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World History, and World Histories

Marnie Hughes-Warrington
Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia

'What is world history?'

    Ask this question of a group of researchers, educators or students and it is unlikely that you will be given a unified response. Their disagreement may stem from terminology, with some insisting on a 'global' approach, and others arguing for 'world systems.' They may even argue for a 'new' to be placed in front of 'global' or for a hyphen to be inserted between 'world' and 'systems.' But more fundamentally, they may hold different understandings of the spatial and temporal parameters of the field, and of the phenomena it seeks to explain. One person may associate world history with the study of the movements of one person across an ocean, another may encourage us to go back and reflect on human population growth and even the origins of the universe 13.7 billion years ago. Lack of agreement about the nature of world history can be exasperating for both those familiar with, and those new to the field alike. Doesn't all of this disagreement, it might be asked, come at the expense of productivity? If we cannot agree on the meaning of world history, then how can we design syllabuses or textbooks or engage in collaborative research projects? For those of us interested in historiography, however, disagreements like these signal the potential of world history as a teaching and research field.
    Historiographers study the nature and purpose of histories. Quite often, historiography is treated as an add-on or as an ancillary to historical studies. It is assumed to be the preserve of advanced undergraduate or graduate students, or something that precedes or follows historical research. Sometimes, historiography is even treated as an impediment to research, undercutting the findings of those who labour long and hard with primary archival materials. These views of historiography as supplementary are mistaken, because every activity undertaken in the course of historical research or teaching is shaped by assumptions about what history is and what it is for. Some of these assumptions vary widely across time and space, and others appear to be universal and beyond question. All of these assumptions are open to question, whether they are debated or held widely. Bringing assumptions about history to light is no easy matter, but it is worth undertaking for at least three reasons. First the assumptions historians make or affirm have ethical implications: that is, they privilege certain peoples and activities over others and overlook some phenomena altogether. Historiography can bring these patterns of privilege and exclusion to light and prompt us to address them in research and teaching. Second, it gives us the opportunity to clarify and explain our understanding of the field to others. Third, the historiographical analysis of world histories has broad social significance because world histories inform public culture. World histories are used in a variety of ways, such as supporting or promoting visions of community and environment, guiding economic programs, or enhancing feelings of social security or disorder. Exploring what is expected of world histories, when, and by whom, may help to cast critical light on contemporary geopolitical discourses such as that on the health and clash of civilisations.
World History, and World Histories  
     As Patrick Manning has noted, it is hard to call to mind any particular methods or materials that distinguish world history from other fields.1 Indeed the range of works covered in his Navigating World History is so wide that it is difficult to detect where the territory of world history ends and other approaches to historical research (eg. transnational, imperial, regional, and diasporic) begin. Is this a problem just for world historians? I think not, for all kinds of qualifiers associated with 'history'—such as 'national,' 'European,' and 'Asian'—are difficult to pin down and disentangle from others. It seems unlikely that Michael Oakeshott's belief in discrete forms of knowledge can be maintained, or even R. G. Collingwood's belief in a hierarchical scale of forms of 'history.' 2 Further, and more importantly, I do not hold to the existence of 'world history' apart from the historical activities of those who made or make what have been taken for 'world histories.'
    People in many times and cultures have made histories of their 'world': a realm or domain taken for an entire meaningful system of existence or activity.3 Those 'worlds' may correspond to the globe as we view it, or to one part of it, such as the shores of the Mediterranean or the north of Australia. It is also important to note that world histories have been made with a variety of media, from print to pictures to dances and songs. People use a variety of labels to describe those histories, including 'holistic history,' 'universal history,' 'general history,' 'ecumenical history,' 'regional history,' 'comparative history,' 'world systems history,' 'macrohistory,' 'transnational history,' 'big history' and the 'new world' and 'new global' histories. 4
    Histories of world-history making traditionally begin with 'universal' history.' 'Universal history' has in ancient and modern contexts denoted, first, the production of a comprehensive and perhaps also unified history of the known world or universe; second, a history that illuminates truths, ideals or principles that are thought to belong to the whole world; third, a history of the world unified by the workings of a single mind; and fourth, a history of the world that has passed down through an unbroken line of transmission. Ephorus (405­330 BCE) is generally cited as the first universal historian, and the rise of the genre is linked to the cosmopolitanism fostered by the conquests of Alexander of Macedon. Universal histories, however, are not simply a Western imperial product imposed upon the rest of the world: they probably have a relationship with the creation stories told by peoples around the world. Ancient universal history making flourished after cultural interactions, military campaigns, the advent of standardised systems of chronology and the spread of monotheistic religions such as Christianity and Islam. As more of the globe was explored in the fifteenth century, many of the conventions that shaped ancient universal histories were challenged. Jean Bodin (1530­1596), Voltaire (1694­1778), Ibn Khaldun (1332­1406), Giambattista Vico (1688­1744), Johann Gottfried Herder (1742­1803), Immanuel Kant (1724­1804), G. W. F. Hegel (1770­1831), Leopold von Ranke (1795­1886), and Karl Marx (1818­1883), for example, looked to philosophy, law, language, geography and economics to provide the framework for their efforts. 5
    Universal history became one of a number of competing visions of 'world history' in the twentieth century, and persists today in philosophies of history and the sub-field of big history (ie. David Christian, Maps of Time, 2004). Contemporaneous with H. G. Wells' universal Outline of History (1921), for instance, were Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West (1918­22), Sigmund Freud's Civilization and its Discontents (1930), Arnold J. Toynbee's A Study of History (1932­61), Jawaharlal Nehru's Glimpses of World History (1934), Pitirim A. Sorokin's Social and Cultural Dynamics (1937), Norbert Elias' The Civilizing Process (1939), José Karl Polanyi's The Great Transformation (1944), Mary Ritter Beard's Woman as Force in History (1946), and Karl Jaspers' The Origin and Goal of History (1947). Like Wells, these writers shared an interest in the trajectories of civilizations.
    Of particular interest was the fate of Western civilization, which was given an optimistic appraisal in modernization works such as E. L. Jones' The European Miracle (1986). Neo-Marxist dependency and world-system scholars such as Andre Gunder Frank took issue with this assessment, noting that European activities often fostered states of economic dependency in 'periphery' states. Positive achievements in the 'West,' it was argued, came at the price of achievements in other parts of the world. Postcolonial and feminist scholars like Michael Adas and Judith Zinsser added to these criticisms, arguing that the language, concepts, periodization and structure of world histories can minimise and even mask the historical activities of those 'outside' of the masculine West. Dependency, world-system, and postcolonial world histories formed part of the wider shift in the twentieth century towards the study of relations between peoples across the globe. This shift is epitomised in the scholarship of W. H. McNeill, who is widely acknowledged as one of the architects of present-day world history research. Human interaction on the largest scale—over the globe—was also the subject of global (and new global) historical studies. Bruce Mazlish and Ralph Buultjens (Conceptualizing Global History, 1993), Anthony Hopkins (Globalization in World History, 2001), Manuel Castells (The Information Age, 1996-98) and Arjun Appadurai (Modernity at Large, 1996), for example, looked to economic, anthropological, political, and cultural evidence to track the phenomenon of globalization—the emergence of an integrated anthropogenic globe—over the course of the twentieth century.
    Transnational, comparative, new imperial, and new world historians were also interested in human interaction, but on a smaller scale. Of particular interest to these writers were phenomena such as intergovernmental organizations, internationalist movements, migration and diaspora, and cultural hybridity. For example, Philip Curtin (ie. The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex, 1990), Niels Steensgard (The Asian Trade Revolution of the Seventeenth Century, 1974), K. N. Chaudhuri (Trade and Civilisation in the Indian Ocean, 1985), John Thornton (Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400­1680, 1992), and Adam McKeown (Chinese Migrant Networks, 2001) analysed trade and cultural diasporas centred on the Mediterranean, Indian, Atlantic, and Pacific Oceans. Finally, world environmental historians looked to changes in the biosphere that shaped or were shaped by human action (ie. Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel, 1998; Brian Fagan, Floods Famines and Emperors, 2001; Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts, 2001; and J. R. McNeill, Something New Under the Sun, 2000). These histories, like many before, continue to expand the horizons of our 'world.'
    There is no single culture, method or purpose that has shaped the making of world history. Nor do academic historians alone produce it. In recognition of this historical and cultural diversity, I therefore think it is important to think of world histories, as well as world history.
World Histo(riograph)y: The Macquarie Program  
    We have only just begun to chart the historical and cultural variety of world histories, and although the value of historiography to world history may be recognised in principle, it might be quite reasonably asked how it may be delivered in practice. Much research remains to be done, but we must also turn our attention to how that research can inform classroom practice, and vice versa. How can we help students to become aware of world histories, as well as of world history? In the final part of this paper, I would like to sketch out how the more explicit recognition of the historiography of world history has been used to reinvigorate and expand the undergraduate world history program at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.
    Since the mid-1990s, world history education at Macquarie University has opened with not one, but two surveys that work on different scales and with different methods and materials. The first, HIST112: An Introduction to World History is the unit that launched big history. Described first in an article for The Journal of World History called 'The Case for "Big History",' David Christian set out his arguments for the use of world history education to tell the biggest story of all, that of the origins and evolution of human beings, life, earth, and the universe some 13.7 billion years ago.4 The course today still offers 'thirteen billion years in thirteen weeks.'
    A number of the students who take HIST112 are puzzled and even shaken by their first encounter with big history. They come to university with expectations about what history is, with little recent experience in the study of science, and sometimes with firm religious beliefs. 'This is not history as I know it' is a common comment offered in the first weeks of semester. This is to be expected, because Christian's approach, as Alfred Crosby has noted, is an act of provocation.5 Contemporary historiography asks us to be wary of coherent or even large stories in world history, portraying them as 'metanarratives' that legitimate some views and gloss over others. Further, few historians would see the territory of their discipline extending back before the appearance of writing, let alone before Homo sapiens sapiens. That, however, is the point of Christian's work, for he wants us think carefully about our commitment to models of world history and history making that in his view make little use of the many scales of view that are available to historians, underplay the interactions between humans and the biosphere, and give short shrift to people who are not literate or who do not reside tidily within the boundaries of particular empires or nation states.
   HIST112 is akin to a roller coaster ride, and not all students are initially happy about having their beliefs about history shaken. All but a few hang on, though, and their reward for persistence is an expanded view of science, history, world history and their own critical thinking skills. And while the majority of students start out worried about big history, they tend to end the unit very firmly in favour of its arguments and methods. On the one hand, this might be considered an educational success. On the other hand, the treatment of HIST112 as a sufficient treatment of world history masks the existence of other world histories. 13
   To address this problem, staff and students work to put HIST112 in context. Perhaps the most important factor in encouraging students to see big history as one of a number of competing approaches to world history is a second survey, HIST114: The World Since 1945 from an Australian Perspective. With its comparatively tiny timescale and use of a national frame, this unit provides a strong contrast to big history. It clearly announces through its title that it is not a continuation of, and does not use the same approaches and ideas as, HIST112. In combination, these surveys embody the 'play of scales'—the combined use of large and small scale analysis—that can show students the possibilities of world history writing and research. The combined use of two surveys also highlights the pliable form of world histories, and shows students that they are constructed worlds. 14
   Drawing connections across units of study and highlighting differences in focus and method continues in upper level units that focus on the 'Atlantic world' after 1492 (which includes online discussions involving students at Northeastern University, Boston—see the article by Carton and Manning in this issue), war and peace in the ancient and modern world, travellers and travel writing from the eighteenth century, and the spread of Indian ideas and practices in South-East Asia. Macquarie resembles many other universities in Australia and abroad in its use of thematic frames for upper level world history education. How it differs from other programs, though, is that these thematic studies are not the end of world history study. At the highest level of undergraduate study and in the Masters program, historiographical and historical questions relevant to the field come to the fore as focus shifts from 'world history' to 'world histories.' The undergraduate and MA unit, 'World Histories' (HIST359/MHPG912), offers students the chance to uncover and reflect on the shapes of world history making in many different social and historical contexts. 15
   Working through chronologically arranged lectures and thematic tutorial (class) and online discussions held in conjunction with the global studies program at Leipzig University, students discuss labels such as 'global history' and 'universal history,' methodologies, scales of research and writing, where scholars begin and end their world histories, approaches to gender, and debates on postmodernist and postcolonialist world histories. They also study the relationships between the makers, distributors and readers and auditors of world histories. One of the major aims of the unit is to show that current historiographical surveys of the field rely too heavily on a limited body of works by European writers, and that they may be revised and expanded in at least five ways, through the extended consideration of world histories made before 14006; through world histories made outside of university settings by male and female writers for adult and child audiences; through traditions of world history making in China and Islamic centres7; through world histories made by social and natural scientists in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; and through 'holistic' histories of indigenous groups such as Aboriginal Australians. This expanded view helps to highlight the decisions made by historiographers about how world history is to be understood and shows us that European and North American world histories are thus only some among many ways of world making. 16
   In HIST 359/MHPG912, students are encouraged to see that historiographers of world history, as well as world historians, make worlds. But more importantly, they begin to reflect on their own potential contribution to world history making. Students design their own research project and fashion critical questions in response to the classes and readings. Further, they hear a series of mini-lectures by postgraduate students working in the field of world history. Far from being an ancillary or purely abstract pursuit, historiography can show students that world history is manageable, topical, and something that connects with cultures around the world. 17
   At Macquarie, research and teaching in world history go hand in hand. Research students lecture, findings are taken to classes, and student questions become the basis for smaller and larger research projects. And the program continues to grow. While the emphasis has been on offering a complete program for undergraduate and graduate students, it has now shifted to historiographical internationalisation. That is being addressed through internationally collaborative research on the history of world history making and the provision of opportunities for students at Macquarie and overseas to discuss ideas via online teaching and study abroad exchanges. Much work remains to be done, though, if the cultural and historical scope of research and teaching in the historiography of world history is to match that of world history itself. 18
Want to study the historiography of world history?  
   Macquarie University's undergraduate and postgraduate program in world history is open to students in Australia and around the world. Single units may be taken on a 'Non Award' basis and studied on campus or externally via the web, or students can study at Macquarie for a semester as part of its 'Study Abroad' program. Australian and international students are welcome to undertake degree programs. Students with outstanding honours or Masters results are welcome to apply for PhD scholarships and PhD graduates with strong publication records are welcome to inquire about Postdoctoral fellowships. For further information about the Macquarie programme, the study schedule, postgraduate scholarships or the research interests of Macquarie world historians, please contact Dr Marnie Hughes-Warrington ( 19
Want to read more about the historiography of world history?  

The following resources are a good introduction to the field:

Alonso-Núñez, J. M., The Idea of Universal History in Greece: From Herodotus to the Age of Augustus (Amsterdam: JC Gieben, 2001). This volume is not easy to come by, but it is worth the effort for students and teachers who are interested in the origins and transformations of universal history, the oldest and most persistent form of world history making.

Bentley, J., Shapes of World History in Twentieth-Century Scholarship (Washington, DC: American Historical Association, 1996). A succinct introduction to major shifts and approaches to the writing of world history in the twentieth century, particularly in the USA and United Kingdom. This book works well as preliminary reading for students and teachers interested in placing their understanding of the field in historical context.

Clarke, K., Between Geography and History: Hellenistic Constructions of the Roman World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999). This volume will be of particular interest to teachers and scholars who are familiar already with ancient traditions of universal history making. Of particular note in this work is Clarke's thesis that geographical works and chronicles may have been united as universal histories in the ancient world.

Costello, P., World Historians and their Goals: Twentieth Century Answers to Modernism (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 1994). A relatively detailed introduction to a handful of key contributors to world history in the twentieth century, including Curtin, McNeill, Toynbee and Wells.

Dunn, R. (ed.), The New World History: A Teacher's Companion (New York, NY: Bedford, 2000). This is, as the title indicates, a teacher's companion, but scholars and students new to the field will also find a number of the articles thought provoking.

Grandner, M., Rothermund, D., and Schwentkler, W. (eds), Globalisierung and Globalgeschichte (Vienna: Mandelbaum Verlag, 2005). Introductory text in German that canvasses a number of approaches, concepts and concerns. This will be of particular interest to those seeking continental European perspectives on the field.

Green, A., and Troup, K., The Houses of History (Melbourne: Manchester University Press, 1999). This is not focused on world history, but it does provide a clear and accessible introduction to twentieth-century historiography. This is appropriate for undergraduate and graduate students, and any students who are undertaking historiography options in secondary school (ie. the UK and NSW, Australia).

Hughes-Warrington, M. (ed.), Palgrave Advances in World Histories (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). A thematic introduction to key concepts and issues in the field of world history. Discusses ancient as well as modern approaches.

Hughes-Warrington, M., 'World History,' in The Companion to Women's Historical Writing, eds M. Spongberg, B. Caine and A. Curthoys (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) 611­17. Introduction to ancient and modern women world historians.

Hughes-Warrington, M., 'Writing World History,' The Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History (Great Barrington: Berkshire, 2005) vol. 5 2095­2103. Brief overview of the history of world history writing in a number of cultural contexts. Refers to ancient and modern writers, as well as women writers.

The Journal of Global History (2006­) Promises to become a key journal in the field. Both new and established approaches will be discussed, as well as approaches in non-English speaking contexts.

The Journal of World History (1990­). Another of the key journals in the field. Most of the articles have at least some explicit historiographical component, and some are dedicated to the discussion of controversies in the field and future directions for research. Major focus is on English-language scholarship.

Manning, P., Navigating World History: Historians Create a Global Past (New York, NY: Palgrave, 2003). The most extensive bibliographic guide to the field, nested in a clear discussion of some of the key questions that teachers and researchers in the field face. Manning has a wide understanding of 'world history,' so most readers will find something that suits their interests.

Pomper, P., Elphick, R., and Vann, R. (eds), World History: Ideologies, Structures, Identities (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998). Collection of articles published first in History and Theory that vary widely in clarity and accessibility. Includes an historical overview of the field by W. H. McNeill.

Robinson. C. F. Islamic Historiography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003). Hard to beat as an introduction to Islamic approaches to the writing of history, including universal history, up to the early modern period.

Stuchtey, B. and Fuchs, E. (eds), Writing World History 1800­2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003). This volume grew out of a conference on the writing of world history hosted by the German Historical Institute in London. It covers a wide range of issues and explores the broadest range of cultural contexts in the English-language literature on world history. It is perhaps expensive for personal purchase, but is a valuable addition to library collections.

Biographical Note: Marnie Hughes-Warrington is senior lecturer in world history and historiography at Macquarie University, Sydney. She trained in Tasmania and Oxford, is the author of Fifty Key Thinkers on History (2000), 'How Good an Historian Shall I Be?': R. G. Collingwood, the Historical Imagination and Education, History on Film (Routledge, 2006) and editor of Palgrave Advances in World Histories (2005).


1           P. Manning, 'Methods and Materials,' in Palgrave Advances in World Histories, ed. M. Hughes-Warrington (Basingstoke: London, 2005) 44­63.

2           M. Oakeshott, Experience and its Modes, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1933; and R. G. Collingwood, Speculum Mentis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1924).

3           M. Hughes-Warrington, 'World Histories,' in Palgrave Advances in World Histories, ed. M. Hughes-Warrington (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) 6.

4           Christian, D., 'The Case for "Big History",' Journal of World History, 1991, vol. 2(2) 223­238.

5           Review on the back cover of D. Christian, Maps of Time.

6           See for example A. Momigliano, 'Greek Historiography,' History and Theory, 1978, vol. 17(1) 1­28; R. Mortley, The Idea of Universal History from Hellenistic Philosophy to Early Christian Historiography (Lewiston: Edwin Mellon, 1996); J. M. Alonso-Núñez, The Idea of Universal History in Greece: From Herodotus to the Age of Augustus (Amsterdam: JC Gieben, 2001); and K. Clarke, Between Geography and History: Hellenistic Constructions of the Roman World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

7           See for example C. Robinson, Islamic Historiography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); and G. Hardy, Worlds of Bronze and Bamboo: Sima Qian's Conquest of History (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1999).


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