Rethinking the Long 19th Century in World History: Assessments and Alternatives
Peter N. Stearns
This essay focuses on a world history fundamental, the consideration of time periods. World history efforts depend heavily on periodization decisions, as a means of providing manageable frameworks and highlighting change over time on something less than a decade-by-decade, or even century-by-century basis. World history periodization assumes the capacity to identify significant shifts in basic factors – like technology, or trade patterns – at points when they will affect a number of different regional societies. Decisions about these shifts, and therefore about periodization itself, are inherently complex and always open to discussion, though in fact there is considerable agreement among many practitioners about a number of transition points – such as, for example, the decline of the great classical empires and then the rise of Islam, between 200-600 CE, or the alterations in trading patterns, military technology and empire formation that began to open up in the 15th century.1
Part of the standard world history periods list, at least in common United States practice, is what historian Eric Hobsbawm has labeled the "long 19th century", running from the middle of the 18th century until World War I.2 This particular period is unusual in at least several respects – though of course every period has at least a certain number of challenges. The period is unusually short – most world history periods consume several centuries at a minimum. It is not graced by an especially clear beginning point – though some might use the Seven Years War as a partial marker. This might raise legitimate questions about how much global change was being launched at that point.
Quite obviously, furthermore, the long 19th century as a period derives from conventions initially established in European history, not world history at all. Admittedly, this is not a unique case: the same holds true for the early modern period, after 1450, and even for the postclassical centuries, after the fall of Rome and the rise of Islam, that obviously recapture elements of the Middle Ages in European historiography. But in these other cases, even though the periods derive from initial European usage, world historians have worked hard and, I would argue, reasonably successfully to overhaul the definitions of these periods well away from purely European convention. Indeed, some of the field's most striking contributions to history in general have followed from the redefinition of precisely these periods. The same effort has not been applied to the long 19th century, partly of course because it is without question a more European-dominated era – the need to redefine looms less large as a result – but also partly, as I will argue, because the time frame actually discourages the desirable reconceptualization. We're stuck, as a result, with a period that works well enough in a West European history context, framed by the French revolutionary era and the stirrings of Western industrialization, but one whose global applicability is more questionable. This article lays out the problems with the standard current frameworks, and then offers an alternative option that may better capture the key global emphases.
The contention here is that isolating the long 19th century as a distinct period in world history is inefficient and unnecessary, on the one hand, and in some sense misleading in terms of basic global dynamics. The decades involved witnessed a great deal of change – no question here – but not a decisive shift in world-historical framework that corresponds to the usual dates. Many of the changes often attributed to the long 19th century as a whole, on a global level, in fact concentrate in the second half of the span – the later decades of the 19th century – which may already suggest the desirability of recalibrating. At the least, it seems reasonable to propose that this particular expression of world history periodization be hauled out for more explicit examination than it usually receives. It does not contrast in any full or vivid sense with the period that came before – the early modern period that began to open up in the 15th century. Key early modern themes easily extend to the mid-19th century.
For the long 19th century fails, or at least passes with at most low marks, three critical tests. The first test is a simple one, indicative though not conclusive: for how many regional societies does the long 19th century period work well? (Any choice will fit some cases better than others, as with all world history periodization choices.) Western Europe must be a fit, or there's no point proceeding: seeing the first, revolutionary half of the long century as stimulus, the second half as partial consolidation worlds well in European surveys. India is a second major case, with new themes launched in the mid-18th century, around Mughal decline, British gains, and resultant curtailment in manufacturing, and then altered again by the nationalist exposure in World War I.3 But Russia and Japan, with reform movements clearly singling out the later 19th century, are misfits, and so arguably is China, which preserved a balance of payments advantage over the West until bowed by opium and interference in the 1830s-1840s.4 The United States, looming larger in world affairs after the Civil War, is another case badly served by the long 19th century, at least from a global standpoint. The concept also reflects the 18th – 19th century Western view of mounting deterioration and degeneration in the Ottoman Empire,5 which is at odds with current evaluations of historical reality in this crucial region; here too, the idea of the mid-18th century break seems forced.
The second test is even more important, and relates to the lack of a clear-cut inception in the mid-18th century. The long 19th century does not contrast in any full or vivid sense with the period that came before – the early modern period. There is debate, of course, about the appropriateness of the term early modern or the extent to which the period can be misused to assume Western Europe as model for all things – these issues are important but can be dealt with independent of a fuller assessment of the long 19th century. Here, the main point is that the key themes of what we now call the early modern period easily persist to the mid-19th century. It was in the early modern period, after all, that new trading patterns developed that included the Americas for the first time, and while these changes were well established by the later 18th century they continued to have substantial impact on most global regions. Among other things, the new food exchanges that resulted from involvement of the Americas, including use of corn and the potato by societies in Afro-Eurasia, continued to generate population growth – indeed the impact of European utilization of the potato gained force only in the 18th century itself.6 Disease exchange also continued, with the impact of outsiders in Oceania in the later 18th-early 19th centuries. It was also in the early modern period that a new surge of empire formation developed, based in part of use of gunnery (hence the term, gunpowder empires). While the list of empires fluctuated with the decline of the Mughal and Safavid realms by the 18th century, the basic phenomenon arguably persisted strongly, through not only the European overseas empires but also the Ottoman and Russian holdings.7 Even the Qing dynasty had some elements of a gunpowder empire. These persistences – granting that there are always some continuities from one world history period to the next – strongly suggest that the long 19th century concept is open to more questions than usual. The break between world history after 1750, with that from before, is not sharp: there's more carryover than one would expect even in transitional decades. If persistence muddies the definition of a long 19th century, what about the putative new themes themselves, the second pillar on which a long 19th century periodization must rest.8
Reconsideration of the long 19th century is not a simple matter, partly because it is so deeply ingrained in conventional practice. I have already had the experience of proposing a somewhat different model for an essay project, only to be told that historian-users could not recognize a framework that did not have an explicit 19th-century segment. It's also true, as we will see, that the period has some utility, beyond mere historian-habit. Chris Bayly, to take one important example, has used the long 19th century very thoughtfully in a recent global approach. But there is a crucial third test – precisely on the issue of the new themes that must be defined for any new period, where the long 19th century concept again, on balance, proves wanting.9
As European history periodization moved into a world history framework, the idea of a definable long 19th century rested on three bases. First was the rise of a new aggressive and extensive European imperialism. Second was the impact of the age of revolution, headed of course by the French rising. And third was the undeniable advent of the industrial revolution, ultimately the most important development of all. All three of these important changes can be fit into a long 19th-century periodization, but – I will argue – with varying degrees of discomfort. And at least one key development, closely related to industrialization but rarely isolated precisely because of the distraction of this particular periodization scheme, does not fit well at all.
First: the clear rise of Western interventions, and its expression in the new imperialism. There's no question that a significant power shift happened, or that it was important not just to the West but to the world at large. The long 19th century concept also brilliantly captures the beginning of the end of this phase of world history, by the terminus of World War I. While Western powers emerged from the war acting as if imperialism was confirmed, though modified slightly by acceptance of mandate status for some new territories in the Middle East, in fact the war had hastened the weakening of the West and stimulated both new rivals, notably Japan, and new urgency to nationalism in ways that set the stage for decolonization.
As a periodization vehicle, however, the coherence of the long 19th century can be challenged in the imperialist sphere. First, of course, Western power had been expanding prior to the mid-18th century.10 It might be possible to see further imperialist developments as an enhancement – not, I admit, a mere continuation – of trends already in motion. Growing control in India fits the long 19th century framework best, as it unquestionably began to advance after 1750. But this important development was then qualified by the wave of anti-colonial movements in the new world from the 1770s to 1820. In a political sense, European power was actually set back for a time. Admittedly, economic advantages persisted, except where the new United States was concerned, but the record of the long 19th century in terms of steady imperialist advance is not unblemished.
With new industrial gains and innovations in transportation and weaponry, the pace of imperial gains subsequently accelerated. But this is mainly the story of the second half of the long 19th century, not the whole span. Steam shipping, for example, became a decisive global force only from the 1840s onward. Only in the 1840s did Europe gain unprecedented advantages over China, both militarily and, thanks to opium, in terms of trade. Only in the 1850s did new Western strength decisively affect Japan and Russia. With due acknowledgement of developments in Egypt and Algeria, it was only after 1860s that the real imperialist scramble began in Africa, and also in Pacific Oceania.
As a focus for the age of imperialism, in sum, the long 19th century has some flaws, though defense is not impossible. The rise of Western global power, including colonial formation, had strong earlier antecedents; it was actually set back in some ways soon after the long 19th century opened; and the huge surge of a new imperialism – penetrating inland in Asia and Africa and involving fuller political controls over some colonial areas, like India, that had already been seized – is primarily a function of a shorter time segment – the last half of the period, and not the whole span. For Russia and Japan, certainly, decisive changes in relationships with the West do not fit the long 19th century periodization. Sub-Saharan Africa is a bit trickier, because of the difficult economic adjustments forced by the curtailment of the Atlantic slave trade, but even here a long 19th century argument is hard to mount. The conventional periodization works better for India, as we have noted; and the acceleration of European involvement in the Pacific (aside from the Philippines, where again the long 19th century is not a useful chronological frame) also fits the schema to a degree. Overall, however, the picture is a mixed one, and imperialism justifies the long 19th century less well than is normally assumed.11
One obvious subsidiary note: for some historians, confusion about this aspect of periodization centers on the growing role of Great Britain. It is obviously true that British imperial power, vis-à-vis other European competitors, gains substantially in the late 18th century and begins to yield only toward the end of the period. This is an interesting development, but far more in European history terms than in global terms.12
Issues around the impact of revolution – the second usual criterion for the period – differ from the questions attached to imperialism, but the common result is real fuzziness around the long 19th century framework. Here, of course, there is no question about the crucial importance of events in the later 18th century or their role in setting new patterns in motion. The first part of the long 19th century sees the stage set for major risings in North America and Western Europe; then the risings themselves; then the reverberations which last at least until the 1820s in the Americas and 1848-49 in Western Europe. Obviously, the basic reason for an extended 19th century periodization in European history reflects precisely these facts, with an age of revolution almost inevitably drawing attention to the need for a new period, distinct from the early modern. (Even here it is worth recalling that Europeanists used to debate whether Napoleon was early modern or modern.) There was always a bit of a problem here, in that the age of revolution ended at least as clearly as it began, which raises another set of questions about how the second half of the 19th century fits with the first: but Western developments like the gradual spread of voting rights or full installation of religious tolerance after 1850 may justify the post-revolutionary decades as genuine outgrowths of the revolutionary age itself.
The real question is: does the congruence between revolutions-plus-aftermath and the long 19th century work well for world history? There is no question that the age of revolution was an Atlantic phenomenon (with Atlantic Africa, however, largely exempt). The result was a new regional history period not only in West European, but also in Latin American, Haitian and United States history. But the trumpets of revolt sounded only dimly in most other areas. In Asia and Africa, and even in Eastern Europe, revolutionary reverberations were felt only vaguely until at least the later 19th century. Distance still precluded revolutionary contagion across such a wide expanse. Active repression, most obviously in the Russian case, held the lid on as well. And in many areas, European influence showed up as imperialist pressure, hostile to revolutionary political or social change, not as a source for developing liberal and parliamentary regimes or democracy. Full-scale commitment to revolutionary-style political change would emerge in many regions only in the 20th century, sometimes as a concomitant to anti-imperial agitation, not the long 19th. This was when republicanism and the idea of voting rights began to gain ground seriously at a global level. More modest commitment to some form of parliament did spread earlier, but outside of the Atlantic world this happened in the second half of the 19th century (Japan, Ottomans, Balkans), not through the period as a whole.
It's doubtful, in other words, whether the impact of revolution confirms the long 19th-century periodization on a world stage, beyond the Atlantic zone.
Two narrower currents, admittedly, work more successfully than the revolutionary impact overall. It's both possible and useful to trace a steady rise of nationalism, on a global basis, from its revolutionary origins in later 18th century Western Europe, to the Americas, to eastern Europe (with Poland, Hungary, Serbia and Greece affected early on), then by mid-century decades to the Middle East and North Africa, to India, to Japan and so on. Ultimately global expansion of nationalism, in other words, flows much more steadily from a late-18th-century Western origin than do most of the other revolutionary trappings. There's no single date for the global rise of nationalism, but it is an ascending phenomenon whose chronology can be embraced by the long 19th century, with an important additional chapter to come during and then in the decades after World War I. Even here, however, the full global impact of nationalism, as opposed to a largely Atlantic impact with some east-European extension, highlights the later 19th century and beyond – as the rise of Turkish or Indian nationalisms nicely illustrates.
Ongoing revolutionary impact showed also in the spread of global efforts against slavery and serfdom, again following Western origins in the later 18th century.13 As with nationalism, currents of new humanitarianism can be identified from the mid-18th century onward, and then given fuller impetus during the decades of revolution with input from otherwise non-revolutionary Britain added in. What began as a West European development took quick roots in the Americas, though systematic policy results awaited the second half of the 19th century. Labor reform currents in Russia follow similar chronology. By the later 19th century the movement was becoming increasingly global, in part due to direct European impositions in places like Africa, in part due to more complex reasons to join the reform parade as in the Ottoman Empire. To be sure, all sorts of devices were introduced to continue to ensnare workers, so the impact of the global abolition of slavery and serfdom should not be exaggerated. But it is legitimate to see the long 19th century as the period in which one of the oldest human social institutions was reevaluated, ultimately on a worldwide basis, and this may be taken as a significant, if slightly less commonly emphasized, confirmation of long 19th century periodization.
In sum: the age of revolution on a global basis does not neatly fit the contours of the long 19th century. There was, quite simply, too much international diversity in political and social forms and experiences, in part of course because of divisions among imperial, postcolonial and newly-colonized areas. The Atlantic regions in some ways pulled away from other regions, particularly where innovations like the abolition of monarchy were concerned. Labor emancipations fit more neatly than do the larger political and economic frameworks, and this is not a trivial exception. The spread of nationalism was also important, but it thrived in part because it fit so many different political situations, both imperialist and colonial. A mixed verdict would be reasonable, with the revolutionary legacy, broadly construed, neither entirely supportive nor entirely dismissive of the long 19th century periodization.
This brings us, finally, to the process of industrialization, which turns out, not surprisingly, to be the main point. Here, on the West European and United States side, there is even less complexity than with the surge of political revolution. The industrial revolution began in Britain in the late 18th century (roughly fitting the imprecise onset of the long 19th century), directly spread to other parts of the West after the 1820s, and continued to develop through the rest of the period. A couple of caveats can be noted: several fussy historians have insisted that the revolution was long not very revolutionary, in terms of annual growth rates or the persistence of more traditional economic sectors.14 Over time, however – for example, as Britain achieved 50% urbanization by 1850 – these niceties decline in significance. A related point: in contrast to older treatments that placed great emphasis on special and largely novel Western cultural and political features as essential preconditions to industrialization, most recent work stresses more prosaic factors like changing energy costs in Britain; this approach does not deny significant change, but it downplays the scope of the initial causation involved.15 It is also true that, even by 1900 and even in Britain, large sectors of the population still lived in essentially preindustrial conditions;16 still, trends were clear, and this is not a decisive blow to a relationship between the long 19th century and Western industrialization. More telling, perhaps, is the difficulty of using the World War I years as any sort of real break (as opposed to brief interruption) in the industrialization story, which obviously would continue to build in the West and in many ways persists still. At most, one might argue that by the early 20th century the innovation phase of the industrial revolution was nearing an end in the West, as most economic sectors had been or at least could be transformed so that further developments built on an established base and can thus be differentiated from the period of inception (as in the old W.W. Rostow idea of reaching an industrial maturity point).17
None of this, however, decisively establishes the long 19th century, in terms of industrialization on a global scale. In the first place, the initial phases of Western industrialization build directly on early modern global trade relations and European efforts to catch up to Asian manufacturing (as in the Indian cotton printing trade). Here is another early 19th century/early modern link. It is true of course that Western industrialization began to have some global impact if not at the outset of the long 19th century, as least by the 1810s and 1820s. Western, mainly British, imports began to cut into traditional manufacturing in places like India and Latin America, dramatically reducing the domestic manufacturing labor force. More broadly, the fact of Western industrialization and decades-long monopoly of the process began to global accelerate economic, adding to the force of imperialism and introducing new levels of Western economic influence even in areas not acquired as colonies or, as in Latin America, technically newly free, though again this became clearer after 1850. But this, arguably, merely built up the world economic framework that had developed in the early modern period, exacerbating but not causing the mounting regional inequalities.18
The fact is that the long 19th century is not a good period from the standpoint of assessing the industrial revolution as a global, and not merely Western, phenomenon. As already noted in cases such as China, it was only toward the middle of the 19th century that industrial prowess, broadly construed, began to affect internal developments in many parts of the world, leading either to several decades of economic disarray (the Chinese case) or, as in Japan and some extent Russia, to surprisingly successful imitations that began to translate industrialization more directly into global experience.19
Global industrial development would long remain – to an extent, still remains to this day – an uneven process, with early leaders hard – though not impossible – to catch. Wide commitment to preparing the way for relevant economic change, however, began to take shape clearly in the later 19th century (with admittedly a couple of interesting experiments, notably Muhammed Ali's effort in Egypt prior to 1850). There are two key points here. First, railroads, telegraphs, steamships, and other features of industrial infrastructure – which outside of the unique British case always precede full industrialization, rather than following from it – all took shape in the second half of the 19th century outside the Western world,20 not through the long 19th century as a whole. This is true not only for heroic examples like Japan, but also for Cuba, Russia, the Ottoman Empire, India and elsewhere. It was also in the second half of the 19th century that most societies began to gain some exposure to at least pilot factories. This might initially exacerbate regional economic inequalities, when outside experts and capital dominated the process, but it set the base for wider economic change including the types of import substitution policies that countries like Iran and Turkey would be able to introduce early in the 20th century, as well as for industrialization outright in the case of Japan. The same applies to broader currents of change which linked to the global emergence of industrial societies; where again (in contrast to the West) change had to precede industrialization rather than the other way around. Schooling is a crucial case in point, and through it the emergence of an industrial, rather than agricultural, definition of childhood. Of course significant educational change occurred in several individual societies, Japan and Egypt as well as Western Europe and the United States, in the decades before 1850. But more systematic global developments, and a really global scale, began to accumulate only after that point. Between 1850 and 1900 virtually every society in the world made at least a preliminary gesture toward providing new levels of education, including some exposure to elements of modern science, to additional sectors of the population. Even colonial regimes got into the act. Some changes were dramatic, as in Japan's commitment to compulsory education for both boys and girls in 1872; most were more gradual. But the beginnings both of associating childhood with schooling and of assuming state responsibility for educational provision date clearly to the later 19th century on a global basis.21
The argument, then, is a simple one. The industrial revolution, and associated changes such as new types of educational systems, took shape first in parts of the West around dates corresponding to the long 19th century, and with some important but limited initial international impacts. The broad process of industrialization as a real global experience, however, gains ground only from the middle of the 19th century onward. And, as we clearly realize today, global industrialization, even granting its continuing unevenness, has been the most important force in world history for the past several millennia since the advent of agriculture. With preliminaries in the later 19th century, the 20th-21st centuries would see the much fuller overturning of characteristic institutions and practices associated with agriculture – from child labor to monarchy to the dominance of a landed aristocracy.22
Overall, continued use of the long 19th century as a world history period raises at least as many basic questions as it resolves – beyond its appeal to established conventions. It does not work smoothly for a focus on Western imperialism, which must be seen either as an earlier trend or one that takes new, brief but powerful shape after around 1850. It distracts from the approach to the industrial revolution as an ultimately global phenomenon, with a host of related changes that would also begin to emerge after 1850. It accurately captures important developments in the West itself, which obviously require attention, with at least two of these developments, nationalism and labor reform, beginning to gain more global traction even before 1850 though with larger ramifications beyond. In point of fact, most practicing world history presentations, with due bows to the age of Atlantic revolution and the beginnings of Western industrialization, increasingly focus on the second half of the 19th century in any event – reform Japan, post-Opium-War China, the beginnings of nationalism in the Middle East and India, imperialism in Africa, implicitly granting that the decades from 1750 to the mid-19th century are considerably less significant from a global standpoint. It may be time to ratify this implicit reperiodization more formally. For the fact is that even if many world historians easily recognize the primary focus on the later 19th century as a point of global change, the results have yet to show up in standard chronologies, and it is arguably time to deal with the issues more explicitly. A few themes would still dangle awkwardly – this is true with any periodization scheme – but the overall framework would work more smoothly.
For the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the central question, ultimately, may revolve around how best to pay appropriate but not undue attention to the West, already the subject of important revisionist work for the early modern period. The rise of the West in world trade and nascent international politics begins of course in the 14th-15th centuries, one of a number of factors helping to differentiate the early modern centuries from the previous period of Arab and then Mongol preeminence. It is quite possible to see this complex evolution continuing into the mid-19th century, though embellished by continuing strength in several Asian economies. Economic change was accompanied however by the creation of a number of new land-based empires, in eastern Europe and various parts of Asia, and while the cast of players shifted a bit this trend, too, can be seen continuing into the mid-19th century. Western evaluations of some of these empires worsened in the 18th century, but except in India this did not signal huge changes in fact – Russian and to a large extent Ottoman patterns persisted. Western strength increased in the late 18th-early 19th centuries with early industrialization, particularly vis-à-vis regions like India, but there were also some new complexities particularly with the assertions of independence in Atlantic colonies. Early industrialization itself must be framed in terms of the ongoing evolution of the West's position in the world economy, with greater profits and increasing awareness of the advantages of competing with Asia in manufacturing combining with local (initially British) factors to generate further economic change. A more decisive assertion of Western global power opens toward the middle of the 19th century, with new impacts in the Middle East, East Asia and Africa; this was, further, the point when industrialization took on more fully global dimensions in shaping international economic inequalities but also in creating a growing awareness of the need to respond with changes in infrastructure and other reforms such as new efforts in education. These developments linked to growing conviction among reform leaders and new nationalists in many regions that some changes were needed to keep pace with Western economic and military power. Here was a crucial transition point between the early modern trends and the new set of relationships that would define the 20th century, with its clear theme of new challenges to Western global dominance. It's not clear, in other words, that any world history period should be defined primarily through the position of the West, as opposed to seeing this as one factor among several; and it's certainly not clear that a long 19th century can usefully be defined in these terms. We oversimplify the early 19th century, just as we long oversimplified the early modern period itself, by undue attention to the West – even with the early industrial revolution taken into account.
And this leads directly to the alternative proposal, where the long 19th century scheme is not merely disputed, but potentially replaced. Step one: run the early modern period (possibly renamed, certainly clearly defined as something other than a Western playground) to the mid-19th century, from its 15th century onset. Its main themes remain fourfold. First, the inclusion of the Americas (and ultimately the Pacific) in world interactions, with important demographic shifts and related exchanges including the Atlantic slave trade resulting. Second, the resulting intensification of global economic relations, capped at the end of the period by the first phases of industrialization but also marked by the important economic strength and profitability of many parts of Asia headed by China. Third, the fairly steady development of Western power, with both commercial and territorial expansion, complicated at the end of the period by the new assertions of independence. But fourth, the rise of several "gunpowder empires" in addition to the West's overseas holdings, with particularly durable results in the Middle East and Russia that lasted easily into the mid-19th century.23 It was the combination of themes, and not the predominance of any single factor, that shapes this expanded early modern period, as historians have increasingly realized. Talking merely about the rise of the West misleads, partly reflecting the growing arrogance of Western observers during the period itself. Figuring out how to accommodate genuine evolution in the West's global position, with the other themes involved, can now inform discussion of the early 19th century as well.
With this adjustment made, step two involves opening the contemporary period of world history in the second half of the 19th century. While this period involves an important though fairly brief surge of Western global power (to be renegotiated from 1918 onward), the main theme is, and remains, the global impact of, and involvement in, industrialization and attendant changes such as state-sponsored mass education and a growing importance for science. Related political shifts would begin tentatively in the later 19th century – for example, with the further spread of parliaments and constitutions, as well as the further inroads of nationalism. Social changes, beyond the ongoing campaign against traditional forms of coerced labor, would include growing urbanization, but also new attention to gender – as with the movement against foot binding in late-19th-century China, and ultimately the rise of big business and a global upper middle class. Even industrial-level warfare, such a huge feature of the 20th century including World War I, arguably began with the United States Civil War and its global consequences both in strategic thinking and in heightened arms trade.24 The late 19th century was a contemporary seedbed in many respects, with global industrial impact at the base.
Timing of these themes varied by region, and important differences in regional orientation persisted – and again, persist still today. For some regions, increasing global economic inequalities would seriously condition overall response. However, this kind of comparative variation around common factors is a standard part of world history periodization, complicating but not dislodging the basic frameworks.
The key point, again, is the fairly steady trend of increasingly global conversions from agriculture to industrial economic, technological and social systems, adding to the differentiation from the patterns that had predominated until the middle of the 19th century. In 1850, only portions of Western societies were actively engaged in an industrial economy. By 1900 participation was already spreading, particularly in Japan and Russia, with perhaps 20% of the world's population directly involved. During the 1920s and 1930s, thanks in part to import substitution policies, Turkey, Iran and several Latin American economies began to join in, if somewhat tentatively. By 2000, thanks to additional changes in places like China and India, it was estimated that 60% of the world's population was now effectively industrial, and most of the rest of the world was shaped by relationships to industrial production and related services and exchanges. A periodization launched in the mid-19th century, and centered on global industrialization, best captures these fundamental global processes.
Finally, though this is a related point, using the later 19th century as the divide between the early modern and the contemporary world history periods also captures a better historical understanding of globalization. The idea of globalization did not of course emanate from historical study. A group of historians have latched on to the concept, arguing that the 1950s introduce a vivid dividing line in the human experience, on the basis of unprecedentedly intense contact.25 Against this, various world historians have argued for stages of globalization, in some cases stretching back to the Arab-initiated systems around 1000 CE. Increasingly (though with no unanimity), a number of historians have pointed to changes opening up around the middle of the 19th century as the effective inception point of the kind of intensification and range we associate with globalization.26 New technologies of transportation and communication combined with the opening of the Suez (and later Panama) canals to facilitate unparalleled levels of exchange. Migration streams began to encompass both longer distances and opportunities for return – an effective globalization of an old human process. Cultural and consumer contacts accelerated, as witness the later 19th-century beginnings of the globalization of sports.27 Agreements, though admittedly brokered by the West, on international postal systems, or the new international meetings to control the spread of cholera, or conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war, and the creation of essentially the first international NGOs (in the 1880s) introduce the springboard for cross-regional political institutions.28 Even reactions to globalization, like the systematic use of passports, reflect the late 19th century as a turning point.29 On a more positive side, so does global tourism, with hesitant beginnings in the more venturesome Cook's tours of the later 19th century flowing clearly into contemporary patterns.30 Nascent globalization was clearly on the march. It would be set back, after World War I, by reassertions of regional separatism, but this proved temporary, and when the process resumed more fully in the later 20th century it built clearly on late-19th/early 20th century foundations. Again, basic contemporary historical processes began a bit earlier than current, conventional periodization fully captures, adding to the differentiation from the patterns that had predominated until the middle of the 19th century.
Reconsidering established historical periodization is always challenging. Downplaying World War I as a crucial marker may still prove impossible to digest – this might well apply to Ottoman and Middle Eastern as well as European history. And we have seen that there are a number of reasons, besides routine, to retain a long 19th century framework. Any full discussion of the alternative periodization I propose would need further attention to the integrity of the themes in an expanded early modern period – like the possibly expanded chronology for the gunpowder empires theme. And contemporary world historians, already disunited about how to handle the last hundred years of the human experience, would obviously have to weigh in about adopting a periodization that links the present to themes that began to take shape not fifty or a hundred years ago, but over 150 years before.31 I believe the resultant discussions will confirm the new periodization — indeed, it is already the case that few 20th-century world history texts can avoid a serious preliminary on the later 19th century (but not the earlier decades of the century).32
What is really at stake – as a spur to the wider assessment – is a decision about when, globally, to mark the process of the clear and gradual transition from an agricultural to an increasingly industrial framework. The shift involves economies and technologies, but social and gender patterns as well; political institutions; and also trans-regional contacts. Its significance may dwarf some of the important-but-lesser changes world historians have been preserving in the long 19th century schema. Here's where the case for a serious reconceptualization, around a mid-19th century divide between early modern and contemporary, really rests.33
At the very least, it is clear that an active new debate over recent world history periodization will be fruitful, particularly in light of our growing understanding of the global evolution of the industrialization and reform processes and the increasing awareness of links between recent and slightly earlier movements of globalization. The debate must include, of course, appropriate reactions from specialists on particular regions, where some discomfort with long 19th century periodization is already visible. The world history project can only benefit from a more explicit, and open-ended, examination of how we handle the most recent chronological phases of world history overall.
Peter N. Stearns is Provost and Professor of History at George Mason University. He has served as Vice President of the American Historical Association in charge of the Teaching Division and was chair of the initial Advanced Placement World History committee. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
An earlier version of this paper was presented at the World History Association/Istanbul Sehir University Symposium, "Byzantine and Ottoman Civilizations in World History," held in Istanbul, Turkey, October 2010.
1 Lawrence Besserman, ed. The Challenge of Periodization: Old Paradigms and New Perspectives. New York: Routledge, 1996; Ross Dunn, "Periodization and Chronological Coverage in a World History Survey" In What Americans Should Know: Western Civilization or World History? (East Lansing: Michigan State University, 1985); Peter N. Stearns, "Periodization in World History Teaching: Identifying the Big Changes," History Teacher 20 (1987), 561 – 80. Important works on modern periodization include: Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe and the making of the Modern World Economy ( Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000); John Darwin, After Tamerlane: The Rise and Gall of Global Empires, 1400 – 2000 (London: Bloomsbury Press, 2009); Jurgen Osterhammel, Die Verwandlung der Welt (Munich: C.H. Beck, 2009); Charles Bright and Michael Geyer, "World History in a Global Age," The American Historical Review, 10, no. 4 (October 1995), 1034-1060.
2 Eric Hobsbawm, On the Edge of the New Century (New York: The New Press, 2001); and The Age of Capital: 1848 – 1875 (New York: Vintage Books, 1996).
3 John Richards, "Early Modern India and World History," Journal of World History, 8 (1997), 197 – 209; but see also Thomas Metcalf, Imperial Connections: India in the Indian Ocean Arena, 1860-1920( Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007).
4 Andre Gunder Frank, . ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998).
5 James Gelvin, The Modern Middle East, A History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007); and Fatma Müge Göçek, East Encounters West: France and the Ottoman Empire in the Eighteenth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).
6 Alfred W. Crosby, The Columbian Exchange (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2003).
7 Alexander Chubarov, The Fragile Empire: A History of Imperial Russia (New York: Continuum, 2001); Daniel Goffman, The Ottoman Empire and Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002); n Cemal Kafadar, Between Two Worlds: The Construction of the Ottoman State (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996).
8 Joseph Fletcher, "Integrative History: Parallels and Interconnections in the Early Modern Period, 1500 – 1800.," Journal of Turkish Studies 9 (1985), 35 – 57.
9 Goldstone, Jack. "The Problem of the 'Early Modern' World. "Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 41 (1998): 249 – 84. Chris Bayley. The Birth of the Modern World: 1780 - 1914. ( Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing, 2004).
10 Adas, Michael Adas,. Machines as the Measure of Men: Science, Technology, and Ideologies of Western Dominance. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989).
11 Green, William. Green, History, Historians and the Dynamics of Change. (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1993); and "Periodization in European and World History.," Journal of World History 3 (1992):, 13 – 53.; Patrick Manning, Patrick. "The Problem of Interactions and World History.," American Historical Review , 101 (1996):, 771 – 82.
12 Robbie Robertson, Robbie. The Three Waves of Globalization: A History of a Developing Global Consciousness." (London: Zed Books, 2003).
13 Seymour Drescher, Seymour. The Mighty Experiment: Free Labor versus Slavery in British Emancipation. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).
14 Rondo Cameron , Rondo and Larry Neal., A Concise Economic History of the World: From Paleolithic Times to Present. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).
15 Allen, Robert C. Allen, The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).
16 Peter Laslett, Peter. The World We Have Lost: Further Explored, 4/e. (New York and London: Routledge, 4th ed., 2004.
17 W. W. Rostow, W. W. The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto, 3/e. ( Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 3rd ed, 1990.
18 Wallerstein, Immanuel Maurice. Wallerstein, The Modern World-System II: Mercantilism and the Consolidation of the European Economy. (Maryland Heights, MO: Academic Press, 1980).
19 J. A. Goldstone, J. A. "Efflorescences and economic growth in world history: Rethinking the "rise of the West" and the industrial revolution.," Journal of World History, 13 (2002),: 191-227; Peter N. Stearns, Peter N. The Industrial Revolution in World History, 3/e. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 3rd ed., 2007).
20 Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. TThe Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1986).
21 Peter N. Stearns, Peter N. Childhood in World History, (2/e. New York and London: Routledge, 2nd ed., 2011.
22 A. G. Kenwood, A.G. and A.L. Lougheed. The Growth of the International Economy 1820 – 2000. (London and New York: Routledge, 1999).
23 Douglas Streusand, Douglas. Islamic Gunpowder Empires: Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2010.).
24 Grant, Jonathan A. Grant, Rulers, Guns and Money: the global arms trade in the age of imperialism. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).
25 Bruce Mazlish, Bruce. New Global History. (New York and London: Routledge, 2006).
26 Peter N. Stearns, Peter N. Globalization in World History. (New York and London: Routledge, 2009).
27 Akira Iriye, Akira. Cultural Internationalism and World Order. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997;); Jerry H. Bentley, Jerry H. "Cross-Cultural Interaction and Periodization in World History.," American Historical Review (June 1996):, 749 – 770.
28 Peter Baldwin, Peter. Contagion and the State in Europe, 1830 – 1930. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
29 John C. Torpey, John C. The Invention of the Passport: Surveillance, Citizenship, and the State. (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
30 Lynn Withey, Lynn. Grand Tour and Cooks Tours: A History of Leisure Travel, 1750 – 1915. (United Kingdom: Aurum Press, 1998).
31 Burke, Edmund Burke III, David Christian, and Ross Dunn. World History: A Compact History of Humankind for Teachers and Students: the Big Eras. (Los Angeles: National Center for History in the Schools,, 2009).
32 Geoffrey BBarraclough, Geoffrey., An Introduction to Contemporary History. ((London: UK: Penguin, 1988); Michael Adas, Michael, Peter N. Stearns and Stuart Schwartz., Turbulent Passage: A Global History of the Twentieth Century, 4/e. (New York: Longman, 4th ed., 2008).
33 Christian, David. Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).
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