Much talked about, the so-called ‘transnational turn’ in the humanities has concerned literature and history more than other disciplines. In both cases, the most influential moves towards internationalising critical methodologies have come from American universities. This is, at least, the way in which the transnational turn is usually described, for example in conference blurbs and presentations. The genealogy of transnational scholarship, though, is not so unilinear, and stretches farther back in time. In a series of posts in this section of our website, we will review recent contributions to these debates, summarising how historians and literary scholars, particularly beyond the US, have theorised transnational methods, subjects and objectives.

Sara Marzagora, MULOSIGE, SOAS

In a paper titled ‘Approaches to Global History and the Question of the “Civilizing Mission”’, Jürgen Osterhammel polemically notes that the current world history canon excludes historiographical traditions in languages other than English:

World history is in danger of a kind of anglophone closure, of turning into a self-referential system of Anglo-American scholarship.

Paradoxically, world history is currently studied as part of national academic traditions that remain isolated from each other. World historians writing in their language tend not to read the works of their colleagues based abroad. In order for transnational history to be transnational not only in its object of study, but also as a collective disciplinary endeavour, different scholarly traditions of doing world history have to be integrated with each other.

This implies reflecting on what Osterhammel calls different ‘national styles’ of research. These styles are shaped not so much by local intellectual traditions, but more by country-based academic industries. The infrastructure of knowledge production changes from state to state, determining for example how and where public funding is allocated. This, in turn, could encourage or discourage certain subjects of study. In the case of Germany, for example, ‘world history used to be fairly important’ to the point, Osterhammel remarks, that the Germans can justly claim to have ‘co-invented’ world history, from Herder, Kant and the brothers Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt to Ranke, Hegel, Marx, and Ritter. After Max Weber’s death in 1920, the field fell into steep decline. Up until the 1950s, German historiography tended to be ‘narrow and ill-informed, prejudiced and dogmatic’. Even later, ‘German contributions to world history did not retain Weber’s level of sophistication’.

In the last years, historians have forcefully antagonised the Eurocentric prejudice of earlier scholarship, aiming at restoring the historical agency of the non-West. Osterhammel considers this a crucial achievement. However, he is critical of those scholars like John M. Hobson who have ‘taken the argument to the extreme’, insisting that ‘almost everything which had hitherto been credited to the West was actually of Asian origin’. While firmly rejecting ideological, moral and normative forms of Eurocentrism in their supremacist and ethnocentric assumptions, Osterhammel argues that world history cannot avoid accounting for the significance of Western Europe on the global scene in the modern era. Just like it would be ‘foolish’ to exclude China, Japan or Muslim societies from a world history of the medieval period, in the nineteenth century some European societies ‘were in the vanguard of creating global networks’. These networks had to do with ‘communication and migration, commercial exchange and cultural transfer’, as well as wars, violence, plundering and human trafficking.

Today, Osterhammel continues, few German historians have taken steps towards world history, let alone towards the sub-discipline of global history. In Akita Shigeru’s definition, global history is the history ‘of the formation and development of a capitalist world-economy’. As such, it studies the relationships of causation structuring all those connections, disjunctions and interactions over long distances and across cultural boundaries that shape the world as a ‘system’. Markets and the infrastructures of transmissions are therefore a central analytical concern:

the core of global history ought to be economic history.

Marginalised by the culturalist paradigm that have become hegemonic in the German study of history, economic history is rapidly disappearing from German universities. Other disciplines that, in other countries, have provided a springboard for world history, are similarly unpopular in German academia: imperial history was for decades seen as a project of the right, aiming at rehabilitating Germany after the two world wars. Marxism was discredited in Germany by being imposed on historians as official state doctrine in the DDR. As for African, Asian and Middle Eastern studies, whose practitioners have contributed to global history elsewhere, Osterhammel puts it bluntly:

German Europeanists care little for non-Western history, whereas experts on Asia or Africa often do not know enough about Europe.

As weighty contributions in the field of global history, Osterhammel cites only Western Anglophone authors: Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence, Peter Cain and Anthony G. Hopkins’s British Imperialism 1688-1914, and C. A. Bayly’s The Birth of the Modern World 1780-1914.

Common limitation to all these works is, however, the scant attention they dedicate to the ‘realm of ideas and the arts’, and this is where Osterhammel makes a final point about the transnational turn. What are the steps to be taken towards a ‘global intellectual history’? Once again, Osterhammel insists on the importance of the infrastructures for the production, distribution and reception of cultural products. Without this context, ‘a disembodied history of pure ideas and linguistic representations’ would simply mean ‘a return to old-style idealism’. The media industry, the market, educational and artistic institutions, social movements and political decisions all form the economy of knowledge that shapes global intellectual history. In this sense, then, more than using the elusive term ‘global intellectual history’, we could pursue instead a ‘social history of mobile knowledge’, including

channels and carriers of transmission, teacher/pupil relationships, the role of the media, of universities and academies, [and] the very important question of translation.