Worlds Apart? Futures of Global History

Worlds Apart? Futures of Global HistoryWorlds Apart? Futures of Global History

Hubertus Büschel, Universität Kassel; Norman Aselmeyer, Universität Bremen; Jonathan Fine, Weltmuseum Wien
DFG; ZEIT-Stiftung Ebelin und Gerd Bucerius
Fand statt
Vom - Bis
25.05.2023 - 26.05.2023
Karolin Wetjen, Seminar für Mittlere und Neuere Geschichte, Georg-August Universität Göttingen

Reservations and critiques of global history have long been part of the internal debate in historical scholarship. The Anglo-American variant of global history, with its inherent danger of being perceived as an “Anglospheric invention to integrate the Other into a cosmopolitan narrative on our terms”1, has faced prominent criticism. The need for decolonizing global history, advocating for the inclusion of marginalized voices, challenging dominant narratives, acknowledging the legacies of imperialism and colonialism, and actively engaging with postcolonial theory are not new points.2 In the context of ongoing global crises and a renewed reflection on global coexistence, a recent conference in Vienna aimed to address these issues and explore the future trajectories of a fairer global history.

The conference’s aim was ambitious: to deliberate on the future(s) of global history, a field that has been steadily expanding, and to address the crises within it that risk perpetuating the dominance of Europe and the United States in shaping our understanding of history. The Call for Papers3 explicitly invited scholars, artists, and writers whose perspectives and knowledge have been marginalized or excluded from discussions on our global past in order to forge a pluralistic and inclusive path toward a fairer global history. It proposed the exploration of new avenues that encompass a broader and more diverse range of voices, as well as an expansion of methodological, narrative, and conceptual approaches.

The conference organizers struck a chord with this proposition, evident from the overwhelming response of nearly two hundred presentation proposals and a substantial number of attendees both in Vienna and via Zoom. However, upon initial observation, those expecting a program that prominently showcased these marginalized voices might have been disappointed. The presence of internationally renowned scholars, such as Jeremy Adelman, Akita Shigeru, and Alessandro Stanziani, dominated the keynote speeches and roundtable discussions at the World Museum. Nonetheless, their participation demonstrates the significance and relevance of the conference’s themes, as well as the ongoing need to address the challenges and aspirations of global history in a more inclusive manner.

The conference commenced with a keynote address by JEREMY ADELMAN (Princeton), one of the doyens of global history. Adelman reflected on his personal journey in global history, providing insights into the emergence and current state of the discipline, that has now entered its “bread-and-butter” phase. In line with his previous critique of global history4, his presentation provocatively questioned the relevance of this discipline. The subsequent roundtable discussion further examined the distinctive and hegemonic Anglo-American perspective prevalent in global history, setting the tone and agenda for the ensuing deliberations of the conference. Notably, the majority of the participants shared a collective understanding that, despite its shortcomings, global history had not reached its conclusion. Instead, many of the contributions insisted on discussing problems with the current and past state of global history and finding solutions and exploring new concepts. Captivatingly, the relevance of area studies and local expertise, which Adelman had already underlined, was stressed time and again, for example, when RICHARD DRAYTON (London) pleaded for a return to the local, national, or regional level and its connection to the global, or when RILA MUKHERJEE (Hyderabad) argued for an integration of local histories into the global without neglecting different forms of temporality, or NANCY ROSE HUNT (Miami) opted for a perspective on the “vernacular”5.

The following contributions addressed the complexities of constructing a global history that is not centered around the West, advocating for a reexamination of Eurocentric perspectives, periodization, spatial dimensions, and the dismantling of colonialist narratives and knowledge frameworks. ADRIÁN LERNER PATRÓN (Cambridge/Berlin) examined recent scholarly and popular analyses that challenge the primacy of Western history as the foundational basis for global historical narratives. Given that these works predominantly originate from authors affiliated with the American academic system and adhere to Eurocentric historiographical conventions, Patrón advocated for reevaluating categorizations to overcome the Eurocentric dominance of the West.

KAVEH YAZDANI (Mansfield) explored a fresh approach to periodizing global history, aiming to disrupt the Eurocentric conceptualization of modernity by incorporating non-European advancements and processes.

YE LIU (New York/Beijing) emphasized that contemporary global histories are still shaped by colonial topographies, as prevailing historiography predominantly characterizes the formerly colonized peoples and societies through the lens of coloniality. Therefore, the process of decolonization must liberate itself from the dichotomies inherent in colonialist-colonized narratives and transcend traditional knowledge frameworks defined by the West/East, North/South, and colonizer/colonized distinctions.

ALESSANDRO STANZIANI (Paris) delved into the notion of (Euro)centrism, emphasizing the significance of multilingualism, particularly within historiography. He highlighted the necessity of a decentralized history of the social sciences and proposed a global history approach that takes its starting point in empirical objects and, through that, transcends the center-periphery dichotomy and critically analyzes its history.

In the second keynote, SUJIT SIVASUNDARAM (Cambridge) provided a different approach by arguing for a turn towards the Earth as a fissured, crusted, summited, atmospheric and terraqueous platform instead of focusing on the globe as an artifice in global history. Current developments in environmental histories, especially the reflections on the human in history, could lead to a new form of earthy history that ponders the materiality of history.

While the first day of the conference raised important questions and provided an overview of the field of global history, the second day delved into these inquiries to discuss the current challenges and prospects of the discipline. The papers encompassed various themes, such as the role of nation-states in global history (POL DALMAU and JORGE LUENGO, Barcelona), the lens of “ontological security” to comprehend power imbalances among nation states (JOSHUA MEEKS, Newport), the contributions of Latin American history to the global history discourse (DELIA GONZÁLEZ DE REUFELS, Bremen), the positioning of Europe and Africa in global history (SABELO J. NDLOVU-GATSHENI, Bayreuth), the inclusion of non-academic histories (CHAO TAYANA MAINA, Nairobi; ANNE MCGRATH, Canberra), the possibilities of digitalizing archival sources, the problem of intranslatability (ANWESHA GHOSH, Bangalore), the exploration of gender and sexuality (CHELSEA SCHIELDS, Irvine), and even the significance of examining weapons to trace global connections at micro and macro levels (LUISE WHITE, Miami). This diversity of topics and issues not only exemplified the breadth of research in global history but also highlighted the challenges associated with conventional global history, which still often tends to rely on metanarratives, as LUCY RIALL (Florence) pointed out. In short, even in global history research, the worlds seem to be apart.

Three aspects are worth emphasizing: Firstly, it became evident during the conference that the pursuit of global history is intricately entangled with politics and contemporary processes. Jeremy Adelman, for instance, attributed the rise of global history to the emerging complexities and fractures of economic globalization. Furthermore, Pol Dalmau and Jorge Luengo demonstrated how the growing interest in global historical studies is observable in nations experiencing strong nationalist movements. While choosing to engage with global history can be a strategic decision for securing funding and opportunities for projects and publications, particularly in Europe and the US, it does not necessarily offer viable career prospects in other regions of the world.

Secondly, discussions highlighted the imperative of embracing a more inclusive and multilingual approach, acknowledging the diversity of voices, and transcending linguistic and cultural barriers in the pursuit of a comprehensive global history. As argued by numerous contributors, the futures of global history necessitate a shift towards a more pluralistic, diverse, and inclusive approach. The dominant influence of colonialism and Eurocentrism in knowledge production must give way to a more pluriversal understanding of the past (for example, CASSANDRA MARK-THIESEN, Bayreuth, NORA LAFI, Berlin, or SISAY MEGERSA DIRIRSA, Bielefeld). Several papers explored the concept of pluriversality as a means to unearth previously overlooked or deemed “unthinkable” histories, highlighting the significance of non-human perspectives and diverse temporalities. Rather than being an exclusive endeavor dominated by Anglo-American elites, there was an emphasis on broadening the scope of global history by incorporating activist groups and local, non-academic histories, as exemplified by Maina’s and FABIO SANTOS’ (Berlin) papers. JOËL GLASMAN (Bayreuth) took this argument a step further by outlining strategies for public engagement with global history in the face of global crises, aiming to foster a sense of “global citizenship”6 beyond the confines of academic production. Throughout the conference, the question of languages and the role of English as the lingua franca for historical research were recurring themes. The challenges associated with this reliance on English were extensively discussed, particularly due to the need for global historians to draw upon the expertise of area studies and national histories, many of which are published in non-English-language journals. DELIA GONZÁLEZ DE REUFELS (Bremen) even elucidated the reservations of Latin American historians in engaging with global histories, attributing their reluctance to the primacy of English and the neglect of Spanish as a scholarly language in the field.

Thirdly, the conference shed light on the practical considerations inherent in conducting global histories, ranging from the challenges of archival politics and the potential of digitalization to the significance of materiality and deeper source engagement. The contributions also called for substantial transformations within academia to foster alternative forms of global history, emphasizing the importance of experimentation and inclusivity. Issues of equity and access, which include hiring practices and opportunities for less privileged institutions, were highlighted as areas for improvement. Chao Tayiana Maina’s paper on Mau Mau detention camps in Kenya highlighted the significance of archival politics, including the deliberate destruction of archival material and the transfer of such material to European metropoles. Fabio Santos delved into the logics of archival practices and the challenges of reading against the grain. He delved into the concept of critical fabulation as a decolonizing method, advocating for the integration of cautious speculation and diverse perspectives into academic histories. The digitalization of sources, depending on their accessibility, holds great potential. AGATA BLOCH (Warsaw) demonstrated how methods of digital history and interdisciplinary approaches to analyzing big data could transform the practice of global history. Simultaneously, the discussions underscored the importance of recognizing the materiality of sources and engaging with them more deeply.

The final discussion, in particular, called for a different approach to global history, one that can only be achieved through significant changes in academia, and emphasized the necessity of exploring more experimental and inclusive methodologies in the field. In this regard, Valeska Huber (Vienna) urged to be more sensitive and critical with the concepts used in global history writing. The panel also highlighted concerns related to hiring practices (taking into consideration race and class) and called for the consideration of differences between universities and their financial status, access to publishing houses, and their relation to funding opportunities.

The question of the organizers of the conference – worlds apart? – proofed to be a precise description not only of the current state of global history as an academic field, but also of the different visions for a future of the field. However, attempting to predict the future of a fairer global history may have been a lofty undertaking for the conference; nevertheless, the event was remarkably thought-provoking and is poised to make significant contributions to the field. The multitude of issues that were raised, the diverse range of speakers and discussants, and the simultaneous debates that took place are all factors that will undoubtedly propel the advancement of global history. The conference’s ambitious nature and the wealth of intellectual engagement it fostered bode well for the ongoing evolution of global history. While providing a definitive answer to the question remains elusive, the conference served as a catalyst for stimulating dialogue and generating fresh insights that will shape the future trajectory of the discipline.

Conference overview:

Jonathan Fine (Wien) / Hubertus Büschel (Kassel) / Norman Aselmeyer (Bremen): Introduction and Welcome

Opening Lecture

Jeremy Adelman (Princeton): Global History Now – Again

Roundtable: Global History at the Crossroads: Where Do we Stand?

Moderation: Lucy Riall (Florence)

Richard Drayton (London), Nancy Rose Hunt (Miami), Martina Kaller (Vienna), Rila Mukherjee (Hyderabad), Carmen Nava (San Marcos), Akita Shigeru (Osaka)

Panel 1: Politics of Global History

Chair: Eric Burton (Innsbruck)

Adrián Lerner Patrón (Cambridge/Berlin): The Politics of Global History: The Question of Primacy

Kaveh Yazdani (Mansfield): Periodizing Global History, Deprovincializing the West and Universalizing the “Rest”

Ye Liu (New York): To Historicize Decolonization: Bringing the “Other” Back in

Alessandro Stanziani (Paris): The Problem with (Euro)centrism

Keynote Lecture

Sujit Sivasundaram (Cambridge): The Global and the Earthy

Panel 2: Methods and Sources of Global History

Chair: Julia Hauser (Kassel)

Pol Dalmau & Jorge Luengo (Barcelona): National Histories Go Global: A Futile Endeavour?

Chao Tayiana Maina (Nairobi): Plurality and Purpose: Digital Methodologies for Community Based Histories

Agata Błoch (Polish Academy of Sciences): Big Data, Natural Language Processing Methods and Sources in Global History

Fabio Santos (Berlin): Global History Against the Archival Grain: Critical Fabulation as Decolonial Method

Panel 3: Systems of Knowledge

Chair: Valeska Huber (Wien)

Delia González de Reufels (Bremen): Reinventing Global History? Historians of Latin America and a Controversial Field of Historic Research

Joshua Meeks (Newport): Blood and Stone: Ontology, History, and the State

Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni (Bayreuth): (Re)provincializing Europe and (De)provincializing Africa: A Contribution Towards Decolonizing Global History

Panel 4: Narratives and Languages of Global History

Chair: Karolin Wetjen (Göttingen)

Anwesha Ghosh (Bangalore): Living in Italics: Southern Vocabulary and the Politics of Untranslatability

Nora Lafi (Berlin): Challenging the Global Narratives of Global History: An Exploration of Alternative Paths from the Arab World

Sisay Megersa Dirirsa (Bielefeld): The Ambivalence of Global History and the Deficit of the “Post-Colonial:” Is a Pluriversal History Possible?

Ann McGrath (Canberra): Temporalities and Historicities: What “Primitive Earth” Carried Across Hemispheres

Panel 5: Topics and Concepts of Global History

Chair: Sasson Sofer (Jerusalem)

Chelsea Schields (Irvine): The Body Corporate: Sexuality and the Business of Empire in Global History

Cassandra Thiesen-Mark (Bayreuth): From Illusions of Universality towards an Innovative, “Incomplete” Global History

Luise White (Miami): Optical Illusions: African Wars and Global Guns

Joël Glasman (Bayreuth): Beyond Global Citizenship: Four Forms of Impacts of Global History

Roundtable & Final Discussion: Whither Global History: Does the Field Have a Future?

Moderation: David Motadel (London School of Economics and Political Science)

Christian de Vito (University of Bonn), Toyin Falola (University of Austin), Valeska Huber (University of Vienna), Dilip Menon (University of the Witwatersrand), Hermann Mückler (University of Vienna)

1 Jeremy Adelman, What is global history now?, in: Aeon, 2 March 2017,
2 Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton 2007, Cooper, Frederick (2001); What is the Concept of Globalization Good for? An African Historian’s Perspective, in: African Affairs 100 (2001), 189–213; Richard Drayton, Richard/David Motadel, Discussion: The Futures of Global History, in: Journal of Global History 13 (2018), 1–21; Dominic Sachsenmeier, Global Perspectives on Global History. Theories and Approaches in a Connected World, Cambridge 2011.
3, 12.6.23.
4 Adelman, What is global history now?
5 Nancy Rose Hunt / Hubertus Büschel, Psychiatric Contours. New African Histories of Madness, Durham (forthcoming).
6 Lynn Hunt, Writing History in the Global Area, Norton 2014.

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