The Sweeping View, For Historians And Non-Historians Alike

Photograph by Charlie Mahoney: Sven Beckert

Photograph by Charlie Mahoney: Sven Beckert

The historians among our contributors, as well as the many readers who seem most oriented to those posts, will find this article from Harvard magazine in synch with many of our non-history stories and posts on this blog. These “sweeping” views are a daily recurring theme for many of us who have worked in more than one region of the world:

The New Histories

Scholars pursue sweeping new interpretations of the human past.

IN MAY 1968, the university’s students wanted to change the world. Left-thinking ideologies like Maoism and socialism were in their minds, and “Vietnam” was on their lips. They went on strike, skipping classes and exams. They rioted and clashed with police. One student was killed, 900 arrested.

If this sounds like a scene from Kent State, where student demonstrators were killed two years later, that is because the May 1968 unrest at the University of Dakar in Senegal was part of the same general mood around the world that moved students to protest, says Omar Gueye, professor of history at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar. Gueye spent six months at Harvard during the 2013-14 academic year as a postdoctoral fellow at the Weatherhead Initiative on Global History (WIGH), a program premised on the belief that events like these—not unlike the seemingly contagious uprisings of the Arab Spring—can be fully understood only in a global context.As elsewhere during the student protests of the late 1960s, local factors played a role in Dakar: government cuts in scholarship funding precipitated the strike. But student anger tapped a deeper sense of injustice as well: although French colonial rule had ended in 1960, the university was still French, Gueye explains, and the French military was still stationed in Dakar. “Vietnam”—another former French colony—therefore had a specific resonance among Senegalese students, who felt a sense of brotherhood with the Vietnamese.

HISTORIANS increasingly recognize that trying to understand the past solely within the confines of national boundaries misses much of the story. Perhaps the integration of today’s world has fostered a renewed appreciation for global connections in the past. Historians now see that the same patterns—colonialism, or the rise of small elites controlling vast resources—emerge across cultures worldwide through time, and they are trying to explain why. “If there is one big meta-trend within history, it is this turn toward the global,” says Bell professor of history Sven Beckert, who co-directs WIGH. “History looks very different if you don’t take a particular nation-state as the starting point of all your investigations.”

The rise of a global perspective is one of several trends that are changing the way history is studied and understood. The increasing use of science to illuminate the past is another. Goelet professor of history Michael McCormick leads the University’s Initiative for the Science of the Human Past, which has engaged a range of collaborators: from geneticists and chemists elucidating patterns of migration using DNA and isotopes, to climate and computer scientists using ice cores and Christian texts to parse the rise and fall of civilizations. In the Joint Center for History and Economics, Knowles professor of history Emma Rothschild has, as director, revitalized this third realm of historical research (which dates to the 1890s in the United States and Britain). Scholars there embrace new quantitative methods such as network analysis to enhance historical inquiry (see “Examining Economic Webs,” page 56); by undertaking collaborative projects—such as studying the history of energy—they are contributing freshly relevant understanding to some of today’s most pressing problems.

These three projects differ significantly, notes Adams University Professor emeritus Bernard Bailyn, “and they have very little directly to do with each other. But together, they create enough intellectual energy in the history department to light a midsized city.”

Fractal History

IN THIS CONTEMPORARY MOMENT in which the world is becoming ever more globally interconnected,” says Beckert, “historians can’t help but observe that a global perspective might also be a useful way to understand the human past. We have spent the past hundred years looking at history within a nation-state framework, and there are limitations to that.” By looking beyond these boundaries, he points out, “an entirely new history opens up.” His WIGH co-director, Saltonstall professor of history Charles Maier, notes that global history allows scholars to consider common challenges facing all of humanity, such as climate change or disease. “Or you can consider the impact that societies have on each other, sometimes referred to as ‘entangled history’ ”—why, for example, students around the world rose up in the 1960s in protest against social norms. A global perspective also makes possible the study of events such as migrations from one nation or region to another. Says Maier, “It opens you up to all kinds of questions.”…

Read the whole article here.

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