Going Global

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.

* Based on the job listings on Academic Jobs Wiki (http://academicjobs.wikia.com/wiki/Academic_Jobs_Wiki)
* 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.”
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2 thoughts on “Going Global

  1. Evan

    Very interesting questions – thanks, Jenna!

    I'm reminded of Leah's post about her conference on “The Sea as a Whole,” and the conference on Chemistry and Global History that I mentioned in a comment on her post.

    (Post: http://americanscience.blogspot.com/2014/09/field-report-eseh-graduate-student.html)
    (Conference program: http://www.chemheritage.org/Downloads/Events/CHEMICAL-REACTIONS-schedule.pdf)

    One consensus that we came to was that all the talk of flows and circulation in global history was linked to a special interest in global **economic** history, since economic theories of globalization were a prime motive for the first wave of scholarship self-styled as global history. If you're interested in economic objects, you're interested (at least as a first-order matter) in flows.

    Attention to chemical objects (however one defines them) and knowledge about them provides an alternative to the economic approach to global history. We found that grappling with global history of chemistry led us not only to careful study of local settings but also to national autarky programs; often, the “global” became an important category for actors not when they began to acquire products or visitors from abroad, but when depending on those products or visitors became problematic. Some such autarky programs sought to reduce dependence on global markets and actors through substituting local products and expertise; other relied on circulation of experts and expertise developed in another local setting (say, the Ford Foundation) to facilitate material autarky.

    I'm imagine that attending to other objects and processes would reveal other global histories with different analytical emphases. Which makes me wonder: does global history make the most sense crossed with another particular line of historical inquiry?

    That is, instead of conceiving of global history as a field with its own coherent set of methods and questions (which we might hybridize with other fields), might we more productively conceive of numerous distinct global histories, e.g.:
    global*history of chemistry;
    global*economic history;
    global*history of public health;
    global*gender history;
    and so forth?

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  2. leah

    Fantastic post and comment! I concur with Evan/the Chemistry and Global Hist Conference that, for me, 'global history' has always been positioned as a contrast to 'world history,' in that it specifically addresses a set of analytic concerns introduced by globalization. As you both point out, though, this always involves motion/flows of some sort — of people, commodities, ideas, etc. In this schema, I wonder: could there be such a thing as a pre-modern global history? Is there something inherent to modernity and capitalism that demands a reconfiguration of our analytic categories? Or does the idea of global history introduce a new way to approach the pre-modern? Following in this vein, I wonder if we'll see an aligning of global history with inquiries into the Anthropocene, another concept that hinges on a conceptual distinction between the modern and the pre-modern. Finally, it's not always framed as such, but I also see a connection between our field's 'spatial turn' (especially as expressed by David Livingstone — see his Putting Science in its Place: Geographies of Scientific Knowledge) and the following of knowledge as it moves from one locality to the next. (I've always been puzzled by how such a thing as a 'spatial turn' can be so concerned with motion instead of the evolving epistemology of a singular locality/space over time, but that's another story…)

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