Social History and World History: From Daily Life to Patterns of Change

The revival of world history as a legitimate part of academic departments in Western (especially North American) research universities is not much more than thirty years old. Having emerged, in many cases, under the influence of world-systems theory, the field has sometimes been criticized for being too heavily oriented toward political economy and to a lesser extent toward other kinds of history (such as environmental history) with a strongly materialist bent. And many of the pioneers of the field—including some not enamored of a world systems approach—found that strongly materialist approaches offered clear advantages for scholars breaking out of conventional national or civilizational frameworks. The general comparability across cultural zones of a pound of cotton, an acre of cleared land, or the work that can be done by a steam engine made the study of both comparisons and connections far easier for such items than for ideas, and thus proved useful as topics to begin from.

Meanwhile, world history as a teaching field often defined itself against Western civilization courses, which, at least in their “Plato to NATO” form, often epitomized the pitfalls of an idea-centered history: they often constructed their topic around a presumed unity of Greco/ Roman and/or Judeo/Christian heritages in ways that made some sense for reading Aquinas or Jefferson in Great Books courses, but much less sense for understanding the concerns of laboring people, the commerce in the goods those laborers produced, and so on. So when the discipline became divided over “cultural/intellectual” versus “social/material” approaches in the 1980s and 1990s, it is not surprising that most of those involved in world history leaned in the latter direction and were sometimes perceived as doing so even when they didn’t.

Thus, while world history has been a very innovative field, it has sometimes seemed theoretically and methodologically conservative in terms of these particular debates. Increased knowledge of non-European histories complemented epistemological critiques of master narratives derived from European experience, but insofar as skepticism about big stories became an article of faith, it also militated against seeking to construct any sort of world history. In the short run, this has not helped recruitment in the field. And ultimately, of course, world history, like any national or local history, must integrate culture, politics, economics, environment, and so on, no matter how difficult this is on a given spatial or temporal scale; if it does not, it fails to partake of one of the defining virtues of history as a discipline.

For these and other reasons, world history has much to gain from developing research agendas with a strong social history component and from thinking of social history in broad terms that provide a strong bridge between the more materialist topics world history has tended to emphasize and histories of culture.

Moreover, world history already has many varieties and other antecedents besides world-systems theory; many of these other tendencies have always had a strong social history component. For instance, while Braudel’s influence led in one stream through Wallerstein to international political economy, it led along another path, through the Annales school, to the aspiration for a “total history” that was in large part a social history of everyday life. Another route to world history led through area studies, with an emphasis on rich contextualization and interdisciplinarity that is very congenial to social history. Despite the geographically bounded nature of area programs (at least as originally conceived), many people trained in those fields have wound up in world history, either via involvement with unconventional, non-“civilizational” area programs (Wisconsin’s Tropical Societies program, Mediterranean, Atlantic, or Indian Ocean Studies, etc.) or because as specialists in “exotic” areas they took the lead in developing undergraduate surveys that went beyond Europe and the United States. Still others have reached world history via the comparative history and comparative macrohistorical sociology of Charles Tilly, Barrington Moore, Michael Mann, George Frederickson, and others.

But recounting how world history has always been committed to social history and might claim some classics of social history for itself still leaves at least two unsolved problems. First, it does not tell us what is gained by doing social history within a world history framework, as opposed to working at other spatial levels. Second, it does not tell us how to meet the argument that since many of the categories used in social history are either specific to particular societies (e.g., caste) or are strongly shaped by national rules (e.g., laws regulating inheritance, marriage, employment, and so on) or use terms with very different meanings in different places (e.g., “middle class”), trying to do social history across many societies involves a loss of precision and nuance—and a distance from the idioms in which the actors themselves understood their lives—that outweighs any gains.[1] Since both world history and social history are very diverse, it makes sense to map the terrain a bit before addressing those issues.

Research in world history does not always (or even often) take the whole world as its unit of analysis; it could not accomplish much if it did. It does, however, insist on questioning the primacy of national units in most historical research and history department curricula, and the common reliance on continental or “civilizational” units for organizing courses, journals, and research synopses and agendas at levels beyond the nation. It does so either by looking at connections that cross these lines, by making comparisons among these regions or parts of these regions (which requires establishing some shared features, since a comparison of entities that are totally different tells us nothing), or some combination thereof. Either process may involve studying regional units defined by being zones of interaction rather than by any presumption of a shared “mainstream” heritage (e.g., the Atlantic, the Silk Road, the Indian Ocean littoral), networks of people who live in multiple regions without being dominant in any one of them (e.g., ethnic diasporas, itinerant occupational groups), or other nonnational “societies,” as well as more specific flows of goods, capital, ideas, diseases, and so forth.

What gives world history more than just a negative coherence as a field, despite this diversity of objects and methods of study, is the conviction that these disparate kinds of research can form the basis for worthwhile statements and coherent narratives at a transregional level. Such statements will never be based on complete information, and will rarely be of the form “everywhere in the world that we know of, phenomenon X unfolded by B following A,” but this is true of our statements about national histories as well. It is also worth emphasizing that whatever world history narratives we assemble necessarily include much of what is usually studied in other frameworks: it would be absurd to claim that the vast majority of humans, who have lived and still live their lives within fairly narrow geographic bounds,[2] do not count in world history.

Nor would it make much sense to think that narratives constructed at the world history level will displace all others. But just as we have always read studies of the agriculture of a single village or the confession of a single heretic with questions formulated at many different temporal and spatial levels, so we can add a world history level without expecting to make the others obsolete.

For historians working at the national level or below, changes of regime or the promulgation of new laws often bind the narrative together even when the project is not political history (e.g., new marriage laws in a gender history, land reform or a new tariff in an economic history); they also increase our confidence that processes captured in one local case probably had parallels elsewhere in the country. But in the absence of a world government, world history generally needs to look elsewhere for its historical glue and narrative coherence. One approach, as already noted, has been to draw from some version of the history of changing modes of production, leading to an expanding capitalist system, but this is clearly an incomplete solution, especially for earlier periods. In looking for either alternatives or supplements to that story which still encompass large numbers of people, it seems natural to look at various themes of social history, which also often works at levels where national stories are of little help.

For current purposes, let us divide social history into three very rough, overlapping, and not necessarily exhaustive segments:

  1. The history of daily life (work, eating, child-rearing, courtship, retirement, disability, etc.) and small-scale institutions, including the family.
  2. The history of large-scale social organizations and groups (e.g., state-society relations, class formations, race relations).
  3. The history of social movements and of deliberate attempts to cause social change, whether from the top down or the bottom up.

Crude though it is, this trisection helps us locate our problem: for while it is relatively easy to combine world history and the social history of daily life, things become more difficult when we turn to the history of large-scale social organization, and much more difficult when we turn to the history of social movements.

World History and the History of Daily Life

The history of daily life offers the easiest terrain for world historians, and much work of this sort has already been done.[3] Life expectancy, levels of consumption, age at first marriage, birth rates, school attendance rates, the prevalence of violent crime, and so on are objects of study that are relatively easy to measure and to translate across time and space. In this, they resemble the political economy topics long central to world history; indeed the two are sometimes hard to distinguish. Moreover, this kind of social history has no obvious affinity for the national state (or the territory that later becomes a national state) as the unit of analysis: distinctions such as urban/rural, male/female, mechanized/nonmechanized, and even the more slippery and culturally loaded “property-owning/non-property-owning” or “literate/illiterate” are often more useful than, say, “German/French.”

Moreover, though national statistical data are available on some of these topics (at least for some countries and in recent times) these are rarely fine-grained enough for the questions social historians ask. Thus social history is usually based on more local sources. Given that, there is no obvious reason that we should choose the nation as the level at which to aggregate or generalize about such studies—particularly since attempts to do so have often resulted in unresolvable debates about the typicality of particular communities, often chosen for initial study because they were unusually well documented. (Unusually detailed documentation, of course, is itself often an indicator of atypical organization.) Attempts to generalize about nonnational units, be they geographic or otherwise—for example, “tropical plantation societies” or “early modern port cities” or “the Indian Ocean littoral”—face their own problems of aggregation and typicality, but they need not be any worse than those posed by traditional national or continental units.

At least one project that seems to me to have been particularly creative in staking out this kind of territory—the Eurasia Project, a collaboration of historians, demographers, and economists from a number of countries—has been able to ask new comparative questions in part because they have abandoned any pretense of looking for “typical” cases.[4] They have instead sought out small communities where records happen to exist that allow one to ask relatively fine-grained, event-centered questions—for example, looking at variations across time and space in how rural families fared after the early death of a household head, or the extent to which upward mobility for one nuclear family seems to affect the life chances of their less immediate kin. And for many of these kinds of questions, the difficulty of assessing which groups can be usefully juxtaposed is not much bothered by the fact that each society has its own unique structure. For instance, a comparison of the chances of children surviving to adulthood, or sending money home once they leave the farm, or being conscripted, can be usefully based on purely external categories such as “the bottom 20 percent by income” even if that group consists of small landholders in one place and proletarians in another. That is, it can be focused that way as a first approximation: eventually, one might well conclude that less portable categories mattered more for certain purposes. But that would itself be an important finding thanks to asking world social history questions.

Among the great opportunities here are the possibility of mapping certain worldwide (or at least supracontinental) patterns that might set us off on new kinds of inquiry. It seems plausible, for instance, that what we roughly call the “early modern period” may be the period in which the largest share of many populations did the most labor of any period in human history: an age of lengthening agricultural work years (from increased double-cropping, etc.), declining artisanal/proto-industrial real wages requiring longer work weeks and more discipline, increased child labor, almost nonexistent retirement, and so on. Once we see this as a widespread phenomenon encompassing both places that soon thereafter began to raise labor output per day dramatically and those that have been slower to do so, we are less inclined to see the appearance of the pattern in any one place (e.g., China) as either a clear sign of “failure” or a harbinger of later “success” (northwestern Europe, Japan). Furthermore, framing this intensification of labor as a transregional phenomenon raises important questions about the extent to which one might find common explanations for the phenomenon in different areas—whether these ultimately have to do with population growth, real wages and dependency ratios, global trade and attractive exotica (sugar, tobacco, etc.) that had to be acquired from the market, new patterns of text-based popular piety (perhaps incorporating explanations previously framed in very culturally specific terms, such as the rise of Protestantism, into a larger context), or whatever else future researchers might find.

Other matters of daily life may be less measurable, but nonetheless have important global histories—owing as much to the influence of Norbert Elias and Michel Foucault as to the Annalistes. Christopher Bayly, for instance, has recently pointed out that there was a significant convergence in styles of dress—particularly for middle class and elite males—over the course of the late eighteenth to early twentieth centuries, and there are strong reasons to think of this as a product of genuinely global processes.[5]

There had, of course, been reciprocal borrowings of styles and fashions for many centuries, and this had intensified in the early modern (late fifteenth to eighteenth centuries) period: the craze for Chinoiserie in eighteenth-century Europe is only the best-known example. Moreover, the increased numbers of people undertaking long-distance journeys, the increased frequency with which they remained in touch with their lands of origin,[6] and the increased likelihood of their eventually returning “home” seems to have produced qualitatively as well as quantitatively different kinds of interaction. Clothing items and bodily practices increasingly traveled as meaningful complexes, rather than as isolated items; certain fabrics (especially Indian cottons) were exported to various places in sufficiently large quantities for large numbers of people to define themselves through or against them.

Thus, for instance, the three-piece suit came to prominence in seventeenth-century Britain as part of a self-conscious attempt to balance “Eastern refinement” (indicated, among other things, by a vest ascribed to “Turkish” or “Persian” origins) with English “ruggedness” and self-reliance (embodied in the choice of domestic wool for the fabric, and the rejection of silks, muslins, etc., for men). Similar attempts to create “balance” through proper mixtures of utilizing and limiting Asian imports were evident with respect to food/spices, manners, and so on, and formed an important part of new notions of masculinity, personal independence, acceptable (as opposed to destabilizing) ways of imitating one’s betters, and even political liberty.[7] And while this suit was originally meant to distinguish the British from Continental Europeans—in part by using various “Asian” elements as an alternative to the French court as models of refinement—it would eventually become a European male uniform before becoming influential in many more places.

A century after the rise of the suit, we see the beginning of Bayly’s modern process of costume convergence, and while this eventually became a story of predominantly Western influence, some significant influences still flowed the other way. Returning Anglo Indians, many of them immensely wealthy, often aspired to high positions in English society despite low birth. But in addition to resenting social climbers, many Britons presumed that these returning “nabobs” had ruled corruptly in partnership with Indian princes. They became negative examples of excessive “Oriental refinement,” associated with supposed effeminacy and the passive acceptance of tyranny; the fashion model they brought with them was emphatically rejected, at least for males. (It was at least partially acceptable for females.[8] This rejection was part of a more insistent affirmation of the universal applicability of particular Western ideas of manliness, good government, and so on that forms part of the backdrop to the increasing standardization of elite male dress around the world that Bayly finds after 1800 (and to increased racial separation in many colonial settings).

But despite this rejection of “native” adornments, some bodily practices brought from India in the early decades of British East India Company rule were not only adopted in England, but came to be seen as “Western.” This was particularly true of regular bathing and shampooing (the latter word being derived from Hindi).[9] Indeed these practices were later said to be both next to (Christian) godliness, and (in late nineteenth-century soap ads, among other places) an “index of the degree of civilization” of a society.[10]

These and other practices had been originally adopted by British East India Company officials in the subcontinent to make themselves seem less like merchants and more like members of high Indian castes, on the presumption that this would make them appear more fit to act as rulers and/or courtiers. However, the Brahminic origins of these hygienic habits were eventually so completely forgotten by Britons that they became signs of “civilization” that the West claimed to be exporting. In the process, the meaning of these practices became reversed in British eyes: they were recast as signs of self-control and vigilant care of the body, rather than (like other practices brought home by “nabobs”) signs of self-indulgence and enfeebling luxury.

We will return to issues of empires and “civilizing” missions as subjects for world social history toward the end of this article. For now, I would emphasize that these stories show that well before mass marketing—much less global media—there were important world history dimensions in matters often thought of as part of much more local histories of private life, including the lives of people who did not themselves travel across great distances. We see here how problems common to various societies—the management of luxury imports, balances of payments, and the transition from relatively fixed sumptuary laws to a more fluid world of fashion and social mobility—came to be strongly intertwined in an era of increasing trade and increasingly global power politics; we also see the multidirectionality of influences among early modern world regions and the ways in which processes of both domesticating foreign practices and exporting one’s own inform what might initially seem to be a story of domestic class relations and social mores.

Even in the later period, in which Bayly highlights a convergence toward a smaller range of elite male styles, the process was not linear and included the production of new local variations as well as the adoption of truly interchangeable garments. Thus, Bayly argues, the spread of the Ottoman fez across much of North Africa marked a distinct regional/religious style, but in contrast to more time-consuming turbans, it also marked a response to the comparatively simple Western hat; the burkah for women, often wrongly labeled “medieval,” was a nineteenth-century attempt to reconcile culturally specific notions of female modesty with global patterns of change pushing more women into public roles.[11]

Later and further East, the Sun Yatsen suit (often called a “Mao suit” in the West, though it predates Mao Zedong) was a conscious joint project of the state and a group of entrepreneurs. It was influenced by Western military uniforms, and strongly affected by foreign ideas of “practicality,” but it was also designed to preserve a distinctive national style and to ensure that modern Chinese business dress would use silk—a fabric associated with “Chineseness”—rather than wool, which pasture-poor China would never produce in adequate quantities.[12] Though made amidst far stronger pressures for global conformity than the decision for the three-piece suit in Restoration England, the creation of the Sun Yatsen suit was also very much a modern iteration of long-running and transcontinental social and cultural processes, embodying many of the same concerns: partaking of a prestigious style from abroad while asserting a national distinctiveness, defending pride and the balance of payments by insisting on an iconic, domestically produced fabric, and so on.

World History and Large-Scale Social Organization

But studies of daily life—whether more focused on quantifiable material circumstances or the formation of meanings and identities through styles of food and clothing—represent just one part of social history. One could also imagine world histories that focus on a different kind of social history: the growth and transformation of large-scale organizations of various kinds. The vast literature on proto-industrialization (which began with studies of Europe, but ultimately looked at many other places as well), with its emphasis on how the lives of artisans were changed by the growing penetration of long-distance mercantile networks for supplying their inputs and marketing their output, is an obvious example of world social history avant la lettre. This significance is not diminished by the fact that few of the generalizations suggested by its originators turned out to hold across vast spaces: the production of new differences linked to a transcontinental division of labor is as much within the purview of world history as the discovery of invariant patterns.

Proto-industrial concentrations were always local or regional, and often became profoundly different from both the urban and the agricultural regions nearby, while also being part of far-flung networks for supply and marketing. Here, then, was a case where the logic of bypassing the nation in looking for a larger frame in which to place local studies became clear rather quickly. For many pioneers in the field, that frame was the growth of capitalism, and especially the growth of a proletariat. But as we have learned about more and more large proto-industrial concentrations in areas where capitalist relations of production did not become dominant, and in which proto-industry could not possibly have had the demographic consequences predicted from European cases,[13] it became necessary to either modify widely accepted ideas about the historical emergence and nature of capitalism (as Frank Perlin, for instance, has tried to do based on Indian cases[14] or to accept the diversity of outcomes as marking a dead end in this line of inquiry. Many people have chosen the latter path—particularly since the results of proto-industry even within western and central Europe were far from uniform, and confidence in more-or-less Marxist master narratives of European history (emphasizing the centrality of changing relations of production) as also becoming less common.[15] But once we abandon one particular set of teleological expectations about the effects of an increasingly commercialized handicraft sector, proto-industrialization may again be a case in which we find enough commonalities of process across many different contexts to make useful comparisons. Indeed, larger statements might still ultimately emerge from such comparisons, perhaps this time based on categories derived from non-European experiences.

Meanwhile, the even larger literatures on various later transformations of work—the social impact of modern factory organization, the spread of office routines, professionalization, and so on—are even more apt subjects for world social history, because resemblances across cases are stronger. Moving beyond transformations of economic life, mass armies and compulsory public schools are just two of the more important and widespread institutions that share certain basic features around the globe, whether because they responded to common pressures (including competition with each other) or because they consciously imitated each other.

It is important to note that these processes, though of great importance, are not expected to generate a script for the comprehensive transformation of a whole society, as the rise of capitalism sometimes was (or is). It is also worth emphasizing that the effects of these processes span a wide range of “material” and “cultural” registers: the professionalization of medicine, for instance, affects basic aspects of physical well-being, while the movement of most deaths out of the home that generally accompanies this has powerful cultural and psychological effects. Nobody would expect the latter changes to be the same in societies with different family structures, religious traditions, and health-care systems, but different cases should nonetheless provide interesting perspectives on each other. In some cases, international organizations, doctors being trained abroad, and so on may also have led to direct and important influences.

A related and promising field for world social history that partakes of both the history of daily life and that of large-scale organization is the history of communities with particular functional specializations: these may often have more in common with their counterparts elsewhere in the world than with their neighbors. Port cities, for instance, had certain resources and challenges more or less intrinsic to their functions: issues of trust and contract enforcement among transient populations, cross-cultural misunderstandings, sudden influxes of mostly unattached males who often arrived after long periods of privation and then received significant lump sum payments, and so on. While specifics of time, place, politics, and culture clearly led to very different ways of managing these problems in different locales, the range of possibilities was not infinite, and ports, by definition, had enough contacts with each other to be aware of what was done elsewhere. Some interesting work bringing together the social history of ports and their denizens in different regions has already been done,[16] and much more is possible. (Historians might learn here from the burgeoning literature on contemporary “world cities.”) Possible modes of analysis range from comparisons focused on structural problems and institutions to citywide case studies to studies of particular groups (sailors, pirates, merchants, prostitutes).

Such undertakings offer rich possibilities for thinking in a world historical frame even about subjects sometimes thought to be quintessentially more national or local. Lauren Benton’s work on the evolution of legal regimes in areas of frequent cross-cultural transactions, for instance, represents one way of giving a world history dimension to a topic often considered resistant to such a treatment: one that strongly insists on the possibility of common needs and awareness of each other’s responses producing convergent institutional outcomes amidst cultural difference.[17]

Richard Wilk’s work on the “bingeing” consumer behavior of sailors, loggers, miners, and other such people in the early modern Atlantic—and on the continuing influence of the models of masculinity they represented, perpetuated through media such as cowboy and swashbuckler movies—represents a different, potentially very richvein. Wilk argues for similarities in the ways people drawn from many societies may experience and represent certain kinds of work lives, but does not claim that institutional development will necessarily be convergent. He also argues for the continuing power of images of these kinds of workers, which have indeed attained global circulation in recent decades, but he leaves open what the effects of those images might be in varied settings. (Elsewhere, I have made a preliminary attempt to analyze how these behaviors and stereotypes cast light on the very different roles and images of Chinese men in similar occupations and how this might open a window into larger issues in both economic history and gender history.)[18]

Nor do we necessarily need to give up the more abstract and ambitious level of generalization and claims that certain processes transformed entire societies, represented by Marxist, Weberian, and other master narratives—even if those particular master narratives need modification. For instance, the phenomenon of a growing scale of organization in the early modern period is itself worthy of study, in part because it appears in so many very different societies. Igor Krupnik shows that during what Europeanists would call the late medieval and early modern periods, Thule Eskimos developed increasingly large and organizationally complex communities, in part because larger groups were needed to efficiently hunt bowhead whales—an activity that offered higher returns to the community than other kinds of hunting. He argues that this was part of a more general evolutionary trend toward larger, more stable, and more effective organizations in this period.[19] John Richards, building on Krupnik and others, sees this development as part of a “shared evolutionary progress in human organization that appears to have reached a critical threshold across Eurasia, if not the entire world.”[20]

“The whole world” would probably be over-reaching, but one can indeed cite a bewildering array of organizational changes that fit this description: from new trading companies and missionary orders to groups of pirates, mercantile diasporas, and of course states. And just as Krupnik’s example is striking because the people involved are generally seen as having been outside the world of states and market economies, it is worth noting that the development of larger, more complex and powerful state organizations, which “metabolized” larger streams of resources, was not limited to settled agrarian or urban societies, much less to Western ones. Peter Perdue shows that the Zunghar Mongols, for instance, were engaged in deliberate, complex, and partly successful state-building projects of their own before being squeezed out by the more successful efforts of the Qing and Romanov empires;[21] so were the rulers of semipastoral Tibet, often taken by Westerners to be a prime example of radically different, nondevelopmentalist values.[22]

It is not clear to what extent these phenomena were linked or share a common character—the degree of formal institutionalization, new kinds of record keeping, and reliance on impersonal rules, for instance, varied enormously across cases—much less what might account for any commonalities. And though Richards et al. are positing a process transforming whole societies—like Marxian capitalism or Weberian rationalization—they are not making nearly as detailed, specific, and constraining a set of assertions about what kinds of outcomes must result as those theorists did. Thus, to the extent that this pattern is borne out, it would still be something much less than a deterministic model of historical change. (Indeed, this helps make such model building more plausible.) Nonetheless, a roughly contemporaneous increase in effective large-scale organization emerging from wildly divergent settings would represent a puzzle of enormous significance, with fundamental implications for how we understand the origins of the modern world.[23]

World History and the History of Social Movements

In looking at specific communities and their purposive actions, we move closer to social history in the sense of the study of social movements and intentional efforts at social change. Indeed it is hard to imagine one without the other: the effects of deliberate efforts to create social change are rarely understandable without considering conditions created by broader and less-conscious forces, while large-scale transformations do not occur without some deliberate, coordinated efforts and opposition.

This kind of social history is the toughest to meld with world history, in large part because the issue of agency becomes much more central. Agency, in turn, requires identifying agents: collective agents that can be usefully treated as having a common situation and intention, at least over some significant period. Here the widespread loss of confidence in old categories that once seemed to travel well across state boundaries—”bourgeoisie,” “peasantry,” “Catholics,” and so on—poses huge problems, which we are not anywhere close to solving.

There are, of course, certain identifiable social movements that were self-consciously transnational and transregional—abolitionism, women’s suffrage, reform and/or evangelist movements within world religions, anarchism, and others. But most of these are relatively recent phenomena, and, however important their impact may have been, their activists made up a small share of any given population. If we want to be able to make more general statements about “how the little people lived the big changes” (in Charles Tilly’s phrase), we need to develop vocabularies that will do at least some of what we used to do with the vocabulary of class—a vocabulary that has now become both shaky and unwieldy as we add modifiers to fit numerous social systems.

Such vocabularies will have to be ones we impose from outside rather than ways that people described themselves, since emic categories are rarely shared across very wide stretches of space and time. But while Steven Feierman, among others, has suggested that this makes the project of writing world history hopeless, I would argue that there is no harm in working with such categories so long as it is not the only thing we do, and so long as we recognize the vocabularies we create for the tools that they are.

After telling the story of an East African woman maneuvering amid various forms of dependency, trying to avoid the one we would call “slavery,” Feierman notes that she and her neighbors would more likely understand her story “within the context of marriage as a range of forms that express degrees of political dominance,” with trade, slavery, and the intrusion of capitalism “distant and indeed largely irrelevant.” He then asks why we should prefer to tell the story through these “European” categories.[24] As I will suggest momentarily, using the category of “empire” as an example, the external categories need not be “European” ones. For instance, sedentarization, though undoubtedly a concept imported from outside the vocabulary of most people resisting, accepting, or even promoting that process, was hardly unique to Europe. Nobody would argue that narratives conceived around externally created terms should be used to the exclusion of narratives phrased in terms that participants might have used (and of course different participants in the same event would often have different vocabularies), but it would be at least equally puzzling to insist on only using “indigenous” categories, even if we could agree on what those were. To rule externally derived categories out-of-bounds cuts off conversation before it begins; by contrast, using such terms provisionally, even if they eventually prove limited, at least stimulates useful discussion about just what it is that these terms fail to capture.

As these examples suggest, it is not necessary that the process of abstracting begin, as it generally has, from the stylized history of what are often taken to be the most “advanced” regions of the world. We might indeed do better beginning elsewhere, both because of diminishing returns in the most intensively worked areas—we have tried cramming world history into the framework of “expanding capitalism” quite a lot, for instance, while few attempts have been made to generalize frameworks not derived from European history[25]—and because unusual “success” is necessarily atypical. And the early modern period —when the degree of interaction among societies was increasing and various regions seemed to be undergoing a number of roughly parallel developments, but the world was nonetheless more polycentric than it has been since industrialization, high imperialism, and the increasing prevalence of mass politics—might be a more promising point of departure than a present from which it is sometimes difficult to imagine that our world was not inevitable.[26]

World History and the Social History of Empire

I do not have a developed vocabulary of this sort to offer. I would, however, propose that one way to begin may be through thinking systematically about early modern and modern empires. In some ways, of course, empires are just one example of large-scale social organization—and like many others, I will argue, they were increasingly shaped by transregional encounters that promoted certain models for being (in this case) imperial. These models placed an increasing premium on making one’s subjects legible to the state and making transcripts demonstrating that increased legibility visible to potentially competing powers. In the nineteenth century and especially in the twentieth century, the preferred models also increasingly involved making “civilizing” interventions in the lives of imperial subjects, which might be connected in interesting ways to the world history of daily life suggested earlier in this essay. And at least in a limited way, the social history of empires may help us make progress on the especially difficult project of bringing world history and the history of social movements together.

By writing of the social history of empires, I mean to de-emphasize some of the concerns that are necessarily front and center in a political history of empires—for example, how a particular place in West Africa wound up being ruled from Paris rather than London (or neither)—and what difference that made. Instead, I would emphasize here a set of challenges faced by all empires, which requires sorting people into multiple categories that seem to justify and facilitate imperial rule—and that could not simply be “found” by looking at the lives of people prior to conquest, even if people eventually came to believe that these categories existed naturally. And since such categories were not simply imposed on a blank slate, social histories of empire are also about the efforts of people to influence, resist, and sometimes take advantage of this sorting without overtly contesting the imperial power’s political rule. (For purposes of this rough and ready typology, I would place efforts explicitly aimed at ousting the imperial power under political history.)

In many cases, the social history of empire has played itself out in struggles over rights in land or other productive assets; in many others, in attempts to make various people perform in everyday life (e.g., in matters of courtship, public demeanor, or hygiene) roles that would mark them as having a particular place in the imperial social order. Such requirements are as old as empires themselves, but as nineteenth- and twentieth-century empires increasingly claimed a transformative mission as the justification of ruling others, the desired performances increasingly involved subordinate groups presenting themselves as becoming more like the ruling power (or at any rate, more like its self-image) without contradicting the rulers’ claim that some gap still remained.[27]
“Empire” is itself a fairly fuzzy concept, but a fairly minimal definition should suffice for current purposes: polities in which leaders of one society also rule directly or indirectly over at least one other society, using instruments different from (though not always more authoritarian than) those used to rule at home. Significantly, for empires, varied kinds of rule are not just concessions to large spaces and limited means, but conceived of as appropriate to differences among their subject peoples. While many contemporary states rule less accessible regions very differently from their capital districts, this is considered, in principle, a temporary failing; in theory, contemporary nations have one kind of government and citizen from border to border. Empires, however, may plan to modify differences among their dominions and to place outer bounds on those differences, but they rarely plan to completely extinguish them.

Once we focus on this issue of heterogeneity, then certain global trends come into focus. First we find an increased focus in early modern times on mapping territory, categorizing ethnic groups, and so on, and on communicating this information to other empires in ways (e.g., through increasingly standardized cartographic conventions) that both represented a kind of claim staking and a performative adherence to a global “imperial style.” Significantly, these imperial gestures often involved applying more detailed scrutiny and more mathematical kinds of mapping to frontier areas (and certain kinds of government intervention, especially in land use) earlier than similar changes were made in the empires’ heartlands—this was the case in settings as varied as Qing Central Asia, Russian Siberia, and British India.[28]

This did not emerge completely independently in different empires: for instance, as various authors have pointed out, the hand of the Jesuits is identifiable in a number of these cartographic and ethnographic projects, though they generally became involved at the urging of local actors.[29] Nor, on the other hand, does it represent something that simply diffused from a single European source: one can see independent and parallel impulses in the Ming and Qing for instance, as well as a number of culturally specific features that constitute important variations. Compare, for instance, Qing mapmakers giving places in Central Asia that had once been ruled from within China proper, but not within the last thousand years, names that evoked those long-past eras[30] with the Western practice of calling places never before ruled from Europe—in many cases, never before seen by Europeans—New Amsterdam or New South Wales.

We have, then, a family of projects aiming at increased though limited degrees of standardization, and perhaps also family resemblances among the reactions of those who were the objects of these efforts, but still nothing like a single story of “incorporation” into a “world-system” and resistance to that effort. It is not yet clear how far we will be able to push such inquiries into the comparative and connective dimensions of early modern imperial styles and practices, but there seem to be enough possibilities to make the effort worthwhile. At a certain point we may arrive at irreducible differences that make it more useful to revert to single empire narratives, but that would only mean that the usefulness of a world history perspective ultimately proved finite, not that it proved to be zero.

In parallel fashion to these early modern reconceptualizations of empire, one finds in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries a widespread increase in the emphasis many empires placed on “civilizing projects.”[31] By this I mean that more and more empires justified their rule over others by claiming that the empire would ultimately transform at least some of their “exotic” subjects into people who would think, live, and be governed more like those of the central polity. (In the twentieth century, this has often been transformed by treating “economic development” as the benefit supposedly conferred by the imperial power, whether it exercises formal sovereignty or not.) While such a rationale for empire was not new, it became far more prominent than it had been before.

By contrast, some other rationales became less common. One of these—though it certainly did not disappear completely—was the claim that imperial rulers were paternalistically preserving the very different ways of life and rule appropriate to each group in their domain. And one rationale that did nearly disappear was the claim made by some earlier rulers (the Mongols and sometimes the early Manchus, for instance) that they had a right to rule because they represented the superior martial vigor and austere morality of less “civilized” rulers. This shift in the understanding of what imperial powers did had profound implications that will ultimately bring us back to how we might think about world history in combination with the history of social change and social movements.

The “civilizing” imperial mission is, of course, best known in its western European form, where it was tied to the emergence of specific ideas derived from the Enlightenment, holding that “civilized” people should rule themselves. With those developments came increased attention to a gap between national states at the core of empires—most of which possessed or would soon possess some features of representative and constitutionally limited government—and colonial dependencies that often had none. This gap itself had been much less pronounced in the early modern period. The British case is in many ways illustrative. While the empire in 1750/1775 included several colonies where a larger percentage of white residents had meaningful political rights than in Britain itself, the situation was radically different by 1850/1875. Far more Britons now had political rights, many colonies with relatively liberal political systems (particularly in North America) were no longer part of the empire, most of the most recently acquired colonies were governed with little formally recognized local input, and various long-held colonies (e.g., in the Caribbean) had been reorganized as what Christopher Bayly has called “pro-consular despotisms,” with weakened or abolished legislatures and much more powerful executives than before, appointed from London.[32] Other European empires also offered increasingly sharp contrasts between metropole and colony, and it was, after all, a set of European ideas about natural rights that made it increasingly necessary to justify empire per se (rather than the empire of a specific group) and thus made Europeans especially prone to claim the “civilizing” rationale.

Nonetheless, we find interesting parallels elsewhere, deriving from very different trajectories. Longstanding Qing vacillation between posing as Confucian “civilizers” or as fellow Central Asians and inheritors of the Mongol crown in what is now far western China tipped decisively toward the “civilizing” pole by the early nineteenth century. In part this was due to the increasing prominence of Han Chinese in frontier management;[33] in part to intensifying competition with Russia (and later also British India) in Central Asia, which necessitated greater control and mobilization of frontier resources; and in part simply because improved logistics made increased intervention feasible. (Officials on the frontier were also free of the established patterns of relations between state and local elite that often limited their initiative in China proper.[34] The early Manchu poses of being entitled to rule partly on the grounds of being less “civilized”/decadent (used within the Han Chinese provinces) or the claim (especially in Central Asia) that they had the same universal rights to rule once claimed by Genghis Khan (by virtue of descent and conquest) had never been pressed to the exclusion of claims based on custodianship of Confucian civilization; they had, however, colored those claims even as they were made within China proper and made them decidedly secondary in other parts of the empire. Over time, however, a specifically Chinese “Mandate of Heaven” linked to a civilizing mission reacquired more of the salience it typically had under Han Chinese dynasties. Late eighteenth-century imperial maps increasingly gave places in Qing Central Asia names (and thus identities) dependent on earlier periods when they had been ruled from China. Early nineteenth-century officials increasingly emphasized the desirability and even necessity of ruling these regions in Chinese fashion.[35] Later in the nineteenth century, with British and Russian pressure via the “great game” increasing and modern tools of empire becoming more available, the Qing made far more ambitious efforts at political and social standardization in Central Asia (after defeating a series of rebellions there), even as they themselves were the object of “civilizing” incursions and pressures from stronger powers.

Similarly, Russian images of Siberia as a strange world with peoples to be studied and controlled rather than just empty space from which to export profitable furs seem to date from the age of Peter the Great.[36] And while Russian imperial ceremonies had always gone to great lengths to portray the Czar as foreign (odd as that seems to our modern, national, sensibilities), two eighteenth-century changes are worth noting. Early in the century, Peter the Great dispensed with many of the religious trappings of earlier imperial ceremonies, and instead emphasized the benefits he conferred by “taking Russia from the darkness of Ignorance to the Theater of the World . . . into the company of political peoples.” At first, he emphasized having done so largely through his conquests, but later placed more emphasis on the “civilizing” effects of his cultural importations.[37] Later in the century, under Catherine, an increasing number of non-Russian elites were incorporated into the Russian nobility, dressed in Russian clothes, and shown off as examples of her civilizing power, with her empire increasingly portrayed as equivalent to Rome, and boasting of the wide variety of peoples to which it was allegedly bringing uniform law and material progress.[38] A more substantive effort at Russification, going beyond the nobility and covering many areas, seems to date from about one hundred years later than that, in the early nineteenth century, and despite that timing, Russification seems to have owed little to ideas that “self-rule” is natural.

The Ottoman situation differed in at least two major respects. First, that empire was no longer gaining territory in the eighteenth century. Second, while Anatolia had come to be its territorial core, there was no “Anatolian” ethnic group to play the same role as Russians in the Romanov lands or a combination of Manchus and Han Chinese in the Qing, and no “Turkish” one until near the end of the empire. Both civil administrators and military officers came from very diverse backgrounds, and were supposed to be above ethnicity. But even if “civilization” did not have an ethnic referent,[39] “civilizing” efforts were under way, and often moved fastest first outside the heartland. The brief capture of the holy cities by Wahhabi Bedouins at the end of the eighteenth century marked a high point of sorts for tribal groups in the empire; thereafter, an imperial counterattack gathered force, and tribal dominions and autonomy shrank throughout the nineteenth century.[40] An effort was made to give Serbian peasants property rights as a way of quelling disaffection there during the 1790s—over half-a-century before the empire-wide reform of land laws.[41] Reformers in the Ottoman central government attacked the alliance of ulama and janissary in various outlying areas well before they succeeded in Istanbul (in 1826), and in many (though certainly not all) cases, turn-of-the-century Ottoman reformers appear to have begun reforming nonstandard forms of property and administration, and clamping down on enthusiastic forms of Islam, before they were able (mostly via the 1830s tanzimat) to bring systematic reform along these lines into the heart of their empire. At least later in the nineteenth century, Ottoman reformers contemplating their efforts vis-à-vis Arabs, Kurds, nomads, and “marginals,” quite explicitly labeled their efforts “civilizing” and compared them to what Europeans claimed to be doing in Africa.[42] And, as in the Qing and Romanov cases, the increased Ottoman emphasis on “civilizing” frontier zones was unconnected to any of the faith in democracy for a civilized core to which Western European powers at least paid lip service.

Many factors, both global and regional, were at work in each instance, and there is little to be gained by looking for a monocausal explanation to suit all cases. Still, a search for some common factors makes sense. One of the most basic and transregional of early modern social trends—global population growth, the intensification of land use that went with it, and the increasing marginalization of nomadic peoples around the world that followed from that[43]—would seem worth investigating as a reason that we see this shift even in empires not noticeably affected by Enlightenment notions of peoplehood. This is not to say that European ideas did not give their versions of the “civilizing” mission a distinct character, for better or worse; it does, however, suggest new ways to think about both European and non-European imperialisms in a global frame.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century we see a further shift that echoes in many places: a notion that “civilizing” imperial subjects meant civilizing the masses (in terms of hygiene, mass education, etc.), not just grooming an elite. In some ways, efforts to transform elites—Macaulay’s famous 1834 call to create a class of Hindus like the British, Qing efforts to Confucianize a few Miao and make them local officials, and longstanding Ottoman efforts to recruit slaves from various backgrounds and turn them into a cadre of “Ottoman” civil servants who were above ethnicity—may have all had more in common with each other than any of them has with circa 1900 efforts (whether by imperial rulers or nationalist opponents) to “create” or “awaken” whole peoples.[44] As Fred Cooper, Ann Stoler, and others have shown with reference to European empires, the later notion of a “civilizing” mission not only targeted far more people, but aimed at far more intimate regulation of their lives. It thus also required more regulation of the lives of Europeans living in the colonies, who needed to live up to their roles as models of self-mastery and superior rationality (or, in other words to [re]produce a difference among peoples that was required in order to legitimize continuing efforts at standardization).[45] This project ultimately proved extremely difficult to abandon without undermining the modern rationale for empire, but also impossible to complete. Yet, as a number of studies have shown, these efforts are no less historically significant for having embodied such contradictions or for having proved unsustainable.

These claims of common changes in the mode of being “imperial” clearly need more support than can be provided here. But if we can concede they are at least plausible hypotheses, we can return to the main thrust of this panel: to think about how to have world history and social history inform each other better. Some of the common policies that derive from a civilizing orientation—attacks on nonsedentary peoples, on various kinds of marriage practices and such, and later attempts to impose uniform primary education and so on—and reactions to them offer a number of spheres in which to tie finely grained context-specific “movement” social histories into a large narrative that is not simply that of expanding capitalism, or even capitalism and modern state-formation. Nor does such a narrative frame depend for its utility on either the ultimate success or the final revolutionary overthrow of the would-be homogenizers. These efforts have continued well beyond independence in many settings, and continue to produce both partial standardization and new kinds of recognizeable differences. Moreover, because these imperial projects spanned public and private life, studying them allows us to engage a vast range of literatures in which culturally specific stories often loom large and that are therefore often thought to be particularly resistant to treatment in a world history frame.

I would not want to claim too much for this—it still falls far short, for instance, of solving the questions about identifying comparable agents across different parts of the world, because one can’t define comparable agents based simply on the fact that they undertake comparable actions without becoming tautological (e.g., imperial centralizers centralize). We can pick out common groups in various contexts —unwillingly sedentarized frontier populations, ethnic minority merchants allied to imperial powers, women from subordinate groups who wind up tied to elite men, and so on—and do a kind of pattern recognition. For example, the minority merchants often wind up socially isolated and vulnerable, the women often face downward mobility as increasingly virulent racial ideologies affect the dominant power (and/or nationalism emerges among the colonized), and so on. Whatever stories we tell about these groups, however, will always be stories about fragments of a larger social structure, and there is no particular reason to think that they will lead us to a more generalizable description of these societies as wholes, much less to an integrated picture of the entire world. But surely world history need not deliver that level of generalizations to prove its value; after all, we do not expect national histories to provide truly comprehensive pictures of a given nation, much less rules with predictive value.

Finally, a world history perspective adopted heuristically may have much to offer in the way of new perspectives on stories that seem to fit relatively comfortably within established national or regional narratives. Narratives of American, Japanese, or other national “exceptionalisms,” like the claims Feierman makes on behalf of his East African interlocutor, can claim to be faithful to the way the agents might narrate their experience (or the way their properly schooled descendants would); epistemologically speaking, attempts to retell either kind of story using terms imported from elsewhere would seem to raise similar issues. But the advantages—both scholarly and otherwise—of trying to see national stories in more readily comparable terms are perhaps more apparent.[46]

Consider, for instance, the following classic American story: late nineteenth-century Europeans crossing the Atlantic, pushing back frontiers in the Americas (with the destruction of bison, marginalization of Native Americans, and creation of a wheat monoculture in the process), and generating cheap grain exports that helped make increasing numbers of European farms unviable, thus stimulating more emigration, and so on.[47] If this process is discussed in a broader framework at all, it is likely to be by linking it to developments in other temperate zone “neo-Europes” such as Australia or Argentina.[48] That in itself is a worthwhile exercise, and one that forms part of a reasonable world history agenda, but the global integration of grain markets and acceleration of free migration in the late nineteenth century were not limited to such settings, even if environmental patterns gave them extra force there.

So let us instead juxtapose the American story to a different, still roughly contemporaneous, episode in the growth of global agribusiness: Chinese participating in the turning of the Mekong and Chaophraya deltas (both drained with the help of Western engineers) into export rice bowls. This involved killing off elephants and other large mammals, pushing various peoples up into the hills, and replacing a varied jungle with monoculture in the process, with a significant portion of the rice going back to coastal China, out-competing Chinese farmers in the interior for coastal urban markets, and so on. We could then add a third story, of Indians in the Irrawaddy Delta, which was turned into rice farms at about the same time, with some of the same dynamics.

Nobody would want to claim that all these stories (or even all the Southeast Asian ones) are exactly the same. We are again seeing roughly parallel processes in different places producing both similarities and differences, and leaving some old differences unchanged. And the fact of empire in the Southeast Asian case (meaning that immigrants there, unlike in the United States, had no immediate prospect of becoming citizens) is one big reason why. (Another is resistance to transnational connections in one of its less noble incarnations: very few Chinese and Indians were allowed to join Europeans in clearing Australia, the United States, or other liberal neo-Europes.) But there is much to be gained by insisting that we be more precise about why we customarily assign these stories to two very different categories, and even place those involved in different social categories when the primary difference between the two situations is more likely political. The transatlantic migrants are usually labeled “farmers,” at least once they reach the Americas, and the Chinese and Indian ones “peasants,” though this distinction does not even exist in many languages (including Chinese), and Westerners generally called Chinese cultivators “farmers” rather than “peasants” until the 1920s. Indeed, the term that is now routinely used in Chinese for cultivators and translated as “peasant” (nongmin) seems to be a twentieth-century neologism.[49] Both the English and the Chinese vocabulary shifts seem to have been made to convey a sense that these people—unlike Western “farmers”—were, whether by virtue of their own nature or that of the system they lived in, incapable of creating dynamic change or modern civic action on their own. In short, we may find cases in which our existing categories (and the behavioral assumptions based on them) contain too many distinctions, just as we have seen that other categories such as “bourgeoisie” were applied too hastily to too many places.

At the very least, using questions derived from world history about what is at stake in saying one society had “peasants” and the other “farmers,” and when those differences do and do not matter, might sharpen our understanding of how we define social groups in each specific case involved. In that process, social history and world history engage in useful dialogue, rather than proclaiming that local particularities make such dialogue impossible. In the process, we create more multilayered and nuanced social histories of conventional local, regional, and national units, histories to place alongside the social histories of groups whose definitions and spatial boundaries come from world history itself.


* A much shorter version of this paper was presented as “Social History, World History, and Modern Empires,” at the American Historical Association annual meeting in Seattle, Washington in January 2005. My thanks to the panel organizer, Stephen S. Gosch, and to the audience for their stimulating questions. Thanks also to Vinayak Chaturvedi, Edmund Burke III, and Jerry H. Bentley for their very helpful comments on drafts of the revised paper. Any errors are, of course, my own responsibility.
1 For a forceful statement of this position, see Steven Feierman, “African Histories and the Dissolution of World History,” in Africa and the Disciplines, ed. Robert H. Bates, V. Y. Mudimbe, and Jean O’Barr (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), pp. 167–212.
2 The United Nations World Migration Report for 2005 estimates that as of 2000, 2.9 percent of the world’s people lived in a country other than the one they were born in. See, accessed 22 January 2006. This percentage is higher than in 1960 (2.5 percent), but may be no higher thanin1920, when a number of the major receiving countries tightened restrictions on immigration.
3 There are excellent bibliographies for these and other topics in the “Social History” chapter of Patrick Manning, Navigating World History: Historians Create a Global Past (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), pp. 201–214. I will not reproduce or even refer to all of them here, but they are an invaluable guide to the existing literature.
4 See for instance, the papers published in Tommy Bengtsson, Cameron Campbell, and James Lee, eds., Life under Pressure: Mortality and Living Standards in Europe and Asia, 1700–1900 (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004); Robert Allen, Tommy Bengtsson, and Martin Dribe, eds., Living Standards in the Past: New Perspectives on Well-Being in Asia and Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); and Renzo Derosas, Michel Oris, and Osamu Saito, eds., When Dad Dies (Bern: Peter Lang, 2002).
5 Christopher A. Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World 1780–1914 (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), pp. 12–17.
6 See David Northrup, “Globalization and the Great Convergence: Rethinking World History in the Long Term,” Journal of World History 16 (2005): 251–252 (citing David Eltis).
7 David Kuchta, The Three-Piece Suit and Modern Masculinity: England 1550–1850 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), pp. 51–123, esp. 67–70, 74–75, 80, 81–82, 85–87, 99, 109–111, 123. For parallels in other areas of life, I am much indebted to discussions with Richard Kroll; on exotic foods in particular, see his “Pope and Drugs: The Pharmacology of The Rape of the Lock,” English Literary History 67, no. 1 (2000): 99–141, esp. pp. 102, 130–133.
8 E. M. Collingham, Imperial Bodies: The Physical Experience of the Raj, c. 1800–1947 (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2001), pp. 1–49.
9 Ibid., pp. 45–49.
10 The ads for Pear’s soap are probably the most famous exemplars of this; see, for instance, some examples in Thomas Richards, The Commodity Culture of Victorian Britain (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1990), pp. 121–123, 141. For a lengthy discussion of cleanliness and the ideology of high imperialism, see Timothy Burke, Lifebuoy Men, Lux Women: Commodification, Consumption, and Cleanliness in Modern Zimbabwe (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1999), pp. 17–62.
11 Bayly, Birth of the Modern World, pp. 15, 17.
12 Karl Gerth, China Made (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003), esp. pp. 103–110.
13 One of the original arguments about European proto-industrial regions is that the niches that emerged within them for young people to support themselves without owning any means of production allowed for an earlier age at marriage, and (in the absence of much birth control within marriage), rapid population growth. But in the proto-industrial regions of China and India, for instance, average age at marriage was already much younger than in Europe west of John Hajnal’s famous “line from Petersburg to Trieste”; thus, even if more proto-industrial workers in East and South Asia had been true proletarians, with no family ties to the land and no independent access to means of production, there would be no reason to expect the same demographic consequences. See R. Bin Wong, China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1997), pp. 34–38; John Hajnal, “Two Kinds of Preindustrial Household Formation System,” Population and Development Review 8, no. 3 (1982): 449–494. Tine de Moor and Jan Luiten van Zanden are currently engaged in a very interesting reanalysis of what may have been unique about marriage patterns in Northwestern Europe in relation to proletarianization, focusing on the North Sea area.
14 Frank Perlin, “Proto-Industrialization and Pre-Colonial South Asia,” Past and Present 98 (February 1983): 30–95.
15 For a general survey, see Sheilagh Ogilvie and Markus Cerman, eds., European Proto-Industrialization (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
16 For books looking at more than one port, see, for instance Marcus Rediker, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates, and the Anglo-American Maritime World 1700–1750 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987); and Frank Broeze, ed., Brides of the Sea: Port Cities of Asia from the 16th–20th Centuries (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1989).
17 Lauren Benton, Law and Colonial Cultures: Legal Regimes and World History 1400–1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002). Benton’s book is not social history by most definitions, but it nonetheless represents an example of turning a topic often thought to demand a local or national framing a world history treatment instead.
18 See Richard Wilk, “The Binge in the Food Economy of Nineteenth-Century Belize,” in Changing Tastes: Food Culture and the Processes of Industrialization, ed. Patricia Lysaght (Basel: Verlag der Schweizerischen Gesellschaft für Volkskunde, 2004), pp. 110–120. My own very preliminary thoughts on this are contained in “Issues in the History of Consumption in China: Notes on an Emerging Field” (paper presented at 50th anniversary conference, Institute for Modern History, Academia Sinica, Taibei, July 2005).
19 Igor Krupnik, Arctic Adaptations: Native Whalers and Reindeer Herders of Northern Eurasia (Hanover, N.H.: Dartmouth College, 1993), pp. 190–191. See also his discussion of population growth and the transition from hunting reindeer to herding them (pp. 177–183). It should be noted, though, that Krupnik also sees a cyclical pattern at work, in which periodic declines in the availability of whales or other disturbances led groups to focus on other activities, which might not require comparable organization.
20 John Richards, The Unending Frontier: An Environmental History of the Early Modern World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), pp. 17–24; quotation from p. 17.
21 Peter Perdue, China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005), esp. pp. 304–307.
22 Ibid., pp. 227–228.
23 For attempts to conceptualize such processes, see, for instance, David Christian, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004); and Stephen Sanderson, Social Transformations: A General Theory of Historical Development (London: Blackwell, 1995).
24 Feierman, “African Histories,” pp. 196, 199.
25 For an extended argument along these lines, see Wong, China Transformed. But note that his China-derived questions do not provide universal frames, either (nor does he claim they do); they may yield insights about Europe, but they might not work much better than questions derived from European experience for societies without states, like some of those discussed by Feierman.
26 One result of this might be finding a better term for the “early modern” itself. While that phrase refers to a set of phenomena that seem to be common to a number of societies and also references their increased interaction, it rather uncomfortably also suggests that these phenomena logically lead to a “modernity” that, as it is usually understood, fits some of these societies considerably earlier and more fully than others. If we could characterize that period in some general way that did not draw as heavily on a more regionally specific set of outcomes, we might get a better sense of how common processes could produce different results without having to represent non-European versions of this process as “abortive,” “partial,” etc. The discussion of empire that follows is meant to be one of many possible explorations in that direction.
27 For one very useful formulation of this idea and application to a number of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century cases, see Ann Stoler, “Making Empire Respectable,” in Imperial Monkey Business: Racial Supremacy in Social Darwinist Theory and Colonial Practice, ed. Jan Breman (Amsterdam: VU University Press, 1990), pp. 35–70.
28 Perdue, China Marches West, pp. 443–453; see also Matthew Edney, Mapping an Empire: The Geographic Construction of British India, 1765–1843 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997). For an argument about environmental regulation in particular being tried in some of Europe’s overseas possessions before it would have been accepted by landowners in the metropoles, see Richard Grove, Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens, and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600–1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
29 See, for instance, Perdue, China Marches West, pp. 447–453; and Laura Hostetler, Qing Colonial Enterprise: Ethnography and Cartography in Early Modern China (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), pp. 63–64, 76–78.
30 James Millward, “‘Coming onto the Map’: ‘Western Regions’ Geography and Cartographic Nomenclature in the Making of Chinese Empire in Xinjiang,” Late Imperial China 20, no. 2 (2000): 61–98.
31 I develop this argument at greater length in “Imperialism, Development, and ‘Civilizing’ Missions, Past and Present,” Daedalus (April 2005): 34–45.
32 C. A. Bayly, Imperial Meridian: The British Empire and the World, 1780–1830 (London: Longmans, 1989), pp. 115, 118–121, 126–132, 193–216.
33 See, for instance, James Polachek, The Inner Opium War (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992); and Millward, “Coming Onto the Map.”
34 Perdue, China Marches West, p. 337.
35 Philip Kuhn, Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990), pp. 65–72; Christopher Attwood, “‘Worshipping Grace’: The Language of Loyalty in Qing Mongolia,” Late Imperial China 21, no. 2 (2000): 90–96; Perdue, China Marches West, p. 83; and Millward, “Coming Onto the Map,” pp. 77–86, capture different portions of this development. See also Brian Dott, Identity Reflections: Pilgrimages to Mount Tai in Late Imperial China (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Asia Center, 2004), pp. 152, 160–163, 176–80, 192, for an interesting account of how even at a “quintessentially Chinese” ritual site (Mt. Tai), early Qing emperors found ways to assert their supremacy as Manchus, to “project Manchu superiority back in time,” and to chide past Chinese emperors (and the Han Chinese officials who urged emulating them) for excessive devotion to elaborate ritual and insufficient understanding that good rulership was a matter of unending hard work.
36 Perdue, China Marches West, pp. 89, 91; Millward, “Coming Onto the Map,” pp. 86–88.
37 Richard Wortman, Scenarios of Power: Myth and Ceremony in the Russian Monarchy, Volume I (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995), pp. 42–83; quotation from p. 63.
38 Ibid., pp. 135–139.
39 In fact, this was a complicated affair for the Qing and Romanov, too. “Civilized” Russian norms were often quite consciously borrowed from Western Europe, and the complex relationship of Manchu and Han makes assimilation to a single “people’s” way of life a problematic model for Qing China as well. As Mark Elliott has emphasized, Qing rulers from the mid eighteenth century on were still quite determined to assert a separate Manchu identity, but that separation increasingly rested on institutional differences (primarily membership in the banner system) rather than on a presumption of cultural difference. See Elliott, The Manchu Way (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2001).
40 Donald Quataert, The Ottoman Empire 1700–1922 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 82; Suraiya Faroqhi, Bruce McGowan, Donald Quataert and Şevket Pamuk, An Economic and Social History of the Ottoman Empire, Volume Two, 1600–1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 769.
41 Feroz Ahmed, Turkey: The Quest for Identity (Oxford: One World Publishing, 2003), p. 26.
42 Selim Derengil, The Well-Protected Domains (London: Tauris, 1998), pp. 69–84, 93–94, 148.
43 Clearly, there were important differences in the dynamics and weight of different factors that are not captured by this generalization. In the Americas, Australia, and much of Africa, for instance, intensification of land use driven by either population pressure or state formation played a much smaller role than in Eurasia until much later, while new epidemic diseases (except in Africa) played a much larger one. Meanwhile, another factor often associated with the early modern period—the rise of long-distance maritime commerce—was significant in undermining nomadic groups in some, but not all parts of Eurasia. Caravan trade in what are today North India, Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey seems to have suffered significantly from maritime competition in the seventeenth century and thereafter, though the causation is complicated: the crucial seventeenth-century decline seems to have had more to do with an increasing disadvantage in protection costs as with improvements in seaborne shipping per se, and that in turn was probably as much caused by increasing turmoil in South and Southwest Asian polities as the cause of it. (On the shift to the sea and protection costs, see Niels Steensgaard, The Asian Trade Revolution of the Seventeenth Century [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973].) However, it is still the case that maritime development played a significant background role, creating an alternative to land transport that must have limited the ability of those along land routes to raise protection rents without losing traffic. Farther north, however, trade routes through present-day Russia appear to have continued growing through most of the eighteenth century and perhaps even longer, providing increased revenues to Mongols and Kazhaks as well as their Qing and Romanov rivals. (See Morris Rossabi, “The ‘Decline’ of the Central Asian Caravan Trade,” in The Rise of Merchant Empires, ed. James D. Tracy [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990], pp. 351–370.) Finally, it is worth emphasizing that sedentarization, or at least partial sedentarization, was not always imposed from without on nomads: various groups of Mongols, for instance, made conscious and partly successful efforts to increase the agricultural component of their incomes, in part to strengthen themselves against imperial rivals constricting their migrations. Further investigation of imposed versus internally driven sedentarization might well prove very fruitful, so might a comparison to the nineteenth-century phenomenon of sedentary agricultural states in Egypt, Japan, and elsewhere initiating industrialization drives in an attempt to ward off imperial powers by themselves undertaking broadly similar developmental projects.
44 Of course budgetary concerns meant that the difference in reality between efforts aimed at the few and efforts aimed at everyone were much smaller in practice than in rhetoric.
45 Frederick Cooper and Ann Stoler, “Beyond Metropole and Colony: Rethinking a Research Agenda,” in Tensions of Empire: Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World, ed. Cooper and Stoler (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), pp. 1–56; and Stoler, “Making Empire Respectable.”
46 For an interesting treatment of world history and histories focused on national exceptionalism (in this case, American exceptionalism) as competing intellectual and ethical “wagers,” see Jerry Bentley, “Myths, Wagers, and Some Moral Implications of World History,” Journal of World History 16 (2005): 51–82, esp. 76–81.
47 For one good summary emphasizing the self-reinforcing nature of this loop and its links to agricultural capitalism, see John Bodnar, The Transplanted: A History of Immigrants in Urban America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), pp. 1–56.
48 The most famous example is Alfred Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).
49 Moreover, once the term “peasant” took hold, it was also applied to many rural residents who wove or did other nonfarming work for a living. Charles Hayford, “The Storm over the Peasant: Orientalism and Rhetoric in Construing China,” in Contesting the Master Narrative, ed. Jeffrey Cox and Shelton Stromquist (Iowa City: Iowa Press, 1998), pp. 150–172, esp. 160–164; Myron Cohen, “Cultural and Political Inventions in Modern China: The Case of the Chinese ‘Peasant,'” in China in Transformation, ed. Tu Wei-ming (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994), pp. 154–160. In today’s China, As Cohen points out, “peasant” has become an administrative/political term—though with real implications for entitlements—often used to describe a person who may work in a factory and have neighbors and even co-resident kin who are classified as “urban.”




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