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Expanding Academic and Popular Debate in World History

Patrick Manning


     History, as much as any endeavor in knowledge, necessarily encounters the conflicts in society. The unevenness and conflict accompanying the expansion of African History and then the rethinking of South African history are good examples of the process.

     A new or expanding field of study is inescapably aimed at creating a different view of the past, and therefore rattles some existing cages, but is not necessarily "radical" or "leftist." I am happy to accept the labels of "radical" and "leftist" for my own ideas if not actions. But if those terms can in some sense be applied to the earlier expansions of African History and South African History, I don't apply them to World History as it is practiced in the U.S. In my opinion, World History in the U.S. is neither the creation of the Power Elite nor a project governed by a radical, counter-hegemonic outlook. On balance, I find the prevailing outlooks among World Historians to have been moderate and perhaps even centrist, except for the insistence of these historians on exploring the past in steadily broader frames.

     On the other hand, I don't want to argue that World History in the U.S. is innocent of a political slant or that it fails to provide service to notions of American global hegemony. One can't help but notice that World History has grown especially in the U.S. in the era of its expanding and increasingly problematic global hegemony. But this is no simple matter of history as ideology. World History is also an advance in historical science, and its more comprehensive perspective is conceivably of use to many political perspectives.

     I am cautious, therefore, about the notion that World History will create good global citizens and bring about dependable world peace. Rather, I tend to believe that as World History becomes better understood, all of the old political and philosophical debates will be elevated and carried out on this new and more sophisticated terrain. Small as the gain will be, I still think it's worth it.

     The current activity that, in my opinion, can bring the biggest advance in world historical studies, is the creation and functioning of the Network of Global and World History Organizations (NOGWHISTO), bringing World Historians of every continent together on a basis of equality to share and debate their concerns about World History. This is not the place to describe NOGWHISTO and its activities in detail, but I urge world historians of every stripe to learn about this new organization and consider the impact it might have. As Trevor has emphasized, these will all be academicians, and hearing the voices of the common people or of elite global skeptics remain as steps and perhaps conflicts for the future. But I still think that globalizing professional World History will be a momentous step. That's my main point.

     As a second point, I am now learning to say that I am a fan of "World History from Below." In completing my history of the African Diaspora, I realized that all the general histories of the modern world, no matter how skillful, consign black people to a few racially specific footnotes on slavery, emancipation, and civil rights. Yet black people, of African ancestry, are roughly one sixth of humanity and, in an age where we proclaim the equality of all humanity, it is simply illogical that they should be absent from the leading trends in history. The error, I think, lies in an approach to history that gives too much attention to elite initiatives and not enough to the social innovations of those outside the elite. For the African Diaspora, I traced in some detail the ways that black commoners substantially reworked popular culture in the 20th century. I think that parallel approaches can reveal central contributions of ordinary people in politics, technology, and economy.

     These points aside, I do agree with Trevor that World History, if it succeeds in expanding, will encounter new voices and social forces that will forcefully challenge existing interpretations. These interesting times will be unpleasant as often as they are exhilarating, as we debate whether we really seek "World History For Us All."

Patrick Manning is Andrew W. Mellon Professor of World History at the University of Pittsburgh. He is also president of the World History Network, Inc., a nonprofit corporation fostering research in world history. A specialist in world history and African history, his current research addresses global historiography, early human history, migration in world history, the African diaspora, and the demography of African slavery. He can be contacted at


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