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Reviewed by:
  • What Is Global History?
  • Giorgio Riello
What Is Global History? By Pamela Kyle Crossley. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008. 152 pp. $64.95 (cloth); $19.95 (paper).

Those of us who teach world or global history are often confronted by the title of this book; we are asked by family and friends and sometimes also by slightly amused colleagues what our "discipline" or area of interest might be about: "What is global history?" The question, only rarely phrased in a threatening way, is often a request for precision and complies with the idea that history comes in small chunks ranging from the local to the national and more rarely the continental. However, history in its world or global dimension is either confined to the shelves of "general history" or those of "historiography." Pamela Crossley, in this short but dense and revealing book discards the idea that global history might be a history for all seasons to be found among general books. This volume develops instead along what I would call a historiographical line, presenting a series of contributions by historians that now form the extant literature, historiography, and pedigree of global history as a branch of history. The book also suggests that global history is increasingly characterized by internal coherence, shared issues, and a distinctive conceptual language, although—much to the disappointment of those who wish to know what global history is—it comes in as many varieties as flowers in the spring.

The brevity of the book, the refreshing lack of footnotes, and the agile final bibliography are clearly editorial choices aimed at creating a work suitable for students. The text is in plain, clear English, not [End Page 305] without the occasional informality and directness necessary to "keep things short." It does not attempt to be politically correct but expresses critiques and opinions and leaves space for students and academics to add additional paragraphs. In this sense students might be able to learn from—but also debate and disagree with—this book. The back cover reveals that What Is Global History? is part of Polity's series of many other "What is … ?" books that includes medical, environmental, and cultural histories. And this might partly explain the problem that Crossley's book has in living up to the expectations of such a wideranging title. This book contributes to formulating an answer to "what global history is" (the title of her last chapter), but I would put it in a conditional tense as I think that Crossley, like any other living historian, can only say what "global history might be."

The book's introduction and the above-mentioned conclusion raise a series of conceptual issues that form a prologue and afterthought to the main content. A first chapter captures what one might define as "early" global histories from Homer to Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta, passing through the Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang (seventh century) and the Iranian al-Masudi (tenth century). The following four chapters summarize large debates and introduce a variety of historians and historical models by dividing them into four large conceptual categories: divergence, convergence, contagion, and systems. The author admits that the choice of these four categories can be disputed as they might exclude important contributions to global history. However, they provide common ground for a series of disparate voices, and Crossley aptly recreates lineages and debates within the confined but clear parameters of each category.

Divergence is presented by the author as a way of narrating global history as a history of continuous differentiation starting from a common origin. It is a model used by anthropologists, but also linguists and scientists, to narrate a possible single origin of humanity and its spread across the globe according to models of diffusion and differentiation. Crossley positions within divergence also Needham's study of Chinese technology (including an unexplained graph of Needham's transcurrent and fusion points) but excludes Pomeranz's great divergence. Divergence is followed by convergence: a narrative of global history that presumes a final point characterized by increasing similarity either achieved by borrowing others' technologies, customs, concepts, and so forth, or expressed through the idea that history presents stages that all populations or "civilizations" have...