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Book Review


Antoinette Burton and Tony Ballantyne, eds. World Histories from Below: Disruption and Dissent, 1750 to the Present. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016. Pp. xiii+ 241. $24.99 (paper)


     World history has often been told from the top down, with a focus on large-scale political and economic processes carried out by government and commercial leaders. This collection of seven essays takes the "bottom up" approach of social history to examine the ways that ordinary people "have driven global processes and shaped the direction and the character of connectivity at many scales" (3) through dissent, disruption, revolt, organization, and other actions. It asks readers "to imagine a world history narrative in which agitators, rebels, strikers, insurgents, and unorthodox visionaries of all kinds are at the center" (5), with thematic chapters that stretch from the mid-eighteenth century to the present. Each chapter examines individuals and developments in several places around the world, and explores how these were interconnected through the movement of people, ideas, and symbols. The editors and many of the authors are well-known scholar-activists, but most of chapters are not triumphalist stories of Great Radicals of the Past, but careful investigations of movements that succeeded and failed, and the men and women who led and participated in them.

     The first three chapters focus on what we usually think of as the political realm. In Chapter One, "Modern Political Revolutions: Connecting Grassroots Political Dissent and Global Historical Transformations," M.J. Maynes and Ann Waltner do just what their subtitle says they will, in a smoothly-written narrative that makes comparisons and traces connections, both key methods in world history. Some of these comparisons and connections will be familiar, but some not, such as their integration of what happened in Java in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century into what is usually told as an Atlantic World story of France and Haiti. They include excellent illustrations of prints and photographs, with captions that contextualize them so that these could be used for assignments in image analysis. In Chapter Two, "International and Global Anti-colonial Movements," Heather Streets-Salter examines the global links within three movements, again choosing some examples that may be familiar, such as international Communism and pan-Islam, but one that will probably not, the Ghadar party of revolutionary Indian nationalists that was organized by Indian expatriates in the United States. Comparing their aims and actions to those of the Gandhi-centered story of the Indian National Congress found in most world history textbooks would help students recognize some of the complexities of the fight against colonialism. In Chapter Three, "Insurgent Citizenships: Armed Rebellions and Everyday Acts of Resistance in the Global South," Eileen Ford presents a series of examples, organized regionally, but spends too much time justifying her approach, arguing against assumptions that student readers may well not have, and envisioning her readers as their instructors or more traditional historians instead.

     The last four chapters are more thematic. In Chapter Four, "Body Politics, Sexualities, and the 'Modern Family' in Global History," Durba Ghosh highlights five what she calls "moments" that both made and challenged hegemonic ideas about familial, bodily, and sexual practices. She notes the role of governments, scholars, and the church in defining what was and what was not a family, but pays particular attention to non-monogamous and non-heteronormative relationships, and gender-nonconforming individuals. Her view of gender fluidity in the premodern period is a bit too rosy, but the discussion will help students understand that trans was not a category invented yesterday in the United States. In Chapter Five, "The Persistence of the Gods: Religion in the Modern World," Tony Ballantyne provides a counter-narrative to the standard story of secularization in the modern world, with examples that highlight ways that religion remained a central factor in social life and an arena for struggles over power. He examines Protestant evangelism, prophetic movements among Native Americans and South Africans, the Rastafari movement, efforts to systematize Sikhism, Judaism, and Catholicism, Muslim internationalism, and ends with a brief look at fundamentalism. Most world history textbooks largely drop religion out of their narratives after the sixteenth century as they try to fit in all that politics and economics, so this chapter would be an especially helpful one to include as additional reading in any course on the modern world. In Chapter Six, "Global Mobilities," Clare Anderson examines how insurgency moved around the world through the movements of enslaved peoples, convicts, and indentured labor, who formed communities and protested, mutinied, and revolted as they moved. She notes that migration studies have placed too great an emphasis on Europeans who settled elsewhere, and not enough on Asians (and others) who sojourned in temporary migrations, and have often ignored the fact that much migration today remains coerced.

     Chapter Seven, "The Anthropocene from Below," by three authors, is quite different from the others in the book. Most of the chapter is an overview of concepts of the Anthropocene and debates among physical and biological scientists about when it started. This includes some specialized scientific language, but would be an excellent brief introduction to the issue for history students at all levels, with useful graphs that depict changes visually. The last part of the chapter discusses the experience of climate change for poor communities around the world, the politicization of climate science in the U.S., and grass-roots efforts to combat global warming and work for climate justice. World historians are increasingly focusing on human impacts on the environment across the longue durée—the environment was a theme of the 2014 World History Association conference in Costa Rica and the Anthropocene will be a theme for the 2018 WHA conference in Milwaukee—and this chapter fits with that emphasis.

     Most of the chapters in this fine collection would work very well in the undergraduate classroom, and some perhaps for Advanced Placement courses as well. Each chapter chooses a small group of examples or moments to focus on, with brief mention of others, so students won't get buried in a mass of names and dates. The book as a whole could be assigned in thematic upper-level or graduate courses, both for its content and for the examples that the chapters provide about how to write comparative and world/global history on a specific topic in a research-paper length format. Because many of its examples are not ones often discussed, more advanced scholars of world history would gain by reading the book as well.

Merry Wiesner-Hanks is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the Vice-President of the World History Association. She can be reached at


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