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Book Review


Sebastian Conrad, What is Global History? Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016. Pp. 299. Index. $29.95 (cloth).


     In What is Global History? Sebastian Conrad introduces readers to the field of global history, with an eye to explaining its history, its distinctiveness, its methodologies, its promise, and its drawbacks. He is inspired in this mission by the fact that global history "has for several decades been the fastest-growing field within the discipline" (1). For Conrad, the reasons for this have to do with the end of the Cold War, the events of September 11 in 2001, the digital communications revolution, and increasing global diversity and migration. He views the rapid expansion of global history as a revisionist reaction to the discipline's birth at a time when the nation-state was the "fundamental unit of investigation" (3), and as an acknowledgement of the growing connectedness of the world we live in today. For Conrad, it seems clear that we must gain a clear understanding not only about the origins of the field but of its main foci, contributions, and limitations.

     The book is divided into ten chapters which, taken together, explore each of these aspects of the field. In chapter one, Conrad makes it clear that the global history he discusses in the book is an active field for scholarly research and not, as has sometimes been posited, a teaching field. He identifies several core concerns that global historians share, including attention to movement, connection, and exchange, and defines the field as "a form of historical analysis in which phenomena, events, and processes are placed in global contexts" (5). Moreover, Conrad is careful to assert that writing global history is a matter of perspective as much as process. As such, this means that global histories do not need to encompass the whole world to count as 'global,' but rather that they seek to demonstrate that a particular place, region, group, or individual cannot be fully understood outside the wider global contexts in which they were enmeshed.

     Chapter two is historiographical in nature, and argues that thinking globally in the historical profession is a phenomenon with origins that well predate our present moment. At the same time, Conrad asserts that, in contrast to the global histories of our present, the globally-minded histories of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were often saturated with Eurocentrism and that they remained on the margins of the academic discipline. Chapter three makes the case that global history is one among several competing approaches to making sense of modern world history. Here, Conrad helpfully explores five of these competing approaches in order for readers to better understand both their relation to global history as well as their distinctiveness: comparative studies, transnational history, world-systems theory, postcolonial studies, and the theory of multiple modernities.

     Chapter four gets into the meat of the book, as it is here that Conrad offers his interpretation of what makes global history distinctive from the above competing approaches. He also clearly separates global history from world history in this chapter, arguing that world history is an older approach to writing connected histories whose authors "usually follow a macro-agenda" and seek a full understanding of the planet's past (63). Moreover, he argues, world history is characterized by its Eurocentrism. While Conrad is entitled to his interpretation, it should be said that this view of world versus global history is hardly a settled matter in the field, and many of its practitioners either reject the distinction altogether or else see the differences between the two differently. For many, indeed, global history is simply another name for world history, and the macro approach and Eurocentrism Conrad notes are an important part of the field's historiography. Nonetheless, Conrad goes on to enumerate the seven methodological characteristics he believes most global histories share. First, he argues, they are not generally concerned with macro perspectives on the past. Second, global histories experiment with alternate ideas about space. Third, global histories are "inherently relational," and fourth, they are part of the larger "spatial turn" in the historical discipline. Fifth, they emphasize the synchronicity of events, even when these events occur in distant locations. Sixth, global histories are self-reflective about Eurocentrism, and seventh, they explicitly recognize their positionality in terms of location, nationality, race, language, and time. Just as important, Conrad argues that the best global histories go beyond simple explorations of connections and demonstrate "large scale structural integration," by which he means that they explore how changes in one location can "ripple through the system to affect other parts as well" (76). And while these characteristics might seem abstract in isolation, Conrad is careful to provide a variety of concrete examples that allow readers unfamiliar with the field to follow along.

     Chapters five through eight delve deeper into the issues highlighted in chapter four. Chapter five explores in detail Conrad's notion of global integration, while it also emphatically argues that the history of globalization—contrary to common perception—is not commensurate with global history. Indeed, he is careful to say that global history is a way of approaching history writing, while globalization is itself a historical process. Chapter six explores the use of space in global histories. Here Conrad convincingly demonstrates that novel or alternate uses of space are hallmarks of the field. It is not simply the idea that many global histories go beyond the nation-state, but rather that global histories frequently shift between different scales of analysis and explore spatial mobilities such as networks, circulations, and connections.

     While Conrad asserts that global histories are more concerned with alternative ideas about space rather than time, in chapter seven he nevertheless argues that global historians do tinker with alternate uses of time. In an effort to move away from Eurocentrism, for example, global historians have sought to rethink the periodization of European dominance by locating it much later—closer to 1800—than the beginning of the sixteenth century. Additionally, global histories often focus on synchronous events in order to explore relationships and connections between different locations at any given time. Chapter eight, meanwhile, interrogates the notion of positionality, both as a way of arguing that global histories tend to be self-aware about attempts to move away from Eurocentrism and also to caution that global histories are still mainly written by western academics who publish in English. Chapter nine explores both the promise of and the dangers posed by global histories and the textual worlds they create. While Conrad is generally positive about the need to explore mobilities, relationships, and connections in our increasingly interconnected present, he also cautions that global histories might distort our understanding of the past in a new way. As he suggests, "the more global historians scan the documents for links and exchanges, the more connections they find, and the more they are ready to grant those connections privileged status and causal force" (185-86). The final chapter pushes this caution further by encouraging readers to think carefully about the politics and the limitations of writing global history—particularly in terms of who such histories serve. He urges practitioners not to lose sight of the fact that not all histories are connected histories, that we must remember that global histories often conceal relationships of power, and also that it continues to matter if western academics dominate the field.

     Overall, What is Global History is a thoughtful, careful exploration of an emerging field. It is particularly useful for introducing the field to curious scholars, graduate students, and teachers who have not yet had much exposure to it. What is most welcome is that Conrad explores global history as a vibrant research field rather than as a teaching field. Those who read Conrad's interpretation will be impressed not only with the promise of a field that seeks to explore integration, mobilities, and circulations on a global scale, but also with its potential limitations in an era when it is difficult to see the ways our focus on movement and connection might blind us to other narrative worlds.

Heather Streets-Salter is Department Chair and Director of World History Programs at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. She is the author of World War One in Southeast Asia: Colonialism and Anticolonialism in an Era of Global Conflict (Cambridge University Press, 2017), Martial Races: The Military, Martial Races, and Masculinity in British Imperial Culture, 1857-1914 (Manchester University Press, 2004), Traditions and Encounters: A Brief Global History (McGraw-Hill, 2006) with Jerry Bentley and Herb Ziegler (now in its fourth edition), and Empires and Colonies in the Modern World (Oxford University Press, 2015) with Trevor Getz. Please contact her at


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