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Book Review


Davidann, Jon Thares and Marc Gilbert. Cross-Cultural Encounters in Modern World History. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, 2013. iii + 204 pp.


     World historians love cross-cultural encounters, because it is through such encounters that we can so clearly see the complex ways that human interaction and movement has shaped both the past and the present. The encounters model is an antidote to national and regional models that, even unconsciously, imply the existence of self-contained societies delimited by well-defined geographies and cultures. Instead, as Jon Davidann and Marc Gilbert demonstrate in this volume, a focus on encounters foregrounds the ways that "hybridity, syncretism, [and] cultural blending" were key to understanding societies across the globe in the modern period. (3)

     Davidann and Gilbert view Cross-Cultural Encounters as a complementary volume to Jerry Bentley's 1993 Old World Encounters: Cross-Cultural Contacts and Exchanges in Pre-Modern Times. They rightly argue that while a variety of scholars have written about encounters of one kind or another in the modern period, no single volume (until now) has attempted to bring these encounters together in a text that is accessible to students. Their goal is to make the latest scholarship comprehensible and engaging—much as Bentley did for the pre-modern period—by connecting it to the lives and voices of the people involved.

     The book is divided into Parts A-E. Part A consists simply of the introduction, which gives a helpful overview of the book's structure and also explores the concept of cross-cultural encounters in world history. Parts B-E move chronologically from the 15th to the 20th century, beginning with the 'Age of Exploration' and concluding in multi-cultural Europe. Part B, called 'Encounters in the Age of Exploration,' consists of three chapters that explore the conquest of the Americas, European missionaries in East Asia, and the Ottoman tolerance for non-Muslim communities within its realms, respectively. While these are far from the only encounters the authors could have chosen, the three case studies are effective together because they represent widely divergent outcomes in the same era. In the case of the Americas, encounters resulted in demographic catastrophe for Native Americans and thus a fundamental reordering of societies. In the case of East Asia, European missionaries formed a small group whose members were more likely to conform to East Asian cultures than the other way around. And finally in the case of the Ottoman Empire, non-Muslim, non-Turkish groups were treated with an official policy of toleration and protection.

     Part C, called 'Encounters—Middle Ground Successes and Failures,' explores the period between about 1600 to about 1800, also in three chapters. The authors contend that this period marked an era in which the possibilities for creating hybrid 'middle grounds' were more open than in either earlier or later periods. In chapter 4, they explore Native American encounters with Europeans in North America as one expression of this potential. Although they do not ignore moments of intense conflict, they highlight occasions in which both Native Americans and Europeans found it necessary to come together in order to thrive or survive. Chapter 5 focuses on the Polynesian encounter with Euro-Americans beginning in the 18th century. Although this encounter also allowed for moments of coming together in a 'middle ground,' Davidann and Gilbert show that the combination of exposure to new diseases and violence that characterized European-Polynesian interactions proved devastating to Polynesian society. In chapter 6, the authors point out that even while it was possible to create a 'middle ground' in some places, the case of Russia and the Steppe Empires demonstrate that harsh state policies could make such hybrid spaces very difficult to achieve.

     Part D explores the imperialism and nationalism that characterized the world in the period between 1800 and the late 20th century. Key to this section is that the authors strive to explore imperial encounters both from the outside in as well as from the inside out. The three case studies take readers around the globe from the encounter between Britons and Indians (chapter 7), the encounter between the Japanese and other East Asians in Korea and China (chapter 8), and the encounter between Europeans and Africans (chapter 9). In each case, the authors explore not only the violence of imperial encounters but also the ways in which such encounters caused both colonizers and colonized to reformulate their collective and individual identities.

     Part E, the final section, consists of only one chapter on multiculturalism and immigration in 20th century Europe. While this chapter stands alone in terms of content, it also offers a fitting conclusion to the book. Having explored various peaceful and violent encounters around the world since 1500, the conflicts and tensions between ethnic Europeans and non-European immigrants highlighted in chapter 10 serve as a reminder that cross-cultural toleration is not a necessary side effect of globalization. Indeed, the authors hope that by examining the successes and failures of past cross-cultural encounters we will be better able to successfully negotiate the spaces between the cultures of our own present.

     With Cross-Cultural Encounters, Davidann and Gilbert successfully negotiate a different kind of space that is all too often marginalized: the space between scholarship and student accessibility. Like other good world historians they are able to seamlessly adjust the scale of their story from very large, global processes to the minute events of individual lives in a way that students can readily understand. Moreover, they present cross-cultural encounters not as a series of celebratory stories about cultural mixing, but as a whole range of outcomes that included brilliant successes and devastating failures and everything in between. And finally, they do not fall into the trap of depicting the modern period as a struggle between 'strong' and 'weak' cultures: rather, they demonstrate in each chapter that the transformative effect of encounters ran in multiple dimensions, changing "both the supposed victor and the vanquished." (4) For all these reasons, Cross-Cultural Encounters will be a welcome addition to the classroom. In future editions, I recommend a 'Further Reading' section to further enhance its usefulness.

Heather Streets-Salter is an Associate Professor and the Director of World History Programs at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. She can be reached at


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