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Book Review


Aran MacKinnon and Elaine McClarnand MacKinnon, Places of Encounter: Time, Place and Connectivity in World History, Volumes I and II. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2012. Pp. xxx + 250 (volume I), xxx + 270 (volume II). $40.00 (paper).


     Mackinnon and Mackinnon's Places of Encounter provides wonderfully detailed case studies of twenty-nine cities ranging from Hadar to Dubai over the past three million years of human history. In a highly original structural change, the editors reverse the orthodox method of examining history—here the key component is the division by space and not solely by time. As the authors write, the book is organized around "change over time, connectivity, and the recurrence of the certain themes throughout human history" (xxiii). Overall, the two volumes provide an excellent window into important urban centers representing major imperial hubs, trading depots, centers of government and cultural capitals while demonstrating the global connections of each case study. Each city represents a specific historical era and place of encounter.

     Using this unique arrangement, the volumes raise issues regarding pedagogical techniques regarding the study of world history, now a standard class on nearly all college campuses. Rather than working on presenting the entirety of global history over this lengthy time span, the case studies under consideration allow students to properly understand the representative city and how it fits into larger global trends. Each chapter focuses on one city, with volume I showing the prehistory of humanity through the Renaissance and volume II covering from European settlement of the New World to the end of the Cold War. Each chapter begins with a personal anecdote about how the author became interested in the particular case study in a manner that students can relate to. Each highly accomplished author then details the particularities of the case study and connects it to larger global trends. The authors provide engaging descriptions of their respective cities and include two to three primary sources and additional web resources in each case study. Additionally, the editors work to highlight a number of historical subfields including labor, environment, migration, gender, and trade. This helps tie the chapters together and introduce students to the various fields of history. Overall, the chapters are fairly brief, engage with both local and global trends, and demonstrate the importance of that city in relation to both that time period and the encounter between the West and non-West.

     The chapters dealing with early world history, such as those on Hadar, Makapansgat (in South Africa) and Babylon, provide a much more approachable and focused method of discussing this era than traditional presentations. The combination of archeological perspectives with current events, personal interjections and historical overview of migration help turn what students often feel is a boring and easily overlooked subject into a more dynamic era with a clearly defined importance. Later chapters connecting London to world trade and showing the importance of Paris to the Enlightenment are well done and clearly connect local issues to world history. The chapter focusing on Kinshasa was a particular highlight, as it details how the city developed during the colonial period and the issues it faced in the immediate postcolonial era. The inclusion of cities that most students are unfamiliar with, such as Xian, Varanasi and Samarkand, might initially confuse students but it provides a more balanced, less-Eurocentric approach on alternative centers of global interaction.

     The diversity of the cities included in the case studies also needs to be commended and is one of the most compelling reasons to use these books. The cities range from the traditional to the diverse, with informative chapters on London in the seventeenth century and Paris in the eighteenth century, to modern day New York City and Dubai. The chapter on Venice during the Renaissance, while not a surprising selection, provides a high level of insight into the era, and students can walk away with a great deal of knowledge.

     However, a number of minor problems need mentioning. One issue with the books is the lack of attention given to New World cities. The chapter on Gallapoli provides a good overview of the World War One campaign in the Ottoman Empire and pushes a more global perspective of the war. However, with an overly military focus, it does not seem to fit with the other urban centers such as Algiers and St. Petersburg. At the same time, important cities such as Rome (where the interactions between different groups could easily be highlighted) and events such as the Industrial Revolution are missing, which would necessitate outside reading to cover the staples of any Western or world history class. Another issue worth addressing that complicates the use of this work is the uneven timeframe of the case studies. The chapters dealing with Mecca and Constantinople provide excellent overviews of the city and its transformation over time. However, each chapter provides an overview of 500 years of change. Likewise, the Nagasaki chapter covers the period from 1571 and 1945, which demonstrate changes in the city over time but make it difficult to assign in a traditional survey course. These chapters push the focus away from being a concrete case study and transform it into a more traditional narrative on the rise of Islam or the Ottoman Empire, which the authors were working to avoid. A final issue, again quite minor, is the inclusion of a thematic guide in the introductory pages of the text. While the case studies are excellent, more connections between the chapters and an emphasis on a smaller number of more developed themes would have strengthened the work. The authors provide a brief overview of what each chapter highlights in relation to the thirteen themes considered. While interesting and useful to see which chapters highlight environmental history, for example, I found little guarantee that the promised theme would play out in the chapter, and students might as well. The authors work to include almost too many different themes and fail to ensure that the case studies stress the theme promised in a manner that would be evident to entry level undergraduates or advanced high school students.

     Larger debates over world history need to be considered. Instructors wanting a textbook covering everything should only use this as a secondary reader. However, those wanting more concrete studies that examine larger issues will profit by reading and assigning this book. The highlighting of Western-non-Western interaction in the book and focusing on places over time are its true importance. With an affordable price, this text provides a worthy addition to the study of world history either as a stand-alone textbook or supplemental reader. Students will find the case studies highly engaging and should greatly benefit from the concrete case studies and better understand cultural interactions and the long history of globalization.

Timothy Nicholson is an assistant professor of history at SUNY Delhi. He can be reached at


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