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Reviewed by:
  • Writing World History, 1800-2000
  • Kevin Reilly
Writing World History, 1800-2000. Edited by Benedikt Stuchtey and Eckhardt Fuchs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. 367 + viii pp. $99.00.

One would think that a volume with the title Writing World History, 1800-2000 would reveal a level of thinking about world history that stretched back further than normally thought. Here we might expect, if not the "New World History," at least useful discussions of figures such as Johann Gottfried von Herder, G.W. F. Hegel perhaps, and certainly some attention to Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee, Fernand Braudel, Geoffrey Barraclough, and other pioneers. In that expectation, the reader would not be disappointed. There are frequent discussions of these and other predecessors that remind us that our subdiscipline [End Page 106] is not entirely new. We meet here discussions of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Weltgeschichte, histoire universale, and histoire générale that extend the provenance and purview of world history. This is a strength of the volume.

The fourteen essays gathered here originated as papers presented at a conference sponsored by the German Historical Institute of London in 2000. The goal of the conference was to explore various traditions of world history throughout the world during the last two hundred years. Like most published conference proceedings, the essays are of uneven value, however. There are contributions that will definitely interest world historians, notably those by Jerry Bentley, Patrick O'Brien, and Michael Adas, but many of the essays will disappoint, in part because they were not written by world historians.

Two of the first (and best) focus on "mapping the subject." In an opening essay on "World History and Grand Narrative," Jerry Bentley offers world historians a narrative model based on the "three realities" of rising population, technological expansion, and increasing levels of global interaction. This framework, Bentley argues, "permits historians to move beyond the cultural distinctions, exclusive identities, local knowledge, and experiences of individual societies" (mainly nations) that have directed historical writing since Leopold von Ranke (p. 63). Alternatively, Patrick O'Brien argues for a model of world history that concentrates on material progress and economic interaction. His useful survey of the literature of material metanarratives finds a host of Smithian, Marxist, and Weberian approaches "untenable" or "redundant," but sees "the Great Divergence" between Western Europe and East Asia still requiring explanation.

In a different vein, Michael Adas's essay explores the paradox in U.S. culture of American exceptionalism and global mission. How does a society imagine itself as both unique and a model for the world? Whatever the answer, the pondering of this paradox led some historians in the 1960s and 1970s, Adas suggests, to recognize that features of American history that were distinctive but by no means exceptional —settler colonization, frontiers, slavery, migrations, mobility, racism, industrialization, and imperialism—could be useful comparative categories for the study of world history.

The role of American and European protocols of knowledge in shaping world history writing is precisely the problem for Arif Dirlik and Vinay Lal in essays that seem at times to question the possibility of any nonhegemonic history at all. "What is world history for?" Dirlik asks, and he has difficulty finding anything beyond the Eurocentric ordering of the world that first gave it rise. Similarly, Lal wonders if [End Page 107] history and writing inevitably undermine "the counter-hegemomic tendencies" of Indian folklore and oral traditions (p. 288).

The rest of the essays explore cultural, often national, traditions or limitations in the writing of world history. The most useful of these for world historians is probably Lutz Raphael's essay on Henri Berr, the French propensity for multivolume universal histories, the comparative work of the French Annales school, and Fernand Braudel.

The choice of scholars who are largely specialists in national histories and cultures for so many of the essays creates some repetitions, imbalances, and slow spots. The essays on Russia and China separately grapple with the Marxist paradigm, for instance. In some cases, where there is little or no tradition of world history writing, the authors variously attempt to explain why, fill in the gap, or discuss cultural ideas of others. Two essays...


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