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Boundary Disputes

Jerry H. Bentley


     All historians confront boundary issues, and world historians are no exception to this rule. Boundary issues take many forms—geographical, disciplinary, social, and others as well. The keynote address by Merry Wiesner-Hanks at the 2010 annual meeting of the World History Association featured an appeal not only to cross boundaries—gender boundaries, in this case—but to go further and dismantle them altogether. Boundaries, however, can be remarkably resilient. Natalie Zemon Davis once speculated jokingly about the possibility that there was a (universal?) law of the conservation of boundaries ensuring that the demolition of some was followed by the erection of others.1 It is possible that the question should focus less on the dismantling of boundaries than on the transcending of boundaries in constructive and useful ways.

     In his provocative introduction to this Forum, Trevor Getz raised boundary issues in several ways—both implicitly and explicitly—and I would like to comment here on two particular forms of these boundary issues. The first was not immediately obvious in Getz's presentation, but I think it lurks beneath the surface. Getz offered an intriguing narrative of two independent historiographical developments in which a group of generally progressive scholars laid the foundations for innovative approaches to African history in general as well as South African history in particular, only to face uprisings by ostensibly more-leftist scholars who undermined the original vision and insisted on more popular, folk, or subaltern visions of the African past. On the analogy of this narrative, Getz asks if the field of world history, itself the product largely of politically progressive scholars, might be subject to its own subaltern insurrection by those who did not have the privilege or opportunity to participate in the earliest conversations or to set the agenda for scholarship in world history?

     Let me try to bring out the boundary issue by proposing a counter-narrative to the story Getz offers. Instead of viewing his historiographical developments principally as expressions of political ideologies (liberal, progressive, leftist, radical, or otherwise), it might be possible to consider them also from a disciplinary point of view as the self-corrections of historians seeking to transcend artificial boundaries established by their predecessors. Historians have found numerous ways to break out of the disciplinary constraints established by Leopold von Ranke and the earliest professional historians, who viewed the past almost exclusively through the lenses of national states and their political experiences. As historians have noticed the significance of social, gender, environmental, cultural, and global issues, among others, they have dramatically overhauled the discipline of history itself. There is no question that historians have had their political and ideological preferences—and it is reasonably clear that since the 1960s their preferences have tilted mostly to the left—but it is also clear that the statist historical scholarship of Ranke and his early collaborators was an extraordinarily conservative project that desperately needed disciplinary correction if it was to become anything more than ideological window-dressing for existing nation-states. There is a case to be made, then, that the narrative that Getz casts in political terms was also at least as much a story of the expansion of disciplinary boundaries—an expansion that historical scholarship sorely needed ever since the mid-nineteenth century, when it acquired its twin ideological birthmarks of Eurocentric assumptions and fixation on the nation-state.2

     A second and even more fundamental boundary issue arises with Getz's pointed question, "who is an historian?" Does this honor pertain only to those privileged few who hold doctoral degrees from elite universities? Or do other "knowers of history" such as bards, griots, and the like merit the title of historian? Getz might have included myth keepers, hula dancers, fiction writers, TV and movie producers, and many others as "knowers of history."3

     There are many ways of dealing with the past—many ways of accessing the past, many ways of coming to terms with the past—and professional historical scholarship is only one of these many ways. It may well qualify as an unnatural act.4 It certainly is an unusual act, in that only a very few human beings have ever considered it worthwhile to pore over dusty manuscripts and archives in order to make sense of the past.

     Yet in response to Getz's provocative question, my response is that it continues to be well worthwhile to recognize boundaries between professional historical scholarship and other avenues to the past. After all, the professional historian cannot simply go out and set up shop as a bard, or griot, or myth keeper, or kumu hula. These are roles that quite properly require a certain background, education, indoctrination, training, apprenticeship, or experience. It does not strike me as unusual or unfair to expect that those laying claim to the title of historian have undertaken an educational program that acquaints them with the ways of thinking and reasoning that pertain to professional historical scholarship, even if it be considered an unnatural act.

     It is worth remembering that of all the ways of dealing with the past, accessing the past, and coming to terms with the past, professional historical scholarship is the only one that opens itself to examination and critique. The others stand on the foundations of authority, tradition, emotional force, and rhetorical power. While not immune to political and ideological influences, professional historical scholarship by contrast advocates study of the past through systematic examination of evidence and highly disciplined reasoning. Moreover, it exposes itself to review and critique, which holds open the possibility that professional historical scholarship has the potential to correct mistakes and produce improved knowledge. For these reasons professional historical scholarship is qualitatively different—and in some senses qualitatively better as a form of knowledge—than alternative ways of accessing and dealing with the past.

     Professional historical scholarship enjoys considerable prestige as a form of knowledge. Professional historians have largely earned and largely merited this respect by challenging inherited conceptions, expanding the boundaries of their discipline, and articulating fresh perspectives on the past. One of the ways world historians can most fruitfully continue this project of boundary expansion is by making places for new voices to participate in the conversation. Challenges and debates are welcome. May they contribute to the production of better world history!

Jerry H. Bentley is professor of history at the University of Hawai`i and editor of the Journal of World History. His research on the religious, moral, and political writings of Renaissance humanists led to the publication of Humanists and Holy Writ: New Testament Scholarship in the Renaissance (Princeton, 1983) and Politics and Culture in Renaissance Naples (Princeton, 1987). More recently, his research has concentrated on global history and particularly on processes of cross-cultural interaction. His book Old World Encounters: Cross-Cultural Contacts and Exchanges in Pre-Modern Times (New York, 1993) examines processes of cultural exchange and religious conversion before the modern era, and his pamphlet Shapes of World History in Twentieth-Century Scholarship (Washington, D.C., 1996) discusses the historiography of world history. His current interests include processes of cross-cultural interaction and cultural exchanges in world history. He can be reached at


1 Natalie Zemon Davis, Society and Culture in Early Modern France (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1965), p. xviii.

2 Jerry H. Bentley, "The Task of World History," in Jerry H. Bentley, ed., The Oxford Handbook of World History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

3 See for example Ashis Nandy, "History's Forgotten Doubles," in Philip Pomper, Richard H. Elphick, and Richard T. Vann, eds., World History: Ideologies, Structures, and Identities (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1998), pp. 159–78.

4 Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001).


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