In the summer of 2011, we analyzed 57 History departments from Britain, Canada and the United States in an attempt to establish the geographical range of historical research. Beginning with the faculty pages on departmental websites, we categorized every staff member on the basis of the geographical area(s) of their research. Our decisions were based entirely on published work, rather than self-descriptions or stated plans for the future; if the geographical range of any individual was unclear, we consulted publications directly for clarification.
Our original hunch was that the history of the wider world -- Asia, Africa and Latin America in particular -- was greatly under-represented in the roster of professional historians at the leading Anglophone universities. The results confirm our suspicions: although these regions contain the vast majority of the world’s population, they struggle to attract even a third of the professional historians working in major History departments. The History and the World project explains the nature of the problem, offers more detailed information about which universities (and countries) do a better job of fostering wider-world history, and argues for the importance of expanding our knowledge about these huge and diverse regions.
Why should we care about wider-world history?
If you're reading this in Asia, Africa or Latin America, this question doesn't require an answer. If you're in Europe or North America, though, here are some reasons why we think wider-world history should have a claim upon your attention:
* The vast majority of the world's population (nearly 6 billion people) live outside Europe and North America (a little over 1 billion). If we're interested in the collective past of humanity, the wider world offers a rich source of histories alongside our 'local' narratives.
* The histories of Europe and North America have been thoroughly entangled with the wider world for centuries: our present (local and global) has been decisively shaped by transnational flows and exchanges -- whether of trade, people, disease, or ideas. Wider-world history allows us to acknowledge and understand these exchanges. Even if we cling to the idea of history as a selfish pursuit, to know the wider world is to understand ourselves much better.
* The pace of immigration in the 20th and early 21st century has ensured that our societies are much more diverse than ever before: cities like London, Toronto and Los Angeles are home to communities with ethnic ties to every major continent. As 'our' present becomes more multi-cultural, our historical curiosity should expand to encompass the diverse heritage of our society.
* Students are urgently curious about the wider world, for a variety of reasons: some may have ethnic ties to a particular country or region; others may recognise that their professional trajectory will require an awareness and appreciation of African, Asian or Latin American peoples and cultures; all are children of a culture in which global influences are everywhere, and in which the internet has revolutionized the speed and scale of communication.
Is ‘world history’ the same thing as ‘wider-world history’?
No! ‘World history’ is the study of truly international/global processes, actors or events, usually (though not always) in a connected context. For example, a world historian might study the interactions between Jesuit missionaries and local people in Mexico, Europe, East Asia and the Pacific in the sixteenth century; or the reactions to the Bandung Conference of 1955 in Indonesia, Libya, India, Japan and the United States; or the global devastation wrought by the 1918 influenza pandemic. Wider-world history’ refers to research that targets the world beyond Europe and North America. It’s probably more accurate, then, to talk about ‘wider-world histories’ rather than ‘history.’
Although we are admirers of world history -- and one of us would describe himself as a ‘world historian’ -- our aim here is to promote the histories of relatively neglected regions of the world, rather than to evangelize for a world-history approach. Our reasons for focusing on wider-world history are as follows:
1.You can’t really be a world historian without having access to the skills and knowledge base of wider-world history -- languages, archives, historiography, and so on -- but you can do wider-world history without necessarily embracing a global approach in your work. Given the skewing of historical research towards Europe and North America, we believe that there’s an urgent need for all kinds of wider-world history; and that this can only help those who choose to adopt a world-history approach in their own work.
2.Some stories and themes are best understood at a local/regional level, rather than within a global frame. We’d rather see thriving and extensive cultures of South Asian, East Asian or African history, than encourage the belief that all wider-world history should be narrated in a global context. For an eloquent defense of local knowledge in an “increasingly interconnected world,” take a look at this recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Nicholas B. Dirks.
3.World history has come under attack from critics who suspect neo-colonial motives or dynamics in its approach to the planet’s past. See, for instance, Trevor Getz’s recent argument about the US-centric nature of the ‘world history community.’ We don’t share most of these reservations, but we admit to a more mundane fear: that some history departments may see a ‘world history’ hire as a cheap way to do wider-world history. For example: why support an East Asianist, a South Asianist and an Africanist, when you can instead find one intrepid scholar who covers all those regions in her research on the Dutch East India Company? If a drive for world history comes at the expense of dedicated expertise in specific regions, it won’t help the history of those regions or the harassed world-history faculty forced to teach a bewildering variety of local stories. In our view, departments need to encourage the exciting field of world history, but not at the expense of a commitment to clearly-defined wider-world regions.
We won’t get into the other argument about whether ‘world history’ is the same thing as ‘global history.’ If you’re curious, try Bruce Mazlish’s essay ‘Comparing Global History to World History’ in the Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol. 28, no. 3 (Winter 1998), 385-95; or Pamela Crossley’s What is Global History (Polity, 2008).