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World History Terminology: A Key to Learning and Teaching in the Field

Thomas Mounkhall


     All academic disciplines have their own specific nomenclature often misunderstood by outsiders.   Often this can lead to confusion, such as that encountered by a non-lawyer trying to read a legal brief. World History is no exception; it certainly has its own content specific vocabulary. It seems logical, therefore, that a decent familiarity with the lexicon of the field is an essential aspect of learning and teaching the subject.  In addressing this issue, one can do no better than reference the thoughts of William H. McNeill. In an article in the World History Bulletin written in 1983, McNeill argued that language, with its capacity to generalize and order experience, provides a system of terms that historians can employ to see past human behavior in meaningful patterns. McNeill knew then, he was writing early in the evolution of the World History movement and was not sure if the contemporary set of concepts was adequate to the task of understanding the scope of the human narrative. He looked forward to the development of new expressions that would do a better job.1 This essay, which concentrates on a thematic approach to the World History terminology rather than a data-based one, contends that twenty-six years after McNeill’s seminal contribution, his faith in the development of more efficient World History terminology has been justified.

     However, a quick review of the literature of the discipline reveals very little explication of, and/or emphasis on the content specific vocabulary of the field in itself. A search of major journals in World History reveals not one article focused on the nomenclature of the subject area as an essential tool for teachers and students.2 Discipline specific terms are referenced many times in the literature. However, they almost always are employed as a vehicle for other important learning rather than as an end in themselves. Addressing this omission is the essential purpose of this essay.  It will also offer teachers specific suggestions concerning the use of World History content specific vocabulary in the teaching and learning process. It is hoped that this article will begin a conversation among all interested professionals in the discipline. Researchers, college professors and secondary school teachers all need to share their thoughts about the topic of a basic thematic vocabulary for the field and its relevance to the entire intellectual enterprise.  The terms that follow have been italicized for identification purposes as an aid to that conversation.

     Since World History cannot efficiently be a list of all past human events, historians must bring a certain cognitive method to the data for the sake of cohesion. These overarching ideas are given different names but they serve one purpose, that is to give some meaningful structure to the human story.  Readers will come across the synonymous terms master narrative and meta-narrative, both of which relate to the essential account being related about World History. An organizing principle is another phrase used in a similar context. All three of these ideas serve as fine guides to the process of inclusion and exclusion of information from certain histories.

     There are many meta-narratives available to world historians. However, the one most subscribed to by practitioners in the area of specialization is the master narrative of cross-regional connections as an important change agent in past human affairs. Cross-cultural processes that have linked the world’s peoples over long distances is another phrase that indicates the same phenomenon. Furthermore, students in the field will encounter the phrase integration of cross-regional contacts, which indicates that many of  the linking dynamics in the human story occur in complementary fashion. The final important phrase in this category is the nexus of cross-regional and internal dynamics, which works against the tendency of World History to become too global in nature. The focus on indigenous factors serves to balance the privileged emphasis on cross-cultural connections.

     Significantly, for some World History professionals, the terms cross-regional and transnational are utilized synonymously. To apply the term transnational to any event prior to the early to mid sixteenth century would  be a-historical since very few if any nation-states existed prior to that period. In the Ancient and Post Classic literature, one finds such mental constructs  as cross-cultural, trans-empire and cosmopolitan, all of which are employed to connote some example of linkage of people from different geographic areas of the world.

     As we move into Modern World History of the past 500 years, important contacts among the world’s people are usually referred to transnational and international encounters. There is also a set of world historians, who see post-Industrial Revolution events as being essentially different from any prior long distance human contacts. These scholars use the word global to indicate the fundamental change they see in the past two hundred years.

     Although much of contemporary World History falls into the revisionist category, many of the specialists in this branch of learning still concentrate on that most traditional aspect of history, namely political history. However, this political account is no longer the story of significant battles and important men. Political events are placed in global context as the attention has shifted from internal affairs to cross-regional/transnational connections.

     World History political themes, as presently understood, fall into four groups. The first of these deals with processes that are related to a powerful entity increasing its influence in the world. Exploration, imperialism and colonialism are all utilized to describe this behavior. The flip side of this phenomenon, which sees an occupied people gain their independence, is usually described as self determination.

     The modern construct of countries working together for a common good is normally referred to as international organization. Laws that theoretically bind all countries are classified as international law and the notion that individuals have a global political identity as well as a national identity is usually named as global citizen status.

     Organized violence between and among the world’s peoples is often described as cross-regional war or transnational war depending on the time period being considered. The use of violence and/or threat of the same against civilians for political gain, which has developed exponentially during the last two centuries, is termed terrorism. Attempts at avoidance of global conflict or the resolution of the same are still referred to with their traditional names of diplomacy, alliances and peace treaties.

     By far, the aspect of economics that world historians privilege pertains to the exchange of goods among global regions. Long distance trade is therefore the dominant concept. The distinction between mercantilism and free trade policies also receives due attention. A unique example of cross-regional economic behavior is the concept of trade diasporas, which is the process through which merchants from one global region take up long term residence in one of their important foreign markets.

     As the World History chronicle focuses on the past two hundred years, economic links of global nature take precedence. The theme of interdependence informs much Modern World Economic History. Beginning with the Dutch East India Company in the seventeenth century through Toyota in the early twenty-first century, world historians are quite concerned with the concepts of global marketplace and multinational corporations. With the advent of commercial airline flight, global tourism has become a unit of interest in the discipline.

     Obviously, many of these themes overlap the artificial groupings that I have applied so far. Tributary empires and nationalization of resources are certainly economic in nature. However, their relationship to global political behavior is also quite evident.

     The spread of ideas is given much attention by world historians. Cultural diffusion, missionary work and conversion are all terms that inform this component of the subject area. In fact, one could argue that this unit of analysis is fundamental to the subject in that it is the number one change agent identified by William H. McNeill in his seminal work of the 1960’s, The Rise of the West.

     The logical extension of an emphasis on the movement of ideas is the reaction of people to whom the new thoughts are passed. Cultural synthesis and syncretism are synonymous in their meaning related to the mixture of novel ideas from without mixing with internal thinking. Outright cultural rejection of non-indigenous thinking receives much less concentration by world historians than acceptance and/or partial acceptance.

     Global historians, emphasizing a macro-change in the human narrative during the industrial age, privilege terms that focus on the mass movement of ideas. Abstractions such as cosmopolitanism, global culture and global communication receive much usage in this context.

     Since World History is revisionist at its core, many practitioners challenge the notion of westernization as the main example of cultural diffusion in the master narrative. Southernization, indicating important ideas emanating from India and Easternization, referring to important thinking originating in East Asia, are two excellent examples of this phenomenon.

     Finally, we need to pay attention to the notion of cultural superiority, which is given ample consideration by experts in the area of specialization. Cultural imperialism and ethnocentrism are synonyms that describe this attitude and which provide many avenues for research in this branch of learning.

     As a partial response to the environmental movement of the 1960’s, world historians give much attention to the biological contacts in the human story. The important development of the movement of groups of people is addressed through such concepts as migration, forced migration and pilgrimage. Human behavior, however, is not the only biological unit of analysis focused on by professionals in the area of specialization. The significant movement of non-human living organisms is focused on through such mental constructs as flora diffusion, fauna diffusion, disease diffusion and insect diffusion.

     Another definite response of World History to the environmental movement of the second half of the twentieth century is the emphasis placed on the origins of contemporary global issues that relate to the natural world. Global pollution and its relationship to global warming often take precedence over other similar topics. Economic sustainability and the image of the blue planet are two more terms that frequently appear in this aspect of the World History discourse.

     Much of the important lexicon of this branch of learning relates to its revisionist nature. The canon of World History for most of the twentieth century has emphasized Western European History writ large on the globe. World historians challenge this tradition of eurocentrism by attempting to broaden this limited area of attention by pursuing a polycentric  approach, which holds that people in all of the major regions of the globe have been major players in the human chronicle. A related abstract idea is the notion of great civilizations, which has been a core element of eurocentrism in the past century. By studying people without a history, world historians are including non-literate cultures in the survey.

     Since the mid-nineteenth century c.e.., historians have privileged the internal histories of nation-states and local regions. World historians are attempting to complement this necessary concentration by placing internal histories in global context. One of the consequences of focusing on internal histories is the increasing professional trend toward local specificity and depth in our field. This essential and welcome aspect of historical research is only enhanced by the world historian’s placing of research done in limited scope in a much broader context.

     World historians have adopted two more innovative aspects of the discipline. Since the 1960’s, most scholars in the subject area have been willing to use the contributions of other social and physical sciences such as anthropology, archaeology and geology. They have also welcomed novel names regarding periodization. The canonical bc.-ad. tradition has been largely replaced by the b.c.e-c.e. system. In fact, b.p., which represents time before the present, is widely employed in Big History research.

     The temporal organization of the human narrative is an ongoing point of emphasis for world historians. A periodization system that breaks up World History into manageable time periods is central to all endeavors in the subject area. Change, which is privileged in World History, as it is in most histories is marked by verticals on a timeline. Continuity receives much less concentration from specialists in the field, even though its presence is continually symbolized by the relatively long horizontal sections on a timeline.

     World historians are also quite interested in the notion of macro-change. These fundamental alterations in the human past are normally  symbolized by verticals on a timeline. The Agricultural Revolution of .c 8000 b.c.e., the Columbian Exchange of c. 1600 c.e., the Rise of the West of c. 1700 c.e. on and the Industrial Revolution of c. 1850 c.e. would be on the lists of significant macro-changes held by most World History experts.

     The Ancient Greek historians set many of the parameters of contemporary history in the West. Their emphasis on time and place is still very influential today. Consequently, geography plays a big part in World History endeavors. Geographical structures that traditionally have been portrayed as barriers to human contact are now being perceived as facilitators of human connection over long distances. Ocean basins, ocean littorals, steppe lands and deserts all fit this description. One final theme that relates to this group of concepts is the notion of  borderlands, which contains in its very name the essence of cross-cultural linkage.

     A very interesting and important geographical feature of current world history scholarship is the concept of metageography. This approach holds that all of us have been conditioned by the maps we have been exposed to and therefore see the world in a certain manner. If our  formative map study has been eurocentric, for example, our mental map of the world may have difficulty appreciating an important World History development that was not linked to Western Europe at all. Consequently, many world historians are utilizing maps that challenge any pre-conceived orientation, Eurocentric or otherwise.

     World History is also greatly influenced by theoretical thought. One area in which this trend is obvious is the concentration on determinism in the human story. Our subject, like many of its sibling sub-fields in history, has inherited the long standing tradition of a prime mover in the human story.

Most contemporary world historians have dropped the Judaeo-Christian orientation of teleology, but the notion lives on in secular determinist garb. Geographic determinists and Marxists both advocate an historical perspective that doesn’t allow for much chance in World History.

     World historians currently advocate two corrections to the determinist tradition in the discipline. Human agency is employed as a strong counterbalance to most depictions of certain directionality in the human chronicle. This component of the subject receives much attention in the sub-field of Rise of the West Studies, in which the decision making of people influenced by Western European expansion is privileged.

Many West African tribal leaders manipulated the Portuguese mariners of  the early sixteenth century c.e. for their own purposes.  Contingency or unplanned elements in human narrative endeavors also acts as an effective balance against an overemphasis on historical determinism. Luck, both positive and negative, has its important role to play in world history. Pizzaro just happened to arrive in the sixteenth century c.e. Andes during an Incan civil war that made his conquest of that great empire much easier.

     As is the case in all history, our area of specialization is not immune to the influence of  ideology. Many eurocentric World History accounts fit into this category. A related ideological design can also be seen in many narratives that focus on the history of  literate cultures as civilizations, excluding  groups of non-literate people.

     Much of the ideology in current World History is a function of the Cold War, reflecting the struggle of ideas related to that long process. Supporters of the capitalist West emphasize modernization theory, which privileges the economic development path of the United Kingdom and the United States as a model for developing economies. Critiques of the excesses of the post-Second World War West can be found in the works of world systems advocates, neo- Marxists and dependency theorists.

     Two current sub-fields of World History also contain much theory in their orientation. Writers of Big History are looking to extend the scope of this branch of learning back to the big bang creation of the universe. Historians in the Global History camp are suggesting that human experience has been fundamentally altered by the Industrial Revolution.

     An extremely important component of all history courses is the set of thinking skills that is developed in the students. In this regard, World History is no exception. Essentially, the cognitive tools to be nurtured all relate to the sophisticated processing of data rather than to the basic memorization of facts.

     Because there is so much World History data available, a fact driven approach is doomed to get lost in detail overload. Consequently, many world historians have adopted a thematic method to the narrative as an efficient method of dealing with this huge amount of historical information. A conceptual plan such as this is predicated on constructed learning theory, which holds that people learn new information most effectively when they are guided to connect it with a general idea or theme with which they are already familiar.

     In addition to a conceptual approach to the area discipline, world history students should develop other refined cognitive skills. The ability to compare/contrast two events in the human story and the ability to identify multiple causation of important events are two essential world history thinking skills. Being able to trace the relationship of events across time and place is in the same category of requisite cognitive skill growth.

    World History can be seen as a minefield filled with many controversial topics about which agreement is contested. The work of some World History professionals falls into the category of cultural absolutism or cultural universalism, which is a position supporting the notion that only one perspective on a controversial topic is worthy of respect. Other experts in the discipline are in the totally opposite camp in that they advocate the principle of cultural relativism which is the belief that all views on a controversial topic are legitimate since they reflect the values of the group espousing a specific position. Most world historians steer away from these poles and pay attention to a position of multiple perspectives that identifies the different positions held by various groups on contested issues.

     Developing an historical sense, which was History 101 in my undergraduate training, is an essential cognitive skill to be nurtured in the World History classroom. Students must be guided to realize that the past is truly a “different place” and that world historians must attempt to understand and to evaluate past human agency on its own terms not by early twenty-first century values.

     World historians must also cultivate a historical perspective on the present. This is not easily accomplished in a culture such as ours that privileges change and the future. However, understanding our contemporary life of linked human experience through the prism of its gradual development in the past is essential.

     Being familiar with the basic nomenclature of World History should make the processes of setting academic goals for a course and planning lessons much more efficient. One of the key planning tasks for all World History teachers is to separate essential data for a course or lesson from the enormous amount of available disciplinary information. If educators are conversant with the fundamental concepts of the field, they can use this information as effective guides for goal setting and lesson planning.

     The World History lexicon is also a very helpful tool in facilitating global learning in the classroom. Teachers may want their students to create a separate World History concept notebook section in which ideas are defined and new examples from lessons are connected to the already learned general terms. Educators should also be careful to include the terminology of the subject area in their lessons when appropriate. All assignments, class discussions and student questions should be phrased in the proper World History nomenclature. Posters of the essential lexicon should be posted around the classroom so that students can become comfortable in the usage of key terms.

     All assessments, no matter the type, should be described through the proper terminology of the discipline. The students’ World History thematic notebook section may be used in open book assessments and extra credit should be made available if students use the appropriate terms to respond to their world history assessments. Finally, teachers could limit and guide student research topics through the use of the appropriate disciplinary lexicon.

     At the close of this essay, I believe the point that World History has its own discipline specific terminology has been well made. However, the essential message of this article is that a conscious, heightened awareness of these essential terms will act as a very efficient guide toward learning and teaching the subject. The themes have been classified for clarity sake into basic categories but all world historians recognize the integrated nature of these concepts. The included teaching ideas are classroom tested and examples of powerful learning activities for students.  The author anticipates that this essay will begin a detailed focus on World  History nomenclature as a key tool for learning and teaching in our area of study.

Tom Mounkhall is an Adjunct Professor of Secondary Education at SUNY New Paltz where he directs a Summer World History Institute for high school teachers. He also has directed and co-directed World History teacher training workshops in Georgia, New York, Wisconsin, Hawaii and Cambodia. Tom can be reached at


1 See William H. McNeill, A Defense of World History,” World History Bulletin 1, no. 1 (Winter) 1983: 1-7. Accessible free at

2 This essay drew up a survey of articles on world history terminology in World History Connected, the Journal of World History, The History Teacher and H-World published from 1983 through 2005.


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