History's bigger picture

July 4, 1997

This week's Anglo-American historians' conference in London aims to take on the world. Harriet Swain looks at the renewed interest in global history

They think big at Anglo-American history conferences. Last year it was religion; this year, it is the world. Global history covers a multitude of definitions - swinging from one country or period to another, swooping over huge expanses of the globe all at once, and, perhaps most controversially, piecing together small facets of human experience in a bid to form a common pattern, a theory capable of explaining events as massive as the rise and fall of nations.

Historians have always attempted to do it. Herodotus tried it, describing peoples and traditions way outside the experience of his Greek readers, even if from a decidedly Greek point of view. Medieval monks wrote "universal history" - usually jumping from Adam and Eve and the Bible to the experiences of a small number of Christian lands around their monasteries. During the Enlightenment, Vico and Voltaire tried to fit a pattern to the world as they saw it, followed in the next century by Hegel and Marx. Between the wars H. G. Wells, Arnold Toynbee and Oswald Spengler produced gripping narratives of the world's key events. "Global history is world history in the sense that it must be the history of the whole globe," says John Roberts, former warden of Merton College, Oxford. "But one of the problems about that is at different times the globe is a different thing."

But this time modern communications mean it is for real. Peter Burke, reader in cultural studies at the University of Cambridge, calls it "the globalisation of global history". Patrick O'Brien, director of the Institute of Historical Research, explains the renewed interest in the big historical picture. First, he says, historians have been prompted to specialise to cope with the huge amounts of information now available via computer. Global history's wider view and alternative time-frames help make sense of this mass of material. Second, the multiple concerns of modern societies, such as ecology, biology, family life and minorities, have sparked comparisons and contrasts with the wider world. Finally, the decline of Marxist explanations of history has inclined many historians towards non-material theories of change, encouraging them to look towards non-European cultures.

Nevertheless, British historians are less comfortable with a global framework for history than their American counterparts, though this was not always so. Earlier this century Britain was at the forefront of world history, if only to understand the natives of its colonies and therefore rule them more effectively. But with the loss of empire, interest waned. But in recent years Britain has produced some broader views of history - John Roberts' History of the World is one example. But most top names are American. The only global history journal was founded by Jerry Bentley, a professor at the University of Hawaii.

Europe too is getting in on the act. William McNeill, recently retired from the University of Chicago and a global historian for more than 50 years, suggests that growing European interest is down to the continent's relative decline in power. Moreover, narrow historical views are not useful when countries are continually working together on the world stage.

Multicultural countries like Britain now find it harder to view the past from an entirely national standpoint. The subject has always been politically fraught. As O'Brien says, global history can be "as contentious as international politics and as bland as diplomacy".

Richard Mackenney, reader in history at the University of Edinburgh, believes disciplines such as philosophy, anthropology and economics can be useful because other societies are less obsessed with history, often defining their identities differently. "In many ways, history is a western phenomenon," he says. "People are always pointing to the past to show how far we have come from it." But countries cut off from their own pasts by colonisation often place the emphasis elsewhere.

A multi-disciplinary approach can also help to define ideas which may otherwise become overwhelmed by sheer scale. Gareth Austin, lecturer in economic history at the London School of Economics, says global history needs some kind of conceptual framework, such as those provided by economics.

John Roberts is less insistent on frameworks, saying: "I just want to know what happened. I don't have larger ambitions to organise this in some kind of structure."

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