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Journal of World History 11.2 (2000) 350-353

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Book Review

World History: Ideologies, Structures and Identities

World History: Ideologies, Structures and Identities. Edited by PHILIP POMPER, RICHARD H. ELPHICK, and RICHARD T. VANN. Malden, Mass. and Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell, 1998. Pp. ix + 286. $66.95 (cloth); $33.95 (paper).

We have here a very valuable collection that must help anyone to clarify what world history is. This is by no means a hegemonic book, where we end up being told how to "do" world history. To the contrary, the collection is particularly useful because it represents so many points of view, and thus will stimulate discussion and no doubt rebuttal from practitioners of very divergent versions of world history. I will now proceed to comment seriatim on the offerings.

The volume fittingly begins with a chapter from William H. [End Page 350] McNeill, who is generally considered to be the doyen of the field. In a typically graceful and lucid discussion, he sketches various historiographical traditions, and sees the way forward as being the study of "trans-civilizational encounters" (p. 27) based on the notion of ecumenical history. He ends on a positive note, claiming that the field has a social purpose, for "constructing a perspicacious and accurate world history, historians can play modest but useful part in facilitating a tolerable future for humanity as a whole . . ." (p. 40).

Bruce Mazlish provides a close investigation of ways in which the words ecumenical, world, and global have been used as adjectives to modify "history." This is an interesting discussion. It seems that we should use "world" as an essentially descriptive geographical term to cover the world (earth?) or large parts of it, just as Immanuel Wallerstein does, while "global" implies connections. This is an active word, as in the currently fashionable analysis of globalization. Indeed, he thinks globalization since the 1970s has created a new world, and historians need to explain its origins. As Pomper points out in his introduction, a distinction between world and global is not yet widely made; Mazlish convinces me that greater precision is needed. However, in most of this book the contributors use the two terms interchangeably. In a chapter devoted to types of world history, it is a pity that neither here nor elsewhere is David Christian's notion of Big History discussed.

In a wide-ranging discussion, William Green finds that World History, being new, is not as bounded by traditional notions of periodization as are other fields of history. He discusses world-system analyses, especially André Gunder Frank's work, at length, and it is a pity that Frank's provocative ReOrient came out too late to be considered, for this is Frank's most complete statement of his thesis. There may still be here a tendency to privilege the West, for he says that people away from the "mainstream" (p. 64) do not deserve much attention. By this he means sub-Saharan Africa and the pre-Columbian Americas, but this of courses raises the thorny question of what is the "mainstream," which areas have been the motors of world history? It seems that Ashis Nandy, whose chapter I will discuss presently, would not agree with this sort of discrimination.

Janet Abu-Lughod has contributed a very reflective piece in which she teases out some of the implications of her earlier work. One notion which had some resonance for me was her stress on how historians, or at least good ones, finally recognize patterns emerging from their research, and then can stop reading. For her, the patterns came from political and economic factors. This is a most agreeable, broadly humanistic essay.

The most comprehensive chapter is by Michael Adas. In his excellent [End Page 351] overview he critically assesses the contributions of, among others, Theda Skocpol, Immanuel Wallerstein, Eric Wolf, Janet Abu-Lughod, and also postmodern historians, whom he briskly dismisses. One portion of his theme is a plea to world historians to take account of the contingent, of ideology and of individuals, rather than to follow the...