As Ebola spreads outside the confines of West Africa, public health officials have declared the epidemic to be a crisis on a global scale. Peter Maurer, president of the International Red Cross, described the outbreak as “a global health catastrophe…an epidemic of global dimension and a global threat.” While there is much to be said about the politics of these statements (as well as the public health response to Ebola more generally), it is Maurer’s constant invocation of the “global” that interests me most.
Within the history of science, medicine, and technology, we are experiencing our own turn towards the global. Over the past few years, global history has emerged as a theme in CFPs, at conferences, and in recently published scholarship. Back in 2012, my department introduced a History of Global Health class which attracted a large number of enthusiastic undergraduates. This trend towards global history is also reflected in the job market. Based on a very unscientific survey of recent job postings, the number of advertisements requesting a candidate with a global research focus has jumped from 16% to 29% between 2011 and 2014.*
What is driving this trend? Is global just the newest label for non-Western history (in the tradition of comparative history, international history, transnational history, or “America and the world”)? Or is global history a qualitatively different enterprise?
|Image from Kenneth Lu via Flickr
A cynical interpretation of the trend is that “global history” is the product of a troubled job market. As universities tighten their purse strings, the number of permanent academic positions has shrunk considerably. When a department is able to secure the funds for a tenure-track position, it seems prudent to select a candidate that is as versatile as possible. From a budgetary perspective, this means being able to teach a wide variety of classes across a number of different geographic regions. A global historian that can fulfill many of the department’s teaching needs is more useful that a specialist who can only teach a narrow range of classes. Of course, it might also be that universities recognize the growing demand for coursework that provides a global perspective on history, and are orienting their hiring towards that end.
While fiscal politics play a part in shaping the job market, I think that the global turn runs deeper than that. The intellectual energy emanating from the field is palpable. Whenever I hear a talk or read new literature that engages with global histories of science, I begin to think about my own work differently, asking how I can move my research beyond its national confines. Our turn to the global is certainly informed by our own contemporary moment when epidemics become “global catastrophes” and information travels around the world in a single tweet. Living in a globalized world, we seek to historicize it.
The challenge then, is how to go about the process of doing global history. The global history of science, technology, and medicine encompasses topics as diverse as the politics of global health, the development of global technology networks, and the impact of globalization on scientific practice. What do these studies have in common, other than telling stories that transcend national borders? Is there a methodological approach that binds them together?
I am certainly not the first to ask these questions. Several historians of science, medicine, and technology have thoughtfully reflected on the “global turn” and what it means for our discipline. Historian of medicine Warwick Anderson has written extensively in what we could call the history of global health. In an essay published
this month, Anderson reviewed the recent historiography in the history of global health and suggested that the most important contributions have been written not by historians, but by anthropologists. This is because anthropologists pay close attention to local contexts – a seemingly strange virtue in a search for the “global.” Anderson goes so far as to say that “the most compelling accounts of global health manage to localize medical interventions: they examine the messy and often confusing, even conflicted, interactions of foreign doctors and aid-workers, domestic and traditional health practitioners, and their patients.”
Anderson’s claim for the importance of locality in global history runs through his other writings on the subject. In an essay
published back in February in the Social History of Medicine
, Anderson critiqued historians’ emphasis on global “flows,” what he cheekily refers to as the “hydraulic turn.” By embracing the language of “flow,” he argues, historians begin to take globalization for granted, treating it an inevitable historical narrative instead of a process that requires its own analysis and historicization.
The issue of movement is a common thread running through other methodological discussions of global history. Fa-Ti Fan
identified “circulation” and “trade” as the two methodological pillars of global STS. Stuart McCook
recently suggested the method of “following” an object – whether it be material, textual, or biological – as it moves around the world. Sujit Sivasundaram
, on the other hand, encourages historians to cross-contextualize their sources to better understand how both Western and non-Western subjects approached the natural world at any given moment. Sivasundaram’s call to cross-contextualization strikes me as similar to Anderson’s praise of the anthropologist. Both insist on careful and thorough local study that maps the complexity of encounters as they happen on the ground.
The tension that emerges from these discussions is a battle between flow and focus, between moving and standing still. Even if people, ideas, and technologies are always moving around the world, it is only by taking a snapshot that will we understand how global flows influence local realities. In all likelihood, both kinds of studies will be essential for historians tackling the enormous task of writing the history of the world.
* Check out the Isis focus section on “Global Histories of Science,” published in March 2010, as well as well as Isis focus section from December 2013, “Global Currents in National Histories of Science: The “Global Turn” and the History of Science in Latin America.”