basic challenge that every student of world history has confronted; attempting to study a field that is so spatially broad and temporally deep is a daunting enterprise. Global history might provide an answer by narrowing the framework, but it loses analytical power in the process, according to Michael Bentley.

     The second section of the book, entitled "Themes", comprises a selection of some of the most prominent issues that confront not only world history but indeed the world today. Topics range from world environmental history by David Christian, to two separate chapters on agriculture, one by John Mears and another by Ken Pomeranz (seems excessive until one actually reads both and finds little overlap and where there is agreement, it is a balanced but stunning indictment of the Green Revolution). There is a chapter on nomads by Thomas Barfield, a chapter by the sage Charles Tilly on state transformations and war, an excellent chapter on gender by Marnie Hughes-Warrington, a more scatter-shot chapter on religions by Zvi Ben-Dor Benite, and Daniel Headrick's straightforward assessment of the role of technology, engineering, and science. This section is very diverse and difficult to characterize within a unified framework. Nonetheless, one could argue that almost all of the chapters deal with the burden of world history, whether that burden is the great stress humans have placed on the environment in the last century or the great power of human belief systems in creating notions of exceptionalism (special elevated status for one's own tribe, group or nation) that in turn pointed toward incessant warfare against other supposedly lesser groups. Burdens also include the continuing marginalization of gender within world history, and the human cost of technology which drove the Industrial Revolution, delivered great innovations, but to only a small part of the human population, and made for devastating world wars in the twentieth century. These historians are by no means completely negative and point to many signs of global progress and innovation. However, there is no teleology of human achievement and triumph but rather a sober assessment of the historical record humans have created to both enlighten and endanger themselves.

     This section is understandably less historiographic than the first section, but some inclusion of historians' views would have strengthened a couple of the essays, including the chapter on religions by Benite and Headrick's discussion of technology. The views of historians are welcome in two other chapters, Christian's environmental history and Hughes-Warrington's on gender. David Christian leads off this section, admirably distilling in a few pages an overview of world environmental history. His historiographical background is essential reading, focusing not on the despoliation of the environment but on human reciprocity with the natural world which opens space for insights from an Australian indigene, "That tree the same as me", classical literary allusions to the natural world, and the beginnings of human alienation from nature in the rise of cities. Hughes-Warrington's purpose is clear: to move gender from the outskirts of world history to its center. And she proceeds to demonstrate that it is the historian, not the history that needs transformation. Most world historians still approach gender as an add-on to their already-constructed narratives and recent contributions focus far too much on victimization and inequality. If world history is maturing, its handling of gender indicates that it still has unmet challenges. Other strong points include the chapters on agriculture. Mears articulates a periodization of agricultural origins around 7000 BCE, a post-classical period from 500-1800 CE and the rise of modern industrial agriculture since then that points to a lead role for agriculture in the major pivot points of world history. Pomeranz digs deeper into agricultural productivity, focusing on "advanced agriculture" defined as highly productive cultivation to establish connections to our current system of high agricultural productivity which demands great amounts of energy and land and excludes impoverished portions of the world from participating in it.

     On the other hand, other areas in the section need improvement. Benite's chapter on religions is over determined and unbalanced, tilting too far towards Abrahamic religions. Headrick's analysis of the history of science and technology is neutral but in this case too neutral, with too little space devoted to connections between the technologies of the Industrial Revolution and the strengthening of European imperialism. This could have been a case of Headrick simply assuming we already knew this argument since he was the one who originally made this argument in his book, Tools of Empire. Tilly could have connected his essay to the rise of nationalism and its literature more clearly. His "three Cs" formula of state formation and transformation, capital, coercion, and commitment are suitably broad to fit all states into it but in the modern period commitment has been transmuted into nationalism which has become exorbitant in its power and exclusivity, driving states to mass murder of those of its citizens who somehow lacked "commitment" to the nation. Christian, Hughes-Warrington, and Headrick's essays are the most readable, but with a plenitude of ideas and information, almost any of this section's chapters would be a good place to start.

     Section three of the volume covers processes of world history. Dirk Hoerder's very comprehensive chapter on the history of migration begins the section. James Tracy studies trade, Patrick O'Brien examines industrialization, J.R. McNeill looks at biological exchanges, Jerry Bentley analyzes cultural exchanges, while Thomas Allsen focuses on pre-modern empires and Prasenjit Duara on modern imperialism. World history processes, defined by temporal shifts and transformations, are a critical component of our understanding of world history and this section is well-worth the attention of the reader. However, these essays are uneven. They can be divided roughly between the first three essays which are sub-par for the book with little or no historiography and conceptual holes in one of them, and the last four essays which as a group are excellent and add quite a lot to our knowledge of the field. The first group's biggest faults are that they do not make adequate connections to either the established schools of thought or other patterns in world history. The conceptual holes appear in O'Brien's history of industrialization, which seems to be a history set apart, with no connection to other discussions of world systems or dependency theories, to name just two of several options. O'Brien is fond of modernization theory, which is roundly criticized in several of the other essays, including Matthew Lauzon's on modernity. Unlike most world historians who have been critical of industrial capitalism, O'Brien embraces capitalist development and in so doing ignores so much historical terrain as to make this chapter mostly irrelevant to world history.

     More accessible and with clear connections to the literature of world history, J.R. McNeill's chapter on biological exchanges is a gem with a comprehensive summary from ancient to present and a strong focus on the Columbian Exchange which as McNeill states transformed the world as we know more than any other. McNeill throws in entertaining anecdotes and puzzling mysteries to keep almost any reader engaged. Jerry Bentley's essay on cultural exchanges covers a field that is newer and less developed than any other but is gaining attention in world history. Having wrestled with the methodological considerations of this field myself (my scholarly writing has taken an encounters and exchanges approach and I recently co-authored a book with Marc Gilbert called Cross-Cultural Encounters in Modern World History), I can appreciate Bentley's struggle at times to clarify the issues. In the end however, Bentley's attempt to separate out culture and thought from material conditions is problematic. I can also relate to his statement that because there is no reigning school of thought or approach, historians of cultural exchange pursue methodological "individualism." Indeed there is even diversity of thought about what constitutes cultural exchange. Does the study of cultural encounter and exchange limit historians to those products of cultural exchanges such as transmission of cultural traditions like religions across borders (or failure thereof), which is Bentley's approach; or can we also study encounters to see how humans' worlds on all sides of the exchange or encounter have been shaped and reshaped by them? Bentley's comment that power relations are crucial to the trajectory of these exchanges is well-taken. But the exact shape of those power relations and the impact of the encounters themselves on prevailing power relations are of interest, especially in the arena of imperialism where the Comaroffs in their study of Christianity in colonial southern Africa have argued that encounters in some cases became opportunities for subject peoples to reshape relations internally and externally and even rid themselves of colonial overlords, at least in their churches. This apparent instability of power relations makes studying cultural exchanges and encounters a complex task but also an area of intriguing possibilities.

     The two chapters on imperialism are some of the strongest in the volume. This field has a strong literature and has been a critical focus for some time in world history. Thomas Allsen's chapter on pre-modern empires gives a comprehensive classification of empires through the categories of warfare, organization, justifications (ideological or otherwise), their decline, and legacies. And he gives a clear summary comparison of pre and post 1500 empires that will be useful to any student and/or teacher of world history. Prasenjit Duara's essay on modern imperialism, both analytically deep and wide in scope, is one of most sophisticated of the entire volume. His delineation of the characteristics of modern imperialism and a brief but clear historiography are extremely helpful. Duara's discussion of nationalism and its connections to modern imperialism is superb. He notes its ability to mobilize populations and resources on behalf of imperial projects and he mentions Hannah Arendt's argument that nationalism began to drive imperialism in the twentieth century because empire stood above the internecine conflicts within the imperialist nation. Nationalists' awarding of citizenship in the metropole but withholding it from colonial subjects ends his analysis. His explanation of the main periods of modern imperialism is very enlightening and should be read by all historians.

     The last section of the book is divided geographically into the regions of the world. And while the regions covered are numerous (there are ten chapters in this section) and as different as one end of the globe is to the other, one of the important themes that emerges from most of these chapters is the interactions and connections between humans within and beyond the immediate boundaries of their region. Peter Perdue's chapter on East Asia and Central Eurasia does an admirable job of reorienting the traditional Fairbank and Reischauer thesis of a region unified by Confucianism to one of tremendous diversity. The interactions among Asians and between Asians and others within and in areas surrounding the region is notable here. He is followed by Andre Wink covering South and Southeast Asia, John Obert Voll on the Middle East, Christopher Ehret on Africa, Bonnie Smith and Donald Kelley on Europe and Russia, David Abulafia on the Mediterranean, Edward Davies on the Americas, 1450-2000, Alan Karras on the Atlantic, Paul D'Arcy on Oceania and Australasia and Rainer Buschmann on the Pacific Ocean to 1850. In addition to Perdue's interaction-focused analysis, Ehret's Africa chapter examines human interaction during the Atlantic slave trade and Smith and Kelley end their discussion of Europe with the postwar encounter of Europeans and immigrants. Abulafia builds a very persuasive and comprehensive methodology for studying interactions and connections in the Mediterranean Sea, Davies describes the world-spanning production of the American Barbie Doll as an example of postwar globalization, Karras bemoans the lack of connections in the histories of the Atlantic region, and D'Arcy discusses academic debates about interactions between Europeans and the Pacific peoples. D'Arcy ends with a suggestion that under the unique pressures of first contacts, both explorers and indigenous peoples were forced to be much more pragmatic than we have assumed. Added together, these arguments point world historians in the direction of encounters and exchanges, which has the potential to rewrite traditional world history narratives. For those interested in this approach, none is more complete and persuasive than Abulafia's chapter on the Mediterranean. In contrast to previous work on the Mediterranean, which focused on the land masses surrounding it, Abulafia focuses on the sea as the connecting tissue binding the people and products of the region together. It is a simple, yet powerful, idea.

     Most of the chapters summarize the history of the region they are concerned with and some integrate a brief historiography into it. In the case of the Americas and the Europe and Russia chapters, a discussion of historiography would have been welcome, for these histories are well-known to most students and teachers of history and would benefit from critique and innovation. In contrast, Voll's chapter on the Middle East is almost entirely historiographic and because the history of this region has been underemphasized until recent times, a summary history would have strengthened it. The same is true for Karras's chapter on Atlantic history, where we witness a repeated rant against colonial Americanists for their domination and distortion of the field. Instead of complaining, Karras could have spent his time more usefully showing the reader the ways that Atlantic history, in spite of it its shortcomings, has changed the way we think about the Atlantic Ocean. Abulafia's chapter should be consulted for new ideas on how to approach Atlantic history. As is to be expected, most of these chapters do not cover all parts of their respective regions equally well. Southeast Asia and Latin America are two regions that get short shrift. On the other hand, having two chapters on the Pacific/Oceania region seems excessive in a book where so little space can be devoted to each topic and region. While important, Australasia and the Pacific region have been somewhat peripheral to the core of world history and are challenged to respond to changes in the world that lie outside their control, as D'Arcy acknowledges in his chapter. However, even though the Pacific has been at the far reaches of significant world historical change for much of its history, it became a central crossroads for different peoples and nations in the twentieth century and promises to be even more important in the future.

     In spite of it failings, The Oxford Handbook of World History as a whole is a testament to Bentley's skill and prominence as a world historian. It is an excellent addition to world history and indicates the growth of a field which has sometimes been dismissed by others as weak in its conceptualization and execution and dominated by generalists whose knowledge is wide but skin-deep. These accusations had to be of concern to Bentley. It is possible that debunking the debunkers of world history was one of his motivations in putting this volume together. If so, the book should help to lay concerns about world history to rest. For those of us who are simply interested in learning more about the field, the book makes an excellent companion. In the final analysis, it should be celebrated as world history's coming of age.

Jon Davidann is Professor of History at Hawai'i Pacific University. His research specialty is U.S.-Japanese relations and world history. He is the author several books on U.S.-Japanese relations and most recently co-authored a textbook called Cross-Cultural Encounters in Modern World History, published by Pearson in April 2012. You may contact him at


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