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Book Review


Stephen Morillo, Frameworks of World History: Networks, Hierarchies, Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. Pp. xxiv + 893. Index. $67.95 (paper).


     Stephen Morillo's attractive title of his textbook, Frameworks of World History: Networks, Hierarchies, Culture, nicely captures the text's major feature: an analytical framework based on a three-part model. The three parts (networks, hierarchies, culture) further break down to three groups of concrete indicators, which offers a novel approach to the spate of new world history textbooks written in the last three decades that attempt to look at the world's past in a global perspective.

     Networks represent "the connections of trade, migration, cultural exchange, and so forth that linked historical hierarchies together" (xxv); Hierarches "refers to as states, countries, kingdoms, empires or even nations" (xxiv); and Culture is divided into a cultural frame and a cultural screen: the cultural frame includes basic agreed-upon cultural values, while the cultural screen refers to major schools of thought or issues debated within the cultural frame (522). The relationships among the three parts are as follows: networks link hierarchies together, and both are structures; these two structures serve as the bases for culture, which in turn shapes and gives meaning to structures. Although the framework's three parts and their respective indicators have been discussed in other new world history textbooks, the way of incorporating them into a concrete model is very impressive, especially with its concept of cultural frames and cultural screens.

     This book's periodization is very neat, dividing the global past into three major eras and eight sub-eras. The three major eras are Hunter-Gatherer, Agrarian, and Industrial eras. Then each of the major eras is theoretically divided into three sub-eras (the author thinks we are still in High Industrial era): Early, High, and Late. For instance, the author argues Agrarian Era lasts from 8000 BCE to 1800, and labels the period from 1500 to 1800 as "Late Agrarian" rather than the conventional "Early Modern" as most textbooks do. The author's argument for such a "Late Agrarian" era, increased networks of exchange, is thought-provoking. The overall periodization will help students to grasp the global past as a whole.

     The structure of the chapters is well designed. Each chapter follows a clear pattern: a short list of the central ideas, a global map indicating the key places discussed in the chapter, principles and patterns highlighting two or three key ideas in the margin, and a page of photographs of thematically related cultural artifacts from different places. All these items work together to help students understand the major contents of the chapter. Each chapter has an opening essay highlighting the chapter's major themes, which will attract students to focus on these themes and the relevant arguments without getting lost in the details. At the end of each chapter there is a thought problem which will enable students to apply the model they have learned to other issues and thus practice "doing" world history.

     An important feature of this textbook is its attempt to make students "do" world history rather than merely absorb facts. As one of the means to achieve this goal, each chapter has a box named Issues in Doing World History which discusses a philosophical or methodological issue pertinent to that chapter. The twenty-eight such issues throughout the textbook are carefully chosen and well analyzed, which will help students learn how historians do world history. Together with other features, including the thought problem at the end of each chapter, the Issues will help students develop critical thinking skill and, more importantly, may attract some of them to become professional historians.

     A major shortcoming of this book, in my opinion, is the author's reluctance to give up Eurocentric explanation of a much debated and critical question in world history: "the rise of the west." The author's discussion of "European Exceptionalism," the issue of doing world history in Chapter Fourteen, presents a good summary of his interpretation of that question, which guides his treatments of the following chapters. The author phrases the question of "the rise of the west" as "how do we explain why the emergence of the Industrial Era and the end of the Agrarian Era happened first in a part of northwestern Europe and spread from there to the rest of the world? In other words, by contrast with the shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture, industry was essentially invented once, in one place. Why?" (434). Such a formulation of the question easily misleads people to seek only those factors within Europe, even if "in its global context" as the author claims to do. This is clearly shown by the author's statement that "this is a story in which a particular set of characteristics of certain European hierarchies, set in the context of their place in a global network, ……, had somewhat …… explicable consequences" (434). The author further acknowledges that "an element of European Exceptionalism remains" in such an answer, but he states that this is "imposed" by the "basic fact" that industrialization only originated in Europe (435), which is identical to his formulation of the question.

     New research has argued that industry did not just rise in Western Europe, as sugar plantation system can be regarded as a form of industry; and world historians have used three key concepts—contingency, accident, and conjuncture—to explain the rise of industry in Western Europe. The author simply abridged this new scholarship to something like it reduced the origins of industrialization to "an accident that might have happened anywhere" (434). So the author's discussion should present a more balanced account of this recent scholarship.

     Another issue I would like to point out is the author's discussion on "Is a Global Perspective Possible," the issue of doing world history in Chapter Twenty-seven. In his brief discussion, the author argues that for any individual historian, it is impossible to create a global perspective because every historian has a particular perspective that is partially shaped by one's life experiences; and he continues, "For the profession as a whole, the accumulation of many individual historians' perspectives, like a vast photomontage, can gradually approach the effect of a global perspective." (854). This argument appears plausible, but upon close examination it becomes less convincing. It is a consensus that world history is about connections across both time and geographical space; and it is not a sum or accumulation of national or regional histories. World history is less about global knowledge than about a global perspective. Although individual historians' personal experiences do influence some aspects of their perspectives, modern professional historians share the basic characteristic in their perspectives: a Eurocentrism-colored national approach that has dominated the modern history profession since its inception in the nineteenth century. As such, how can a global perspective be "like a vast photomontage" to be accumulated by individual historians' perspectives? I believe individual historians can learn and obtain a global perspective by going beyond national perspectives that are tinted with Eurocentrism via conscious efforts, proper professional training, and continual practice in this globalized world.

     Overall this textbook provides an excellent framework based on an analytical three-part model (networks, hierarchies, and culture) and a neatly designed periodization for studying world history. However, its basic ideas about "the rise of the west," the key issue in world history, remain in the outdated Eurocentric category.

Aiqun Hu is an associate professor of Asian/Global History at Arkansas State University. She can be reached at


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