- Global History: A Short Overview, and: The Origins of the Modern World: A Global and Ecological Narrative
Both of these two small books are remarkable for what they try to do and for what they accomplish. Each sets out an analytical framework that is accessible to students while providing an approach to world history that aspires to be truly global. Each has some deficiencies, but often they are a reflection of the differences in geographical expertise between the author and the reviewer.
Noel Cowen's short global history is built around four organizing ideas. His first conceptual tool is a dynamic dyad of civilization and globalization. The civilization derives from an impulse toward permanent settlement; globalization, from the impulse toward wider horizons.
His second premise is that a settlement on the way to civilization passes through three phases. Initially the emphasis is on subsistence. As that succeeds and settlement becomes complex, the next phase features political solutions to the problems of defining and defending hegemonies created by the success of an expanding settlement. This is one aspect of globalization. The third phase involves belief. Belief systems are encouraged and manipulated by elites to strengthen internal security and enhance the loyalty of outlying communities.
Cowen's third organizing principle is chronology. In Cowen's model the world has passed through periods or transitions that constituted globally common experiences. These are the classical era and the modern era. They are separated by a worldwide phase of nomadic movement, migration, and new settlement. Marked by unrest, tribal intrusions, and the breakup of large-scale polities, this transitional era [End Page 519] was an age of anxiety marked by religious yearning and philosophical speculation.
Out of this era of instability emerged Cowen's fourth organizing principle, the four great "civilized centers" of the modern era: China, Russia, Western Europe, and Islam.
The first half of the book, on the classical era, is structured around the three developmental phases (settlement, political development, and politically co-opted belief systems). This part of the book is relatively coherent. The second half, on the modern era, is more specifically chronological and less effective. It makes more use of mini-narratives with a plethora of names, dates, and places. In the process this part of the book slips into outdated summaries of European expansion and the scientific and industrial revolutions. The book ends with a catalogue of aspects of the modern era that are facilitating a new degree of global connectedness. This catalogue is accompanied by ominous suggestions of a new age of instability as the world is faced with bringing localized political organization into line with the realities of globalization.
The use of four geographic focal points for the modern era, the cascade of mini-narratives, and a rather dated bibliography reduce the effectiveness of the book. One finds contradictory generalizations, as in the characterizations of European and Chinese imperialism. It might be a hard book to follow for readers without much knowledge of history, a limitation that could make it hard to use with American undergraduates. At the same time, however, Cowen offers a plausible dynamic framework for history as a global phenomenon.
Robert B. Marks uses a narrower chronological framework, from about 1400 to the present, as he attempts to narrate The Origins of the Modern World. He deals largely with the world of Cowen's four modern focal points and unabashedly offers a narrative of the "rise of the West." It is, however, a narrative that eschews assumptions about the inevitability of Western dominance. Instead, Marks characterizes the modern outcome as a tension between two forces that emerged after 1400: nation-states and global capitalism. This is fairly close to Cowen's dilemma, that of bringing localized political organization into line with the realities of globalization. Marks relies on three concepts to present history as a dynamic process while avoiding economic determinism. First...