These days, “globalization” has become as hot a topic for historians as it was already for economists and political scientists, financiers and businessmen, and all the other strategists who operate in the “real” worlds of markets, weapons, and public policy. While the term “globalization” did not appear in Raymond Williams’ classic Keywords (1976; revised 1983), it was prominently featured in the 2005 New Keywords. The term seems ubiquitous, almost de rigueur, in article titles in “important” historical journals. In the United States, at least, what seems to have begun with a single book on “world history” published in 1963 has become an academic association and a journal, a staple of college teaching, textbook publishing, and scholarly discussion. It comes as no surprise that two of the recently elected presidents of the American Historical Association are noted advocates of the world-history approach: Kenneth Pomeranz in 2013 and Patrick Manning for 2016. Curricular planners seem convinced that “global history” is what students want, and each academic press has developed its own version of what Harvard University Press calls “A History of the World”.
There have been many “turns” and programmatic reformulations proposed by historians over the last half-century. What is the specific, defining thrust of this new global history? As a theoretical concept, globalization was used at first to refer to the increasing scope and pace of economic, demographic, and cultural transfer seen towards the end of the twentieth century. For economists, the concept opened up important debates about types of development and the relative levels of inequality generated by the flow of western technology and capital into the rest of the world. Other social scientists took up similarly sensitive issues as they investigated the political and cultural impact of various forms of “westernization”. Historians, for their part, pushed these very contemporary concerns back in time, using a global approach to reconsider the birth of modernity and the so-called “rise of the West,” the impact of the Industrial Revolution, and the broader impact of exploration, long-distance trade, and imperial expansion—pushing back what they called a “first globalization” into the early modern, and even medieval, periods. On one level, global historians were simply calling for geographic and chronological expansion of the subject-areas of research. The sub-field of “Big History”, for example, took the universe as its timeline, the planet earth as its geographic specialty, and the human race and all other living creatures as its subject. But for many other writers, adopting the new perspective was a way of questioning older Eurocentric narratives and teleologies, challenging the positive emphasis on the emergence of the nation state, and upsetting the facile equation of western imperialism with human progress. If the pointed contentiousness of globalization studies was sometimes lost in historical treatments, if definitional categories could become disconcertingly vague or redundant, that was perhaps only to be expected as scholars left behind the immediacy of contemporary concerns. Still, the situated and even overtly political context of the approach was never completely absent. As historians crossed geographic and disciplinary boundaries, what they included or excluded from their treatment reflected each individual historian’s own socio-cultural sensitivities or politicized agenda as much as any global methodology.