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Jeremy Adelman, ‘What is Global History Now’ – Global History Reading Group

Published: 8 November 2017 - Guillemette Crouzet & Guido van Meersbergen

Soon after Professor Jeremy Adelman (Princeton University) published his online essay What is Global History Now? on 2 March 2017, responses started appearing proclaiming that ‘Global History is dead, says Adelman’.[1] To be sure, Adelman’s essay featured the ominous subtitle ‘Is global history still possible or has it had its moment?’, while it described the wave of optimism about the future of global history which had only recently engulfed the historical profession as ‘a short ride’. Adelman moreover castigated two of global history’s more prominent manifestations.

One was the “hubristic” belief pronounced by some colleagues that all histories now needed to become transnational or global.The other the type of ‘borderless, do-good storytelling about our cosmopolitan commonness’ that privileged those historical actors who reflected historians’ own ‘cosmopolitan self-yearnings’ at the expense of ‘the left behind, the ones who cannot move, and those who become immobilized’.[2]

Yet the purpose of Adelman’s essay was never to announce The End of Global History. Far from it, as the Princeton Professor emphasised in front of a large gathering of University of Warwick staff and students at this year’s opening session of the Global History Reading Group, organised by Warwick’s Global History and Culture Centre on 1 November 2017. In this first blog post on the new Global History and Culture Centre Blog, Dr Guillemette Crouzet and Dr Guido van Meersbergen reflect on Adelman’s timely intervention.

What is Global History Now?

In many ways, Adelman’s pamphlet reads like the academic equivalent of the soul searching widely conducted by the liberal establishment media in the wake of the election and referendum shake-ups of 2016. The co-author of a widely-used world history textbook, Worlds Together, Worlds Apart (2002; 5th edition, 2017), which privileged what he calls global “convergence stories”; in the light of the current widespread ‘anti-global backlash’ Adelman no longer believes that narratives which uncritically celebrate global integration and interconnectedness provide a satisfactory response to the issues of our time.

Tying in the rise of global history with that of neoliberal globalisation, Adelman reproaches global historians for failing to see how their purportedly inclusive narratives created new forms of exclusion, much like the way the globalist policies of neoliberal elites worldwide ignored ‘the other half of the globe’, those for whom internationalisation produced ‘separation, disintegration and fragility’. His message is clear: our discipline needs to rid itself of ‘flat-Earth narratives and ideas of global predestination once and for all’.

Instead, Adelman offers a two-pronged agenda. First, global history has to reckon with the ever more complete dominance of English as an academic language. To prevent global history from turning into simply another ‘Anglospheric’ hegemonic narrative, he argues, global historians need to ‘get more serious about engaging other languages and other ways of telling history.’ The second challenge concerns the importance of ‘local attachments’. That is, global historians will need to do more to address both the benefits and the costs of global integration; to represent those who were connected as much as those who were left out.

Put differently, Adelman prompts global historians to reconsider ‘the power of place’ and with that the engagement of people with multiple scales, i.e. the local, regional, and national scales alongside or before the global one. Such a more rooted history would help to go beyond one-sided celebrations of globalisation and cosmopolitanism. Perhaps ironically, Adelman remarked, the latter only underscores the continuing relevance of global frames of enquiry, as anti-globalisation movements have themselves become truly global in scope.

Future directions

While these are persuasive answers to the issues Adelman’s essay identified, other questions remain. Members of the audience queried the form future directions should take, suggesting the need for more sustained interdisciplinary engagement or the return to the centre of marginalised approaches, including local and military history. It was also remarked that historians can hardly mend the sketched situation unilaterally, but need to work harder to connect with, and obtain input from, disaffected publics; as well as to work collaboratively with colleagues in other countries.

A further point of discussion concerned the fact that Adelman’s essay presents global history as an area of study that, although in need of becoming more inclusive, can nonetheless be spoken of as a single field of intellectual endeavour. As such, the unintended result of the structural adjustments Adelman recommends might actually be another Anglo-centric hegemony that in its attempt to be more embracing leaves increasingly little room for alternative forms of doing global history, particularly as practiced outside Anglo-American academia.

Perhaps the most important conclusion drawn at this year's first Reading Group session is that Global History definitely has a fruitful future. It should function as a tool and a forum to discuss and interrogate not only the world’s current global predicament, but also the complexity and multiple trajectories of globalising processes, including those people and places excluded by them. However, in order to do so successfully, it will be essential for global historians to consider new ways of doing and writing global history. Its future might well lie in the plurality of global histories.

Dr Guido van Meersbergen is a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow (2016-2019) at the University of Warwick. A historian of early modern cross-cultural encounters, he is currently completing his first book, Ethnography and Encounter: The Dutch and English East India Companies in South Asia (1600-1720), while working on a new research project entitled ‘Cross-Cultural Diplomacy Compared: European Diplomats in South Asia (1600-1750)’.

 Dr Guillemette Crouzet is a Newton International Postdoctoral Fellow (2017-2019) at the University of Warwick. A specialist of British Imperial History, she published in 2015 her first book, Genèses du Moyen-Orient. Le Golfe Persique à l’âge des imperialismes (c. 1800-1914) [The Genesis of the Middle East. The Persian Gulf in the Age of Empire (c. 1800-1914)], which was awarded two prizes by two leading cultural institutions in France. She is currently working on her new project entitled “Crude Empire. British Oil imperialism and the Making of the Middle East (c. 1890-1935)”.

[1] As recalled by Prof. Jeremy Adelman during his visit to the University of Warwick, 1 November 2017. Unless otherwise noted, all references are to: Jeremy Adelman, ‘What is Global History Now?’, Aeon, 2 March 2017: https://aeon.co/essays/is-global-history-still-possible-or-has-it-had-its-moment.

[2] Adelman’s reference is to Martine van Ittersum and Jaap Jacobs, ‘Are We All Global Historians Now? An Interview with David Armitage’, Itinerario 36.2 (2012): 7-28, at 16.

Prof Jeremy Adelman


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