A Way of Doing Global History: Rome, 22.11.2018 – Forum (video + texte – anglais)


Jürgen Osterhammel

Prix Balzan 2018 pour l'histoire globale

Pour avoir apporté une contribution fondamentale aux études d’histoire globale et à leur définition en tant que discipline. Pour sa méthode alliant, dans un équilibre admirable, la rigueur de la recherche empirique et l’ouverture vers de larges perspectives, tant à travers la comparaison qu’à travers l’étude d’histoires interconnectées. Pour l’élégance et le charme de son écriture.

A Way of Doing Global History

First of all, let me thank Professor Andrea Giardina most warmly for his very kind words about me and my work. It is too soon today to express my gratitude for the Prize. But it is the right time to say what a great honour and pleasure it is to be here at the Accademia dei Lincei, one of the most venerable academic institutions in the world. Even if global history is a young and still struggling field, it is deeply rooted in the past, especially in the European past. The first attempts to think globality originated in early modern Europe, and were related in a difficult way to the violent imperial expansion of European states and societies. My personal commitment to European traditions of scholarship is strong and emphatic. While global history implies looking at previous ages from a great variety of different angles, it does not necessarily require a guilt-ridden denigration and condemnation of Europe’s role in history. I see the famous injunction to «provincialize» Europe as a methodological device that helps us to de-centre our perceptions, not as a call for a blanket moral condemnation of European civilization.
Natural scientists often receive prestigious awards for a single discovery. This is quite unusual in the humanities. Spectacular discoveries may still happen in archaeology but they are very rare in document-based historical studies, especially in modern history. Historians come across new sources all the time, but a single piece of paper or manuscript that completely changes our way of looking at history is very seldom unearthed. While historical knowledge progresses incrementally as a result of myriad discoveries in archives and published material, major paradigm changes rarely derive directly from individual pieces of evidence. The vast majority of our sources only make sense as little pieces within larger puzzles. When new sources become relevant for global history, they are frequently serial sources. For example, research teams in several countries have drawn from thousands of documents to piece together comprehensive pictures of the transatlantic slave trade (and its statistics), the global flow of silver in the early modern period and the worldwide occurrence of interstate and civil wars.
Though I myself have not been involved in that kind of research, I have watched the rise of big data and the digital humanities with ambivalent feelings of admiration and scepticism. These new tools arrived on the scene too late for me to master the necessary technical skills or help set up the required research infrastructure. On the whole, I think that global history should, and will, increasingly make use of methods of processing large amounts of standardized data.
Since I am not being rewarded for a single big discovery or insight, it must be, as is usually the case in the humanities, for making significant contributions to a complex field or sub-discipline, or to put it more modestly, for suggesting looking at familiar topics in a new light.
To be sure, I did not single-handedly invent global history. It emerged under that name in the 1990s at various academic centres, first in the United States and Great Britain, a little later on the European continent, in Japan, China and Australia. Nowadays it exists almost everywhere, and most historians are likely to share the view that taking a global perspective would not be a bad idea. At the same time, only a minority of them practices global history in a sustained and systematic manner.
This dearth cannot be explained only by the weight of tradition and the apparent difficulties of a multilingual approach. Settings outside academia are not invariably favourable towards the research and teaching of global history. In almost all but the most liberal countries, state authorities are suspicious of the cosmopolitan openness and tolerance that necessarily accompany global history. Wielding the power to shape school curricula and perhaps also university syllabi, they are well-positioned to sponsor national or even overtly nationalist uses of history. Global history has to overcome strong political resistance in many, perhaps in most, countries in the world.
Sometimes global history is reduced to little more than national history set in a wider framework. The central issue from this point of view is the changing position of one’s own country within the broader sweep of world history. This kind of globalized ethnocentrism – for example in present-day China – resuscitates precisely those narratives of national glory and exceptionalism that global history originally set out to question. A different approach, not to be confused with this kind of globally inflated nationalism in search and praise of former glory and primacy, is the attempt to trace a nation’s global connections and entanglements at specific points in time. Here, the intent is explicitly non-nationalistic and critical of all «identitarian» constructions and fantasies of national purity and self-sufficiency.
But what is global history? It is a moving target, and I have not given the same exact definition twice. At the most general level, we might say that it is a typical way of doing history using the same methodology as any other kind of scholarly history and subjecting itself to the same standards of quality. The average global historian is no sage or visionary – a role cultivated by Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee in the past and by Yuval Noah Harari today – but a professional researcher, albeit one with a special public responsibility.
To attempt a technical definition, it could go something like this: global history pays attention to all kinds of cross-border mobilities (people, goods, ideas) and their consequences, especially within vast and multicultural spaces. It focuses on connections and connectedness, with special regard to those connections that have a transformative impact on interconnected social and cultural units. From the point of view of any given society or civilization, global history is less interested in endogenous dynamics than in forces impacting from the outside; ideally, it combines both aspects – the internal and the external, the local and the foreign – in composite explanations. My addition, controversial among global historians, would be: global history is also the study of relativity – in other words, of differences and similarities and how they increase, diminish and disappear. Therefore, to study connections, flows and integrated systems is not enough. The method of comparison remains indispensable. Global history has rightly emphasized the fragility and constructedness of conventional units of comparison such as nation-states, national societies or civilizations and has chosen the network as its master trope. Even so, there remains room for comparison at many different levels of analysis. I would pointedly characterize my own method, at least in my book The Transformation of the World, as «micro-comparative».
How did global history emerge? In the 1990s, the end of the Cold War seemed to have removed the deepest political division in the world. Globalization by means of the internet and increasing economic integration seemed to create homogeneous and almost unlimited networks of communication and exchange. An additional factor was the impression, shared by many historians, that the focus on identity and cultural singularity that had been a highly fruitful result of the so-called «cultural turn» of the 1980s had led to the fragmentation of historical studies into a myriad of case studies. The time had come to reassemble bigger pictures.
It soon turned out that these bigger pictures would not be flat mosaics. All sorts of hierarchies and inequalities became visible again. They had survived welfare capitalism, socialism, decolonization and digitization. Thus, the issue of power that had almost been lost in certain types of cultural history reappeared forcefully and has even grown in importance in recent years. Only a highly superficial kind of global history is content with telling us how nice it is – and how pleasant it was in the past – that everything is connected. Someone, like myself, with a background in the study of empires would never believe in egalitarian networks as the normal state of affairs.
A second aspect that has never entirely been missing from global history but is now assuming unprecedented relevance is ecology. The environment has not been a focus of my own work so far. So let me just say that the global history of the future, as perhaps any kind of historical study, could be inscribed into the triangle of power, culture (including communication) and nature.
The global historians of the 1990s formed a particular generation of pioneers. I am fond of the idea that I am here not least as a privileged representative of that highly productive generation. This generation of historians born during the ten years after the end of the Second World War differs from those younger global historians who are at the height of their abilities today. We were not trained as global historians the way early career scholars are nowadays. There were no special courses, no adequate teaching materials, and we often had to convince our supervisors to accept topics they would not have suggested themselves. Many of us came from the study of empires, of imperialism and colonialism. And most of us had a background – which continues to be useful for any global historian – in the study of at least one non-western part of the world, in my case modern China.
Just to mention a few names: the late Christopher Bayly was a historian of India, Anthony Hopkins in Cambridge began as a specialist of Africa, Serge Gruzinski in Paris is a historian of Latin America, Kenneth Pomeranz in Chicago an expert on the Chinese economy, Akita Shigeru (in a reversal of perspective) a Japanese specialist on the British Empire.
A second shared feature of this generation was that its members still retained links to older forms of world history. If we subscribe to a very general concept of global history – and this is a concept widely in use in academic circles – global history is history within the broadest possible horizon at any given time. In this sense it is very old, and we have long traditions in Europe and China reaching back two and a half millennia. Due to the influence of my late teacher Ernst Schulin, a great historian of historiography, I developed an interest in earlier forms of world history writing, and I published a series of articles on earlier world historians, most recently Arnold J. Toynbee and Jacob Burckhardt – on whom I will continue to work in the future.
The purpose of such historiographical reflection is not simply to construct genealogies, but mainly to alert us to options that have already been realized in the past and to problems in the theory of history that have already been discussed at a level of sophistication that sometimes seems to get lost today. This is one of the reasons for my interest in Jacob Burckhardt and my continuing fascination with Max Weber who had a global vision combined with a deep distrust of simplistic models of world historical evolution.
Global history is both a way to ask questions – in other words, a perspective – and a «field» in the sense of an emerging sub-discipline. I have only a few minutes left for brief remarks on the second aspect – the field. These days, there are many different ways of doing global history. Far be it from me to pontificate about the best course to take, and I am very hesitant about peddling methodological recipes.
However, there is now a broad consensus that global or world history should not be encyclopaedic – in other words, a history of everything – and that it should not focus solely on large structures, big events and famous people. What is controversial is the kind of time scale that can be responsibly handled.
Among the broader reading public, Big History (or Deep History) is today very popular: a history of the human species, life or even the universe. I remember an audience in the United States that was truly disappointed when they learnt I had nothing to say about the Big Bang. There is an unresolved tension between those who argue in favour of the longue durée and want to extend it to its maximum and those who see one of the advantages of global history in its describing and analyzing simultaneity, i.e., the connections around the world that unfold synchronically, practically speaking, within a manageable period of time – a year, a decade, etc. I tried to do this for one century, which is likely to stretch this particular approach as far as it can be stretched.
A second field of debate is whether global history should be identified with the history of so-called «globalization», seen as a long-term process of integration or, as I prefer, as a bundle of distinct processes of integration that develop along varying time scales and sometimes even contradict one other. For example, economic integration and political integration, even in Europe, may follow divergent trajectories.
The discussion remains an open one. My own preference is for a narrow and precise definition of globalization or globalizations (in the plural) that is specific enough to leave room for the study of long distance connections that did not necessarily contribute to an ever more dense entanglement in the world. Global history should not forget the non-globalized, those vast multitudes in any age who (until very recently) lacked access to global networks or even became victims of them (for example, the transatlantic slave trade).
Finally, a word about my own current and future interests. I wrote a big general history of the nineteenth century. That was supplemented by a 200-page-long book chapter where I tried to sketch a social history of the world in the nineteenth century. Since then, I have moved on to more specific subjects of inquiry. Writing general syntheses is both fascinating and exasperating. Exasperating because the precious balance between fidelity to the sources and the freedom to make sense of them tilts too heavily towards the side of interpretation or even speculation.
I am now interested in the history of the global public or, in other words, of world opinion. It was a dream of the Enlightenment that the combined judgment of rational minds would form a virtual court of appeal where bad rulers and evil practices would be exposed to universal condemnation. The international campaigns to abolish the slave trade, and later slavery itself, were the first instance when this kind of rhetoric was applied to a political issue of the day – as we know, successfully.
What happened to the global public since? How does it differ from more limited regional or national publics as discussed in Jürgen Habermas’s classic 1962 book The Transformation of the Public Sphere? What is the role of the evolving media? Of international organizations and grassroots movements? If there is not a continuous success story of world opinion as a corrective for abuses – what are the impediments and countervailing forces?
These are the questions I am intrigued by at the moment. The Balzan Prize offers spiritual encouragement and material support for pursuing them in the future.

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