Wednesday, March 31, 2010

World History

Methods by which historians divide up the world for analysis and understanding in the World History school of historiography.

Themes. As with literature, writing history involves the creation of narrations structured around themes. Some of the themes currently prevalent in World history are:

Convergence and Divergence. A broad historical tendency of cultures, technologies and economies to move towards or away from homogeneity.

Integration and Difference. The tension between forces that drive two specific societies or systems to integrate or separate from one another. For example, the homogenizing influence of industrialization and increased global contact during the late Nineteenth Century may have helped drive the period’s nationalism, in which people defined themselves on the basis of nation-states. This cultural differentiation was often based on assigning one set of characteristics to their own nation, and opposing traits to a neighboring country or people.

Environmental impacts on human history. Environmental history is another up and coming discipline within the Academy and frequently overlaps with World History as well as the informally named Big History school, which looks at human development in the context of cosmology and geology. Human evolution and the impact of a common biological nature has not as yet played a large role within the field.

Units of analysis:

Regions. Transnational areas with common characteristics. E.g. East Asia, where a shared system of Classical Chinese written characters facilitated the spread of Confucian ideals as well as Scinified (China-fied) Buddhism, which lead to the creation of a common family of cultures in what is now China, Korea, and Japan.

Systems. The study of transnational or trans-regional systems such as international economies, migrations, biological exchanges, or the flows of scientific and engineering knowledge across or between continents.

Ocean and sea basins. In these meta-regions whole packages or networks of interlinked systems are often the primary unit of study. An example of this would be a study of the Atlantic Ocean Basin 1494 - 1800 that addresses European migration to the New World, the Colombian exchange of biota such as food crops and pathogenic organisms, and the eventual rise of the trans-Atlantic trade of slaves, sugar products such as rum and molasses, and Old World industrial goods.

Nation-states. A traditional unit of historical study ever since history’s emergence as a professional discipline in mid-nineteenth century Germany. Generally not a focus in world history as nation-states are fairly recent and fluid creations in the sweep of human history.

Approaches to time in World History:

Chronology. The diachronic approach in which multiple regions are compared to one another advancing forward in time. This creates a linear narrative which is easy to follow, but is thematically cloudy as similar developments in human societies took place at uneven rates around the world.

Periodization. The synchronic examination of common patterns and continuity within a specified period of time. And example of this would be looking at the creation of centralized states during the nineteenth century by comparing the US Civil War, the Meiji Restoration, and the forging of Germany out of a collection of linguistically similar Central European kingdoms.

Thematic, or event time. In this approach the focus is on developmental themes common to human societies. For me, Jared Diamond’s Gun’s, Germs, and Steel is the gold standard of this style as it examines geographical influences on the uneven evolution of human societies from hunter-gather bands, to tribes, to chieftainships, and eventually nation-states.


I just realized today that I am down to my final two history courses. Wow, it’s hard to believe that I’ve already come to the end of study within the field! That being said this promises to be a challenging term of research and analysis in both the seminar and World History courses that I am taking.

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