This is an extract from the article Discussion: the futures of global history by Richard Drayton and David Motadel published in Journal of Global History.

‘If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are citizen of nowhere’, declared Theresa May in the autumn of 2016 to the Conservative Party conference, questioning the patriotism of those who still dared to question Brexit. Within a month, ‘Make America great again’ triumphed in the polls in the United States. From Erdogan’s Turkey, to Putin’s Russia, to Modi’s India, a current of anti-globalization nationalisms is in full flow.

The storm clouds are indeed dark. They seem even to cast their shadows on the world of historical scholarship, provoking the Princeton Latin American historian Jeremy Adelman to offer a lament about the academic field of global history.[1] For Adelman, it seems, the relevance of the field was derived from ‘globalization’ and its recent Whiggish boosters, ergo: ‘In our fevered present of Nation-X First, of resurgent ethno-nationalism, what’s the point of recovering global pasts?’ Contained in his rebuke of global history, and of its rootless cosmopolitan practitioners, is the idea that it sought to ‘eclipse’ national frames of enquiry. It was not the first time that such a jeremiad about global history had issued from the sages of Princeton’s Dickinson Hall. In late 2013, David Bell, the distinguished historian of France, had shrugged in a notorious New Republic book review, that ‘perhaps the “global turn”, for all of its insights and instruction, has hit a point of diminishing returns’.[2] ‘Perhaps it is time’, he mused, ‘to turn back’ to the ‘small spaces’.

Adelman and Bell do put their fingers on many serious problems, and their swashbuckling essays provide a helpful basis for a reflection on the state of global history. But the claim that ‘resurgent ethno-nationalism’ in some way challenges the premises of global history is odd. Global historians have long noted that forms of ethnonational resistance to globalization were themselves responses to new kinds of global connections. All the fundamentalist upheavals and jihads of the last hundred years, to give one obvious example, arose in response to increasing connection.[3] In any event, modern nationalisms, across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, both inside and outside Europe, were incubated within transnational and trans-imperial connections.[4] It is not even a new story. The mercantilisms of early modern European states, and the subsequent fabrications of Louis XIV and Whig England, for example, responded to the new acceleration of European and global trade propelled by the silver of Potosí and the gold of the Caribbean and Africa.[5] Anti-globalization is itself a phenomenon of globalization, and usually seeks to reconstitute the nation’s place in the world rather than to retreat into a disconnected autarky. Trump’s ‘America first’ and its international analogues are only the most recent incarnations of this reactionary dialectics.

Even stranger is the idea, not confined to Adelman and Bell, that global history implies a rejection of the smaller scales of historical experience, in particular the nation. It is not merely that global historians are often keenly anchored in national history, or that much innovative recent work has operated at the level of micro-history, following the experience of the global in particular small places or through clusters of individuals. More crucially, national history has, from its origins, been in dialogue with however people have understood the cosmopolitan. We might usefully rediscover how history at the scales of the local, ‘national’, regional, and global has been entangled with the very origins of human study of the past. Such an enquiry might help us to better understand, beyond the vanities of polemic, where we are now and what might be the futures of global history.

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[1] Jeremy Adelman, ‘What is global history now?’, Aeon, 2 March 2017.

[2] David Bell, ‘This is what happens when historians overuse the idea of the network’, New Republic, 26 October 2013.

[3] Nikki R. Keddie, ‘The revolt of Islam, 1700 to 1993: comparative considerations and relations to imperialism’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 36, 3, 1994, pp. 463–87; and, more detailed, the contributions in David Motadel, ed., Islam and the European empires, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. For a brilliant more general account of this dialectic, see Cemil Aydin, The politics of anti-Westernism in Asia: visions of world order in pan-Islamic and pan-Asian thought, New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.

[4] Rebecca Karl, Staging the world: Chinese nationalism at the turn of the twentieth century, Durham,NC: Duke University Press, 2002; James Belich, Replenishing the earth: the settler revolution and the rise of the Angloworld, 1783–1939, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009; and Sebastian Conrad, Globalisation and the nation in imperial Germany, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010, provide fascinating case studies of the emergence of national consciousness (and nationalism) as the result of global connections. Similarly, scholars have emphasized the importance of transnational and trans-imperial connections in the history of anti-imperial nationalism, see, for example, Jonathan Schneer, ‘Anti-imperial London: the pan-African conference of 1900’, in Felix Driver, ed., Imperial cities: landscape, display and identity, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999, pp. 254–67; Benedict Anderson, Under three flags: anarchism and the anti-colonial imagination, London: Verso, 2005; Erez Manela, The Wilsonian moment: self-determination and the international origins of anticolonial nationalism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007; Sugata Bose, A hundred horizons: the Indian ocean in the age of global empire, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009; Leslie James, George Padmore and decolonization from below, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015; and Michael Goebel, Anti-colonial metropolis: interwar Paris and the seeds of Third World nationalism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Matthias Middell and Katja Naumann, ‘Global history and the spatial turn: from the impact of area studies to the study of critical junctures of globalization’, Journal of Global History, 5, 1, 2010, pp. 149–70, discuss the phenomenon in more general terms.

[5] Richard Drayton, ‘Of empire and political economy’, in Sophus Reinert and Pernille Røge, eds., The political economy of empire in the early modern world, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, pp. vii–xi; Pierre Vilar, A history of gold and money, 1450–1920, New York: Verso, 1991; and Marjorie Grice-Hutchinson, Early economic thought in Spain, 1177–1740, London: Allen and Unwin, 1978.

Main image: Drawings of Foreigners at Hirado, portraits of foreign merchants in Japan in the 17th century


  1. I read this exchange about the state of global history with some interest and bemusement. Having been a collaborator with the late Bruce Mazlish, one of the first historians to use the term, I was surprised to see no mention of the seminal work done by him and others since the early 1990s to define this field and give it a place in curricula, libraries, and public debate.(1)

    I was also surprised, knowing all that the Journal of Global History has accomplished during the past two decades, to detect so much confusion over the term itself and its conflation (however half-hearted) with world history, universal history, comparative history, imperial history, postcolonial history, subaltern history, transnational history, and the history of globalization.

    Global history, in Mazlish’s view, at least, rests primarily upon a shift in human consciousness, and, therefore, globality. Although he encouraged the study of antecedents and parallels before and after the emergence of nation-states, he preferred to speak of a “new global history” and considered it to be coterminous only with contemporary history. I suspect some of your authors would dispute that periodization but I would nevertheless urge your readers to revisit the history of the term, and to read up on the historical literature on global studies in other disciplines, before voicing certainty over a future, or the lack of a future, for global history.

    (1) See, for example, Conceptualizing Global History ed. with Ralph Buultjens (Westview, 1993); “Comparing Global History to World History,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 28, 3 (1998); ed. with Akira Iriye (Routledge, 2005); “Terms,” in Palgrave Advances in World Histories, Marnie Hughes-Warrington, ed. (2005); Civilization and its Contents (Stanford UP, 2005); Leviathans: Multinational Corporations and the New Global History ed. with Alfred D. Chandler, Jr. (Cambridge UP, 2005); The New Global History (Routledge, 2006); The Idea of Humanity in a Global Era (Palgrave, 2009); Reflections on the Modern and the Global (Transaction, 2014); Globalization and Transformation (Transaction, 2015).

  2. ‘Beyond Scale’: A JGH blog comment on the Adelman/Drayton/Motadel exchange

    Polemics sharpen questions. Jeremy Adelman’s text in Aeon, and Richard Drayton’s and David Motadel’s article in the Journal of Global History, both of which can be read as polemics, certainly do. This is not only, or so much, for what they focus on and disagree over. It’s because their concluding paragraphs point to similar research horizons. Adelman asks how we can cover separation ‘as we do connection.’ Drayton and Motadel state that ‘global history does not evade the specificity and strangeness of disconnected historical experience.’ And as the former encourages ‘multi- and trans-scalar histories’ in his reply to Drayton and Motadel, and the latter affirm ‘the interdependence of the scales of space,’ both invoke, though do not cite, Jacques Revel’s jeux d’echelles. This issue is not quite new, to be sure. Back in 1991 Giovanni Levi, in ‘On Microhistory,’ noted that ‘the apparently minutest action of, say, somebody going to buy a loaf of bread, actually encompasses the far wider system of the whole world’s grain market.’ Still, the issue continues to stubbornly stare historians in the face.

    Let’s stare back. Here are two, among many, complementary options. One is to stop thinking in terms of scales. It does more harm than good. Even when clearly knowing better, we historians ourselves all too easily slide back into confounding scales with spaces, i.e. materializing them as spaces. Thus, Drayton and Motadel talk of the ‘interdependence of the scales of space – village, province, nation, region, and world.’ What’s more, the people we study themselves rarely divide their life and days into scales. And even structures and institutions that seem uni-scalar – a national parliament, say – are in fact indissolubly intertwined with presumably differing scales, local, global, or else.

    Yes, a scale can be defined as a perspective, a point recently re-affirmed by Sebastian Conrad in What is global history? (2016 [German: 2013]). But Conrad also authored Globalisation and nation in imperial Germany (2010 [German: 2006]), where he demonstrated that these two processes were deeply intertwined, so much so that, also as perspectives, they arguably blend.

    What alternatives to scales are there? A useful starting point is Levi’s statement that ‘historians do not study villages – they study in villages,’ or elsewhere, for that matter. And what does a historian study? A particular historical problem, whether she spells it out or ‘just’ tells a story. We could be more explicit in selecting and describing spaces where ‘our’ problem unfolded. And the conceptually inclined among us could reflect on how such ‘problem spaces,’ as we may call them, work. Here, we could learn much from geographers about spatial forms, flexibilities, and rigidities.

    A second option is to make space the very object of one’s study. How are spaces structured, intertwined, experienced? My The Middle East and the making of the modern world (2017) is an exercise of this sort, and deploys the concept of transpatialization. The socio-spatial making of the modern world, I argue, cannot be fully grasped by studying globalization or state formation or urbanization. Certainly, the world’s accelerated interdependence, states’ unprecedented ability to penetrate their territory, and record urban growth, have all been instrumental in creating the modern world, distinguishing it from pre-modern times. But no single one of these developments has been clearly dominant. Hence, neither has any single one been the distinguishing feature of the socio-spatial making of the modern world. This is the case not the least because these developments were inherently interlaced. It is indeed this fact – that cities, regions, states, and global circuits reconstituted and transformed each other much more thoroughly and at a much faster rhythm than at any other point in history – that is the primary distinguishing feature of the socio-spatial making of the modern world. This is what I call transpatialization. It is not one single process. (Neither are globalization, state formation, and urbanization, for that matter.) Rather, it denotes a set of processes: of socio-spatial intertwinements. Put differently, transpatialization is not an empirical unit. It is a heuristic umbrella. Its use, by historians, makes sense because the processes that it bundles together unfolded in tandem, and because it does not assign artificial primacy to any one, presumably unitary, process, or to any one seemingly distinct scale like ‘the global’ or ‘the urban.’

    To sum up, Adelman’s and Drayton and Motadel’s exchange is not all dispute. As important is their consensus that historians face scalar and spatial challenges. We have no silver bullet. But there are ways forward. These include dropping scale, and adopting more carefully conceptualized notions of space, and turning space into a subject matter of historical research.

    Cyrus Schayegh is Professor of International History at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva.

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