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World History as a Way of Thinking

Eric Lane Martin
Lewis-Clark State College

World historians should consider the cultivation of the kinds of thinking skills required to understand global relationships as one of the field's more important contributions to both knowledge and society. World history scholars, teachers, and students practice a way of thinking that can help people understand how their communities are connected with other communities around the world, and how these connections have developed historically. This is a practical style of thought that is in demand on our campuses, in our communities, and in our current public policy debates. It is time for us to conceptualize world history as not only 'what' we choose to study, but also 'how' we approach a topic in the first place. In this sense the development of global thinking skills are an important prerequisite to a successful study of any world history content.
    The 2004 closure of Northeastern's World History Center marks the conclusion of the most visible effort in the last decade to formally develop a doctoral level program in world history. The program's emphasis on world history as a primary field of historical research was unique among Ph.D. programs offering graduate training in world history. In the pages that follow I do not describe a 'Northeastern School of World History,' a notion that Program Director Patrick Manning purposely avoided in an effort to be theoretically and methodologically inclusive and exploratory rather than definitive. Instead, I offer a conceptualization of 'world history as a way of thinking' in order to describe the most distinguishing features of the Northeastern program which drew upon multiple world-historical approaches. Perhaps the most distinguishing intellectual characteristic of those who completed the program is a tendency to think about the big picture first and to identify themselves primarily as specialists in the use of wide-angle historical lenses. My focus on graduate education is designed to emphasize the benefit of continuing to train at least a few specialists in using the historical wide-angle lens. But my description of world history as a way of thinking has broader applications than to those engaged in specialized graduate study in world history. I also argue that the most important things the field of world history has to offer the researcher, teacher, student, and general public are the conceptual tools required for understanding complex global processes and problems.

The Historiography

The field of world history has many developed bodies of specialized literature, which have been the subject of several excellent historiographical surveys in the last decade. Jerry Bentley's Shapes of World History in Twentieth-Century Scholarship, for example, provides a succinct account of the major scholarly works and trends that have influenced the field in the last century.1 Patrick Manning covers much of the same ground in his 425 page monograph, Navigating World History, but in a much more detailed and comprehensive fashion.2 Manning also emphasizes issues related to research method, doctoral training, and the general direction of world history as a research field. Ross Dunn's edited reader, The New World History, provides critical selections from many of the works discussed by both Bentley and Manning.3 Indeed, Bentley, Manning, and Dunn have each created indispensable reference works which will continue to shape the way we understand the field for years to come.4
    Scholars, teachers, and students interested in seriously engaging the historical traditions of the field should begin with these three works. Together, they provide a historiographical road map to the most important developments in world history scholarship for the last century. In the rest of this essay, I will describe the ways in which deep engagement with this literature at the graduate level cultivates a distinctive way of thinking about historical problems and issues. 4

The Questions Asked

When doctoral students specialize in world history as a primary field of study, they specialize in a body of literature which models and promotes thinking about historical problems in two characteristic ways. The first characteristic revolves around the kinds of questions world historians ask. As the late world historian Marshall Hodgson argued, the distinctions between the social science disciplines, and even between historical sub-fields, are not a matter of method or topic but, rather, concern the types of questions scholars ask about their material.5 So, following 'the Hodgson principle,' what kinds of questions do world historians tend to ask?
    Forty-two years ago William McNeill asked why 'the West' came to dominate so much of the world.6 Nearly a decade later, Alfred Crosby asked what the most important consequences of 1492 were.7 More recently, Philip Curtin examined how New World plantations shaped global politics and economics in the early modern period.8 Jerry Bentley asked how cross-cultural encounters worked in pre-modern times.9 Ross Dunn wondered how Afro-Eurasia looked to a fourteenth-century Muslim traveler.10 Patrick Manning asked what forced African migration to the Americas looked like when placed first in an American, then African, and finally global perspective.11 Daniel Headrick examined the role of technology in nineteenth-century European imperialism.12 Walter Rodney explored the relationship between an overdeveloped Europe and an underdeveloped Africa.13 Immanuel Wallerstein wanted to know what made the modern world distinct from previous historical periods.14 Eric Wolf asked if nations or societies were satisfactory units of historical analysis for understanding large scale processes.15 David Christian wonders what the history of the world really means when placed into the context of the history of the universe.16
    Of course, the above are a mere sampling of some of the key scholars in the field and necessarily represent an oversimplified version of the questions they asked. But they do allow us to see that the questions of world historians are qualitatively different from the kinds of questions asked by historians who focus on particular areas. As a whole, the literature of world history deals with questions related to what Marshall Hodgson called historical complexes -- large-scale, overlapping historical processes.17 I will limit myself to three brief examples to better illustrate the nature of historical complexes. First, in The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex Philip Curtin explains that "[h]istorians of the medieval Mediterranean, of Africa, of Latin America, of Europe, of the United States all deal with parts or aspects of the [plantation] complex, but they rarely try to see it as a whole."18 By contrast, Curtin sought to explore the plantation complex itself rather than a particular geographic region's role in it, which in turn required a wide-angle historical lens in order to look for answers. Second, in Tools of Empire Daniel Headrick questions why "the progress and power of industrial technology" and "the domination and exploitation of Africa and much of Asia by Europeans" have been so well examined separately, while relatively few efforts have been made to connect these two important phenomena in world history.19 Again, his questions require a historical lens that is wider than those usually employed by historians who focus on a particular area. Third, in The Columbian Exchange Alfred Crosby tells us that "[t]he first step to understanding man is to consider him as a biological entity which has existed on this globe, affecting, and in turn affected by, his fellow organisms, for many thousands of years."20 The questions Crosby asked required him to not only to think more widely than historians trained to focus on particular regions or nations, but also to consider humans as biological entities. Asking these kinds of broad-based, wide-ranging questions—questions that place events and problems in their global context—is a defining characteristic of both good world history research and teaching. It is also a defining feature of those who specialize in the world history literature at the doctoral level.
    The complex nature of the kinds of historical questions world history Ph.D. candidates are likely to propose as dissertation topics can—and should—be well-grounded in the literature of regional and area-based fields. However, they frequently do not gain intellectual support from faculty trained to think about fundamentally different types of historical questions relating to their particular region or area. This scenario provides the recipe for potentially problematic dissertation committees.21 It is important, therefore, that programs engaged in doctoral training in world history understand that their candidates will produce fundamentally different kinds of dissertations than those produced by more regionally-focused programs. The world history literature promotes thinking about history from a distinctly global point of view. As a result, doctoral students in the field will no doubt challenge current area-specific models of what a history dissertation should look like by asking bigger, and qualitatively different, questions. Faculty should be prepared for such shifts in conceptual terrain.

The Models Developed

The second characteristic of the type of thinking that the world history literature promotes revolves around the kinds of problem-solving techniques world historians utilize to answer their own questions. The world history literature contains numerous models for approaching complex, world historical questions. For example, William McNeill explained the rise of the west by combining Arnold Toynbee's principle of 'challenge and response' with ideas about the diffusion of technologies and skills. Meanwhile, Marshall Hodgson utilized what he described as 'hemispheric interregional world history' to develop a more complete understanding of the historical complex of the dar al-Islam. Philip Curtin, by contrast, has made clear arguments for a comparative world historical approach. The 'Columbian Exchange' model developed by Alfred Crosby was groundbreaking in the fields of both world history and environmental history. Indeed, the term itself has become part of the historical vocabulary in both fields. Walter Rodney utilized a model of underdevelopment, Emmanuel Wallerstein envisioned a world-system with a hyphen, Andre Gunder-Frank employed a notion of a world system without a hyphen, Jim Blaut constructed a model of intellectual colonialism, and Christian theorized a 'Big History' model.
    Again, this is only the tip of the conceptual iceberg. The point, however, is that those who specialize in world history are exposed to numerous models that offer guidance on such issues as thinking about several different historical variables (such as multiple places) at once, using relationships and connections as units of analysis, breaking down complex processes into interrelated component parts, connecting the local to the global and vice versa, and developing new categories and models of analysis. The intellectual possession of a conceptual tool box customized for building answers to complex global questions is another defining intellectual feature of both good world history research and teaching. Doctoral training in world history offers the additional opportunity to practice developing original conceptual tools for addressing problems at the global level.
    Just as faculty involved with world history Ph.D. programs should expect to see their students ask conceptually different dissertation questions, they should also expect their students to address these questions by utilizing the conceptual tools and models provided by the world history literature. Indeed, explicitly connecting the approach to global questions to the historiography of the field is of critical importance. A world history dissertation that is grounded in the literature of the field more clearly conveys to the rest of the discipline how the historiography of the field can be utilized for theory and methodology. Thus, faculty trained in the field of world history will be in the best position to help doctoral students clearly identify their historical approach and methodology.

Wider Applications of World History as a Way of Thinking

World historians practice a way of thinking defined by these two sets of characteristics: the inclination to ask big questions about how the world works as a whole and the interest in developing innovative techniques to answer such large-scale, complicated questions. Thus far, world history as a way of thinking has been primarily described as an intellectual characteristic shared by professional scholars engaged in the field. However, there is a much wider demand for the kinds of thinking skills that world historians practice. For example, world historians have developed ways of thinking about the kinds of big-picture questions currently being asked by the U.S. public, including why the attacks of September 11, 2001 occurred, and how effective the war on terrorism has been in decreasing the chances of a repeat disaster. There is public concern as well about whether the U.S. is a liberating force or an occupying power in Iraq, and whether or not Iraq is 'another Vietnam.' Americans are wondering about the causes of—and the solutions to—the economic problems facing our communities in a globalizing economy, and why people in some countries are rich and poor in others. They are asking about the relationships between producers and consumers, and about the nature of globalization and how it affects communities. World historians practice a way of thinking that provides the conceptual tools to address questions of such magnitude and complexity: few other fields can say the same.
    Of course, the world history literature does not hold a monopoly on good models for developing the ability to think about the connections between the local and the global. In fact, many of the key conceptual founders of the field came from disciplines outside of history. Yet world history is committed to exploring global connections systematically and in a self-reflective way, which in turn has become the hallmark of the field. Indeed, the most distinctive feature of the Northeastern world history program was the encouragement of world history as a way of thinking. Any program interested in building upon the Northeastern model should begin with this feature. 13
    In conclusion, the most important things the field of world history has to offer the researcher, teacher, student, and general public are the conceptual tools required for addressing complex global processes and problems. We should highlight our distinctive set of analytical thinking tools in our research, in our classrooms, and in our communities. Perhaps conceptualizing world history as a way of thinking makes this task a little less complicated.

Biographical Note: Eric Martin is an assistant professor of history at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, Idaho.  He teaches both sections of the world history survey, African history, historical method, political/social philosophy as well as courses on the history of globalization in the inland/pacific northwest.  He received his Ph.D. from Northeastern University in 2002 and is one of the Editors of H-World. Eric also sits on the board of directors of a low powered FM community radio station in Moscow, Idaho KRFP. 


1 Jerry H. Bentley, Shapes of World History in Twentieth-Century Scholarship (Washington, D.C.: American Historical Association, 1995).

2 Patrick Manning, Navigating World History: Historians Create a Global Past (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

3 Ross E. Dunn, The New World History: A Teacher's Companion (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2000).

4 See also Marnie Hughes-Warrington's new book, Palgrave Advances in World History (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005).

5 Marshall Hodgson, "Historical Method in Civilizational Studies," in Edmund Burke III, editor, Rethinking World History: Essays on Europe, Islam, and World History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 73.

6 William H. McNeill, The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1963, reprinted version 1992).

7 Alfred Crosby, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1972).

8 Philip D. Curtin, The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex: Essays in Atlantic History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2nd edition, 1998).

9 Jerry Bentley, Old World Encounters: Cross-Cultural Contacts and Exchanges in Pre-modern Times (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).

10 Ross E. Dunn, The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveler of the 14th Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).

11 Patrick Manning, "Migrations of Africans to the Americas: The Impact on Africans, Americans, and the New World," The History Teacher 26m (May 1993), 279-96.

12 Daniel R. Headrick, The Tools of Empire: Technology and European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981).

13 Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (Washington D.C.: Howard University Press, 1972, revised edition 1981).

14 Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System I: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century (San Diego: Academic Press, 1974); see also Wallerstein's The Modern World-System II: Mercantilism and the Consolidation Of the European World-Economy, 1600-1750 (Boston: Academic Press, Inc., 1980) and The Modern World-System III: The Second Era of Great Expansion of the Capitalist World-Economy, 1730-1840s (Boston: Academic Press, Inc., 1989).

15 Eric Wolf, Europe and the People without History (Berkley: University of California Press, 1982, reprint edition 1997).

16 David Christian, "The Case for 'Big History,'" Journal of World History 2 (Fall 1991), 223-38. See also his Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).

17 Hodgson defines historical complexes in the following way: "Whenever we find sequences of historical events interrelated in such a way that significant questions of substance (not, normally, abstract comparisons of categories) in regard to one of the sequences involves answers about all of them, we may regard what we have as a historical complex, whether it is a region with diverse cultural elements which closely interact (for instance, Buddhist-Hindu-Muslim Southeast Eurasia), or a single cultural tradition spread widely (for instance, Islamic culture From Java to the Niger), or a set of developments in a single tradition across many culture lines (for instance, The Greek-Arabic-Sanskrit-Chinese-Latin mathematical tradition)." Hodgson, Rethinking World History, 256-257.

18 Curtin, x.

19 Headrick, 3.

20 Crosby, xiii.

21 It should be noted that there is movement towards world history by scholars in some area-based fields. This is especially true of historians dealing with issues of colonialism/imperialism in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In fact, scholars of Africa, such as Phil Curtin, Pat Manning, Ross Dunn, Walter Rodney and Immanuel Wallerstein have been especially instrumental in developing the field of world history.


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