R. Wenzelhuemer: Doing Global History

Doing Global History. An Introduction in 6 Concepts

Wenzelhuemer, Roland
New York 2019: Bloomsbury
Anzahl Seiten
216 S.
$ 29,95
Rezensiert für Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists von
Ana Moledo, Universität Leipzig

Among historians, global history has sparked a number of debates about its potential, broader contributions, and specific approaches. Non-historians, on the other side, look at the field with a more curious eye and high expectations. Roland Wenzlhuemer’s Doing Global History addresses both those who tend to underestimate it and those who overestimate it. By combining a conceptual approach with detailed empirical case studies, the author shows where the strengths of global history, as an interpretative framework, lie and how these can contribute to attuning historical research to the global condition.[1] The book – which is the English edition of Globalgeschichte schreiben, published in Germany in 2017 – is “conceived [of] as an introduction to research practice” (p. 6); accordingly, the author warns it should not be taken as an introduction to the field in the strict sense but rather as a guide regarding conceptual instruments together with some hints about their operationalization.

The book is divided into eight chapters. The first and the last chapters bring together various reflections on the debates that have shaped the field and its institutionalization, while the six core chapters dive into specific terms: connections, space, time, actors, structures, and transit, respectively. The clarity of the structure is commendable and makes it easy to jump directly to a particular chapter depending on the reader’s interest. Neither the six concepts nor the repertoire of case studies that demonstrate the analytical applicability of these terms in the field of global history represent a novelty. The real contribution of this book is its presentation of a sort of uncomplicated roadmap of how to write global history by (re)using tools from neighbouring disciplines in the humanities and social sciences.

Connections, or rather global connections, act as the axis on which the whole narrative revolves. Considered the “basic unit of observation in global history” (p. 20) and “the most fruitful way to engage with global history” (p. 175), the author argues in the second chapter that “they have to be taken seriously as historical phenomena in their own right” (p. 21). Although it is quite clear from the story of the Great Moon Hoax how connections and disconnections played a major role in what was probably one of the first global fake news stories, these alone would not have led to such an event were it not for the actors who intentionally or unintentionally benefitted from the dialectic around connectivity. It is indeed following the traces left by actors, as well as their trajectories and biographies, that we are able to visualize how far the connections reach and where they rupture. This is only an example of the relational character of the six conceptual takes or categories that structure the book.

How to study global flows and control or disruptions is one of the main challenges for global historians. Over the last decades, progress has been made in developing a research agenda with a stronger focus on space and spatial dynamics as ways to render the at times intangible phenomena of global (dis)connections traceable.[2] The contributions from transregional and area studies to the field of global history have shown that the world is neither flat nor a single village, but rather that multiple spatialities have been deeply interrelated and reshaped in various ways and at various levels due to their exposure to global connections.[3] The third chapter of the book builds on this argument and invites the reader to look through a spatial lens at the history of telegraphy, so that initial ideas of the annihilation of space are thoroughly challenged as the author zooms in and elaborates upon how in remote Pacific islands the integration into a global communication space was intimately linked to geographically isolated spaces. This as well as other cases studies in the book bring the reader to the conclusion that identifying and analysing the manifold manifestations of the dialectics of globalization (i.e. connections and disconnections, flows and control, and timeless and time-dependent) are central exercises for doing global history.

Communication and transportation technologies are basic elements of the diverse case studies included in the book. The expansion of telegraphy illustrates how globalizing processes went hand in hand with transformations in spatial relationships (chapter 3) and temporal structures (chapter 4). Railway infrastructures, such as the Mont Cenis passage (chapter 6), bring to light the agency of “structural entanglements” (p. 138) within “the mechanics of global networking” (p. 140), and ship crossings (chapter 7) are shown as “vivid examples of connections functioning as mediators” (p. 148). It is undeniable that these technologies lie at the heart of global networks of connection, and, thus, looking closer at how these unfolded enables us to understand global interdependences and (dis)connections. But the implementation of these technologies also reveals social and cultural imbalances, asymmetric power relations, and issues of resistance and contestation – all of which are crucial to understanding the relationship between the global and the local. Unfortunately, these aspects have received little attention in the case studies.

All in all, Wenzlhuemer succeeds in providing a concise, well-explained, and entertaining overview of the main analytical tools one needs to do global history. The book is undoubtedly an excellent companion for any undergraduate or graduate student entering the field, but it is also recommended reading for scholars seeking to better understand what lies behind the global history label. If we have learned anything in recent years from the constraints that the pandemic has put in the way of our research, it is that collaboration between academics across geographical settings and disciplines is the best way to ensure that the praxis of global history remains really global. Collaborative endeavours are impossible without a minimal understanding of the perspectives, approaches, methods, and expectations. In this regard, Doing Global History is an important contribution to ensuring the future of the field.

[1] Charles Bright / Martin Geyer, Benchmarks of Globalization. The global condition, 1850-2010”, in: David Northrop (ed.), A Companion to World History, Chichester 2012, pp. 285–302.
[2] Matthias Middell / Katja Naumann, Global History and the Spatial Turn. From the Impact of Area Studies to the Study of Critical Junctures of Globalisation, in: Journal of Global History 5 (2010) 1, pp. 149–170. More detailed studies on the relationship between spatial and global dynamics can be found among the research outputs of the Collaborative Research Centre (SFB) 1199: https://www.degruyter.com/serial/diglo-b/html#volumes
[3] Matthias Middell, The Routledge Handbook of Transregional studies, Abingdon 2018.

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