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  • What is Global History? by Sebastian Conrad
  • Emily Tai
What is Global History? by Sebastian Conrad. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2016. 312 pp. $29.95 US (cloth), $22.95 US (paper).

The field of World History, Sebastian Conrad explains in What is Global History?, emerged from the labour of many minds to reach beyond the history of the nation, the region, or the epoch: Arnold J. Toynbee's Study of History (Oxford, 1934-1961), a twelve-volume consideration of twenty-one "civilizations" (165-166); William H. McNeill's The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community (Chicago, 1963), which treated five millennia in a single volume, arguing for the development asserted by its title; various histories leavened by Marxist theory, and the "world-systems analysis" of Immanuel Wallerstein (31-34). By 1982, world historians had established a learned society, the World History Association, whose scholarly publication, The Journal of World History, first appeared in 1990 (215).

Like McNeill's study before it, the title of Conrad's ten-chapter volume, an expansion of his Globalgeschichte: Eine Einfu¨hrung (Munich, 2013), presents one aspect of the author's thesis (somewhat overstated, as Conrad himself concedes, for "heuristic" purposes): that the intrinsically Eurocentric perspective of world history, which, post-McNeill, "typically assumed… a transfer from the West to 'the rest"' (62-63), has been superseded by the wide-angle focus of global history, which Conrad defines as "a form of historical analysis in which phenomena, events, and processes are placed in global contexts" (5). Where world history might draw, derivatively, upon "the empirically rich research" of scholars "with regional specializations" (34), global history instead studies larger "processes of structural transformation" (64-65). Comprehensive and omnivorous, global history swallows all that has come before it to become "the history of everything" (6-7): national histories; world histories; even the historiography of world history itself. To paraphrase C.A. Bayly, who Conrad quotes in several places (1, 47, 64), "we are all global historians now" (1).

Conrad's book is less a celebration of global history's arrival, however, than a thoughtful meditation upon the benefits — and hazards — of global perspective as an instrument to better understand the past. In this respect, What is Global History? contributes to a literature of self-assessment that has long figured as a thematic concern in the writings of world [End Page 409] historians — including McNeill, whose rueful reappraisal of his own arguments, "The Rise of the West after Twenty-Five Years," appeared in The Journal of World History's (JWH) inaugural issue (1–21). Conrad's assertion, in his conclusion, that "global history is an inherently cosmopolitan endeavor" (206), likewise seems to echo the late Jerry Bentley's call for an "ecumenical history" in a "Forum" on "The Ethical and Moral Dimensions of World History" that Bentley co-authored with Charles W. Hedrick Jr. in 2005 (JWH 16.1: 31–85).

What sets What is Global History? apart from these earlier reflections is Conrad's ability to draw upon his wide command of the sources, as well as the scholarly literature of both world and global history to illustrate his points. Conrad's second chapter, for example, deliberately considers Asian and Islamic authors alongside the familiar Herodotus in discussing premodern examples of "ecumenical history," showing that even so sweeping a thinker as Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) perceived the world through the essentially parochial lens of the dar-al-islam (17–21). "Universal histories" authored by such "Enlightenment" figures as Edward Gibbon (1737–1794) and Voltaire (1694–1778), meanwhile represented the earliest phase of a European hegemonic, positivist project that grew progressively more strident over the course of the long nineteenth century. In subsequent chapters, Conrad considers the merits of various approaches scholars have adopted to challenge Eurocentrism, including comparative history (38–44); transnational history (44–48); the aforementioned world systems theory (48–52); post-colonial studies (53–57); and "multiple modernities," which has questioned the "inevitability" of secularization posited in modernity theory (57–63).

Notwithstanding his own comparative research on historical writing in Germany and Japan, Conrad discerns limitations in all these methodologies, ultimately making the case for "Global History as a...


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