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Whose "World History?"

Trevor R. Getz


     What happens when the subject of history wants to become a historian? This is the question that underlies this forum, and it is a question that I would like to locate in two very brief narratives of recent episodes in which the divide between historian and subject became blurred. These episodes are to be found within the development of my own field—African history—but they have relevance here today

     The first episode has to do with the development of interdisciplinary methods and themes within the study of the African past. The disciplinary fathers of History, including Hegel, excluded Africa from the world of history, placing it instead in the world of "unhistorical, undeveloped spirit".1 However, this view was challenged in the twentieth century by African and African-American scholars such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Leo Hansberry and, following WWII, African History gradually found a place within the academy. The first generation of academic Africanists focused first on proving that Africa had a "History", and as such tended to focus on written documents, grand monuments, and themes familiar to most of their peers in US and European history departments. Over time, however, they began to worry about the fact that the histories they were writing bore no relationship to those recounted and remembered by Africans themselves. They became concerned that their interpretations, while possibly "accurate" in a broad sense, were neither relevant to Africans nor captured the meanings of the past to Africans. In the wake of decolonization, a number of African scholars especially began to press the issue of understanding how Africans themselves were aware of their pasts. It was in large part this issue that led historians of Africa to pioneer studies utilizing oral traditions, historical linguistics, and other non-traditional sources which have vastly enriched the study of the African past and that have had great relevance for other regions as well.2

     The second episode is located in the changing roles of South African historians in the struggle against formal apartheid and its legacies over the last few decades. The profession of history had, for much of the twentieth century, been dominated in turn by English-language British imperial histories and Afrikaans-language volksgeskiedenis which intellectually propped up decades of white rule.3 However, first liberal and later radical/Marxist scholars challenged this alliance from the mid-20th century, not least through the development of a school of social history that eventually aimed to retell the history of the country "from below" through the lives and experiences of ordinary people. This group of scholars organized a series of workshops at the University of the Witswatersrand from 1977 on that was influential in the intellectual circles of the anti-apartheid movement.4 But as apartheid ended, the transformation of South African society and government raised questions as to whether these historians were empowering the "everyday" person or merely capturing their "folk" histories. Egged on in part by their own negative experiences with history in the classroom setting, ministers of the new ANC administration in turns tried to ignore history and to replace it with an alternate construction of national "heritage". The historians in response both fought back and sought to accommodate the new reality, partly by consciously discussing the need to adapt the histories they told to the needs of a largely illiterate but historically aware African population. To do so, they had to tackle issues like the relationships between power and knowledge in the production of history, the meanings of historical consciousness, and the place of History alongside heritage, tradition, nostalgia, and memory.5

     These two stories have in common narrative strands that begin with the emergence of a group of fairly leftist historians who undertook a revisionist process meant to undermine elitist, exclusive histories. In both cases, these scholars came in turn to be critiqued by a subsequent generation of scholars and activists—many of whom emerged from classes that had previously been excluded from the profession, and who thus raised questions about the methods and philosophies of the profession itself. This meta-narrative is hardly unique to African history. It can be found in the rise of the sub-altern school in South Asia and Latin America, in the emergence of gender studies, and in other situations in which the subject of historical studies asserted their position as historians, and began to dispute the claims of the historical guild to represent them in the arena of history.

     Is a similar process happening to the World History Association? As an historian, I recognize that the context of world history today is unique. This is not the era of decolonization, we are not in a South Africa on the verge of political transformation, and our conference is not a site of theoretical discourse on subaltern studies. Nevertheless, we are perhaps approaching a similar moment in the development of our field as Africanists and South African historians have before, and we must have a similar discussion about what it all means. As Gilbert Allardyce has somewhat effectively demonstrated, the World History Association largely emerged from the liberal intellectualism and expanded worldviews of US-based and to some degree European historians in the post-WWII era.6 These scholars consciously strove to expand the scope of history to include far more than just the world Hegel saw as "historical". Nevertheless, to some critics this body remained exclusionary rather than inclusive, and representative only of an elite, North American academy.7 Yet a number of world historians have gone out of their way to open discussions with their peers—professionally trained historians—from and around the world. The creation by the WHA alongside Asian, African, and European global history organizations of the Network of Global and World History Organizations (NOGWHISTO) as an affiliate of the International Committee of Historical Sciences (CISH), is one indication of this.8

     The purpose of this forum is to promote public conversation about these processes in the World History Association especially, with an awareness that this is merely one forum of many for such discussions. This is the reason that I invited three scholars whom I admire and who have engaged these issues to join me in this forum.

     I hope to frame our discussion partly by following Michel-Rolph Trouillot's assertion that the production of history is inevitably not merely a process of "construction", but also one of "silencing". Trouillot, who writes that the process of constructing histories involves creating silences in four stages:

  • Silencing in the making of the sources – not everything and not every perspective gets recorded.

  • Silencing in the creation of archives – not all records get preserved.

  • Silencing in the narration of history – historians pick and choose which sources to write about.

  • Silencing in the creation of the "corpus" – not all narratives about the past are equally accepted as being scholarly, as being authoritative, or as being "authentic".9

     Trouillot argues that this creation of silences occurs in a context of relationships of power. In other words, certain groups and individuals in both the past and the present have more power to decide what "history" gets written, preserved, recorded, and reproduced than others.

     What lessons we can learn by applying Trouillot's theories to the processes by which world history is constructed in this global age? How can can we apply this theory constructively? I want to suggest three main issues for discussion.

     First, given the current global political and economic climate and the disparities of wealth and power within the discipline of history, who has power in the creation of world history today and who should have it in the future? Teachers and scholars from outside of the US are currently underrepresented in discussions in many of the public forums we here use most: the WHA, H-World, World History Connected, world history textbooks, and to a lesser degree the Journal of World History. In some areas, organizations analogous to the WHA are forming. Unlike the WHA, each of these makes clear the area from which it draws its membership—the European Network in World and Global History, for example, and the Asian Association of World Historians. A forum for our organizations to talk to each other has also emerged in the NOGWHISTO.

     What comes next for North American world history scholars and teachers? Is the WHA going to become provincialized as the North American World History Organization, merely one among many equal member-organizations of NOGWHISTO?10 Even if that happens, given the size of our textbook market and our longer-established institutional structures, are we likely to absorb our colleagues into our approaches and structures anyway? Will we recognize that we might need to reshape ourselves as well? If we do, how far are we willing to go? Will we accept that English should no longer be the sole language in which we write and speak in our journals and at our conferences? Will we actively seek to redress the inequalities of funding by committing money to scholars who lack it? Will these non-US scholars be enabled to critique our research priorities and our teaching styles and to help reset the agenda: to redefine world history? Finally, will we as a global community continue to pursue a single, (if ecumenical) world history "for us all", or will we instead fracture into many different "world histories" without setting rules or frameworks for what "counts"? Both pathways hold potential pitfalls.

     Beyond this question, we must ask "who is an historian". So far, the other NOGWHISTO affiliates are mainly, like us, formally-trained academic historians. Yet in many parts of the world community and personal histories are maintained through other types of "knowers of history"—bards, praise-singers, griots, grandparents, and the like. Do we only include in our membership formally-trained teachers and institutional historians, or also community-based oral historians, political activists, and memorialists? Are the works they produce to be seen by us as "sources", or also "histories" in their own right? And what might world history look like if it did recognize these history-knowers? Would it become richer, or merely incoherent?

     A second related question: given the fact that archives of the recent past, at least, disproportionately record the views of white, middle-class Europeans, how can world historians overcome the historical silencing of narratives and perspectives of other groups and individuals? Over the past few decades, Africanists have debated how one can read oral traditions, linguistics, archaeological artifacts, and even human remains as "texts" that reveal the voices, perspectives, and experiences of past human societies and individuals. Alongside these new sources, many historians have over the last few decades adapted techniques learned from the humanities and from anthropology to read older sources "against the grain". In both cases, these strategies aim partly to "hear" voices of those who are seldom authors of the historical documents that make their way into the archive—the poor, the young or very aged, women, colonial subjects, and others. Such methodologies are sometimes labeled "cultural history", "postcolonial", or "literary studies" and have only slowly come to be used in world history. In time, and with the integration of scholars from abroad into the world history association, they might become more common. Yet they raise philosophical as well as methodological questions about what "history" is and how we can carry out our critical as well as celebratory roles as historians.

     This leads me to a final question: is it possible within the disciplinary frameworks of "History" to write and teach world histories that better serve the needs of groups other than the wealthy and privileged, both past and present, and if so what are the steps towards doing so?

     This question comes to the fore in the classroom setting as well as in "field" or archival research. In the classroom—whether K-12 or university—the instructor has the voice of authority. This gives their version of world history an assertive legitimacy. Yet students come to class with histories of their own, many of which are global. This is especially true in an era of migration and multiculturalism (or multiple heritages). To paraphrase Stuart Hall, students already have "routes" as well as "roots", and these often discussed in the family and the community. Sometimes, these are expressed as "heritage" or "memory", but this does not make them ahistorical. Nor does it suggest that they are necessarily xenophobic, chauvinistic, or discriminatory How does our cosmopolitan project interact with students' senses of heritage?

     But also, of course, we must ask the question of our research subjects. By turning their stories into part of "world history", are we recognizing their value or claiming their historical authority for ourselves? Are the world histories we write today recognizable and useful to them, and should they be?

     While I recognize that my opinions on this subject shine through this paper, I have not proposed answers to these questions here, because that is not how I believe conversations begin. Instead, I hope to be a voice in favor of a practical and an intellectual discussion of what it means to teach and practice world history in a global age. I hope that this forum will contribute to this discussion.

Trevor R. Getz is an Associate Professor of African History at San Francisco State University. He is the author or co-author of several books including Exchanges: A Global History Reader and Modern Imperialism and Colonialism: A Global History. He is currently working on several volumes looking at the global past from African perspectives. He can be contacted at


1 This is admittedly a simplification, and I am not an expert on historiography per se. But I will quote Hegel, The Philosophy of History, "At this point we leave Africa, not to mention it again. For it is no historical part of the World. It has no movement or development to exhibit". (New York: Dover, 1956), 99.

2 For more on this process see Joseph C. Miller,, Paths Towards the Past: African Historical Essays in Honor of Jan Vansina, (Atlanta, 1994). John Edward Philips, ed., Writing African History, (Rochester: University of Rochester Press), 2006. Joseph C. Miller, "History and Africa/Africa and History", The American Historical Review, 104 (1999), 1–32.

3 See for example Albert Grundlingh, "Politics, Principles and Problems of a Profession: Afrikaner Historians and their Discipline, c.1920–c.1965", Perspectives in Education, 1990 (12) 1–19; and Benedikt Stuchtey, "In Search of Lost Identity: South Africa between great Trek and Colonial Nationalism, 1830–1920", in Eckhardt Fuchs and Benedikt Stuchtey, editors, .Across Cultural Borders: Historiography in Global Perspective, (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002), 53–74; and Christopher Saunders, The Making of the South African Past: Major Historians on Race and Class, (Cape Town: David Philip, 1988).

4 Philip Bonner, "New Nation, New History: The History Workshop in South Africa, 1977–1994", the Journal of American History, 81 (1994), 977–985.

5 For an important critique of historians in this process see Premesh Lalu, "When was South African history ever postcolonial?", paper prepared for the Center for Humanities Studies, University of the Western Cape.

6 Gilbert Allardyce, "Toward World History: American Historians and the Coming of the World History Course", Journal of World History, 1, (1990), 23–76.

7 Including Joseph C. Miller, Arif Dirlik, Vinay Lal, Ashis Nandy, and Roxann Prazniak.

8 NOGWHISTO ( includes as its member networks the WHA, the European Network in Universal and Global History, and the Asian Association of World Historians. The African Network in Global History/Réseau africain d'histoire mondiale) is not yet a full member. There is also a Latin American and Caribbean organization currently in the process of formation.

9 Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, (Boston: Beacon, 1997).

10 Whether or not the WHA is claiming special status, its name can be construed to imply either a universal or a superior status.


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