Eurocentrism and Its Discontents

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, January 2001

Have moves to make the discipline less Eurocentric gone too far? This is the claim made by Tony Judt and David Landes.1 Or do they still have a long way to go, as Kenneth Pomeranz and Dipesh Chakrabarty have recently argued?2 Asking questions like these can trigger heated arguments these days.

One key thing to acknowledge, to tone down the acrimoniousness that often accompanies arguments about Eurocentrism, is that people on both sides of the divide are justified in feeling anxious. Though members of each group sometimes exaggerate their grievances (I know I have), the fact is that the discipline (and the American academic structure in general) is in the midst of a complex transition due in part to economic and geopolitical trends largely beyond our control. Shifting priorities in the history curriculum and in hiring complicate the situation and keep the debate boiling as diverse groups of historians feel vulnerable simultaneously, though for different reasons.

For example, some Europeanists worry that their field is no longer considered of central importance. Graduate students and recent PhDs (understandably concerned about finding jobs and getting tenure) are probably most acutely troubled. But some senior Europeanists are anxious about their ability to continue training and placing PhD students.

This is particularly evident in the always difficult question of hiring. Departments are increasingly being torn between a desire to maintain traditional areas of strength—which can mean at least a third of the faculty focus on Europe—and calls for greater representation of parts of the world and topics not previously covered. This leads to tough questions about how best to replace, say, a trio of departing historians who worked on the Italian Renaissance, the French Revolution, and the German Reformation. Should these slots be filled with scholars in the same areas? Specialists studying different regions and topics? Or by a mix-and-match approach, so that searches are run, for example, for specialists in early modern European, modern Middle Eastern, and Asian American history, respectively? These decisions are hard enough to make without additional factors coming into play—but they do. Fiscal constraints can lead, in my imagined case, to only one or two searches being authorized.

Meanwhile, many historians working on the "Two-Thirds World" (a memorable phrase offered by Carol Gluck) have different concerns.3 We still feel stranded at the discipline's periphery. Europeanists and Americanists still often view our work as contributing to knowledge of particular places rather than to broad debates.

Even when we attempt to speak generally, we are often read as merely providers of exotic data. And our sense of struggling for respect on an uneven playing field is continually reinforced by state-of-the-field essays that purport to speak about the discipline, yet end up discussing only works about the West.

Our most general complaint is that the European and American pasts continue to be treated too often as the only unmarked cases. Recent scholarship has shown that asymmetries of power and distortions of understanding are created whenever only certain people are described as having an "ethnicity" or being "gendered" subjects—that is, as having marked identities. This is manifest in the profession when scholars of strikes in American or European factories, for example, introduce themselves simply as "labor historians," while those doing research on Nigeria or Chile are expected to specify that they study African or Latin American workers.

There are many other examples of the ambivalent effects of the critique of Eurocentrism on the field. Have courses in world history replaced Western civ ones on many campuses, forcing Europeanists to redefine their pedagogic activities? Yes. But are there first-rate periodicals with generic names (the Journal of Modern History, for example) that still only publish work on Europe? Also yes. Is it more likely that a publisher will return your call if you say your book focuses on urban life in a Japanese as opposed to a Dutch city? Probably. But if both books appeared, would an essay on "Trends in Urban History" still be more likely to ignore the one on Yokohama as opposed to Amsterdam? Almost certainly.

Definitional matters muddy the debate further. It is sometimes unclear where exactly the United States fits. "Eurocentrism" can function as shorthand for Western-centrism but it can also mean a more specific privileging of Europe. Then there is the ambiguous status of Russia and eastern Europe. The Journal of Modern History now has a leading Russianist, Sheila Fitzpatrick, as one of its editors. On the other hand, even in these post–Cold War times, the situation of eastern Europeanists within departments often seems most analogous in many ways to that of Africanists, Asianists, and Latin Americanists.

Also confusing things is the narrow way that some critics of the anti-Eurocentric tide define Eurocentrism. Both Judt and Landes, for example, stress that it is misleading to deny that European states and ideas were tremendously influential internationally from around 1800 to 1945. However, many scholars critical of Eurocentrism willingly cede this point. China specialist and world historian Pomeranz certainly does, since his book explores why, not whether, European hegemony emerged. Most of those concerned, as I am, with the negative impact of imperialism on and the liberating potential of revolutionary ideals with Enlightenment roots in the Two-Thirds World, take for granted that Europe (and also America and later Japan) played a central role in shaping the modern world.

However, opponents of Eurocentrism do insist that an important episode of European hegemony not be naturalized, read further into the past or carried further toward the present than is justified; and that the rise of the West be treated as a contingent, not preordained phenomenon. Moreover, often when we decry Eurocentrist history, our concern is not with this issue at all, but with the continuing hold on the discipline of modes of analysis that privilege European categories, or ascribe greater rationality and capacity for agency to Western than to all other historical actors. When Chakrabarty and others call for Europe to be "provincialized" this does not mean the continent should be viewed as unimportant. Just that Europeanists should acknowledge more freely that they, too, are area specialists—as, in a sense, were great social theorists, including Weber and Marx, who generalized from their knowledge of the West.

I have long been interested in the debate on Eurocentrism and fascinated by the complex and messy issues it raises. But never more so than in the last few years, which I have spent as the associate editor and (since August) the acting editor of the American Historical Review. Working at the journal has made me acutely aware of just how many facets there are to the debate. And of the varied and intense emotions it can stir up.

Association with the journal has also helped me to appreciate the limits to thinking in terms of a West/Two-Thirds World divide. After all, many of the most interesting submissions to the AHR deal with the flow of ideas, objects, and people between disparate points on the globe; with borderlands and frontier zones; with comparative issues; and so on. Moreover, scanning back issues from the initial part of Michael Grossberg's first five-year term as editor and the last five-year term of his predecessor (David Ransel) suggests that this has been the case for at least a decade.

Another limitation to thinking always of a West/Two-Thirds World divide is that it obscures other factors that can make historians feel marginalized. Temporality and genre of history often matters, as Grossberg noted in a thoughtful recent Perspectives piece on trends at the AHR.4 Many historians who work on the distant past (of any region) feel vulnerable just now, for example, and so do military historians interested in varied parts of the world. A focus on the West/Two-Thirds World divide can also blind us to other patterns. The tendency to treat the West as the unmarked case seems less pronounced, for example, in studies of gender than of other subjects at present. And historians of sexuality seem more willing than most to take part in broadly comparative dialogues. The robustly international structure of recent major conferences on homosexuality held in Los Angeles and Chicago illustrates this.

Moreover, precise location within continents can be crucial, since there are many different sorts of geographically defined peripheries and centers. Specialists in South Asian and Korean history have pointed out to me, for example, that "paying more attention to Asia" sometimes seems just to mean paying more attention to those parts of it that particularly interest Americans—namely, China and Japan. Similarly, when the AHR ran a work on modern Greece in 2000, several scholars told us how gratifying it was to finally see an article dealing with their area of concern. I admit that this kind of "thanks for including us in the discussion" reaction from Europeanists surprised me.

I have drawn a few tentative and not so tentative conclusions about the debate on Eurocentrism after spending a few years at the AHR. Here they are:

First, so many factors are in play in the debate that all blanket statements about how far the critique of Eurocentrism has gone or should go are bound to be reductionist.

Second, knee-jerk anti-Eurocentrism can lead to the writing of bad history. Sometimes, in rushing to combat any possible overemphasis on Europe, the baby is indeed thrown out with the bathwater, as Landes claims. And it has become too easy, as Judt argues, to replace Eurocentric narratives with tales so ungrounded that they come across as disembodied and passionless.

Third, terms such as "Eurocentrism," "Western-centric," and "Orientalist" are too often being used now as all-purpose epithets that inhibit rather than launch meaningful exchanges of ideas. When these terms are employed to challenge the validity or arguments of specific work's validity, this should be done carefully, with the critic's understanding of the word in question spelled out. Historians of the Two-Thirds World writing in the United States should be particularly sensitive to this issue. After all, we are often accused of being "Eurocentric" or "Western-centric" ourselves—sometimes justifiably, sometimes not—by scholars based outside of the West.

Fourth, in spite of all this, the enduring legacy of many Eurocentric tendencies, assumptions, and practices remains a real problem that needs to be addressed in creative, forceful ways. "Read Globally, Write Locally" is, I think, a good watchword for all graduate students in history of the 21st century. But this advice is still much easier for Europeanists than for others to ignore; it should not be. This suggests to me that there is still much that can and should be done—at the AHR and elsewhere—to encourage new habits of reading and new forms of cross-fertilizations between area specialists (and world historians) of various sorts.

On an optimistic note, there is good reason to think that the end result can be a net gain for all—not just for historians of the Two-Thirds World. Here I am echoing a point medievalist Caroline Walker Bynum made while AHA president.5 An end to Eurocentric history can, she argued, facilitate the production of more compelling histories of western Europe, enriched by an even-handed, open-minded engagement with work on and questions asked about varied times and places.

Evidence supporting Bynum's point is available already in recent issues of the AHR. I am thinking of pieces by western Europeanists, such as Omer Bartov, who responded enthusiastically (as not all of his colleagues have) to editorial calls to incorporate more references to unfamiliar literatures and settings. I am also thinking of insightful globally minded review essays, such as one we commissioned from Americanist Timothy Gilfoyle that compared and contrasted the approaches to the history of prostitution taken by China specialist Gail Hershatter, Africanist Louise White, Latin Americanist Donna Guy, and several Europeanists. And I am thinking of the dialogues we have fostered between scholars in disparate fields working on common problems. The one on regionalism, for example, in which western Europeanist Celia Applegate, East Asianist Kären Wigen, Southeast Asianist Vicente Rafael, and Americanist Michael O'Brien took part.6 These AHR projects—and ones in several other journals that have been engaged in various forms of internationalization could just as easily be cited—indicate that acknowledging the complexity of the current situation need not paralyze us: constructive intervention has its place.

We might all think together about other kinds of strategies for encouraging global reading and intellectual border crossing. These might be as simple as doing more team-teaching, or as comprehensive as instituting a policy requiring that for a period of three years all proposals submitted to the AHA Program Committee include a comparative aspect .

At Indiana University, we have just inaugurated an experiment to foster more engagement between members of specialized fields who too often move in their own orbits. A variety of historians, working on different times and places, will participate in a new cultural history PhD program. The students in this program will have two majors: one in a traditional geographically and temporally delimited field, the other in this new field defined by approach.

In the cultural history field, whose first director is western Europeanist Dror Wahrman, team teaching will be a regular thing. One collaborative course currently underway gives a sense of things to come. Its focus is on memory and it is co-taught by an Americanist (John Bodnar) and an eastern Europeanist (Maria Bucur). In this course, neither specialist's domain is treated as the unmarked case—nor is western Europe, another part of the world dealt with in the readings. All traditions of remembrance are viewed as particular.

I want to end by noting, lest I be misunderstood, that saying all historians of specific locales need to be thought of as area specialists does not negate the idea that some work concerned with western Europe is of unusually great importance. Due to their influence on political events as well as intellectual life in many parts of the world, for example, Marx and Weber need to be taught and thought about in special ways. A place also needs to be reserved in the graduate training of all historians, I think, for works by the disproportionately large number of innovative pioneers of historical method of the 20th century who focused on western Europe. I am thinking here of E. P. Thompson and Natalie Zemon Davis, of Annalistes such as Fernand Braudel, and of pathbreaking feminist historians such as Joan Wallach Scott—to name just a few. What is needed, though, is for these authors to be taught critically, so that questions are continually asked about which parts of their work do and do not help us make sense of the historical experiences of people living elsewhere.

Moreover, we should not assume that just because western Europeanists have thus far played disproportionately major roles as methodological innovators and providers of models, this is always going to be the case. The emergence of subaltern studies and postcolonial theory is a clear sign of the limitations of such a notion. So, too, is the influence on historical practice of ethnographic work done on Africa and Oceania.

In general, it just makes practical sense for all historians to look as widely as possible for studies of analogous subjects that might give them new ideas about how to conceptualize and frame their work. And there are cases already where a western Europeanist hoping to write a state-of-the art piece will find this much harder to do if he or she has not kept up with the literature on other parts of the world. Urban historians interested in cultural issues would be foolish to ignore the things that Americanists George Chauncey and Marshall Berman have written about New York. All historians examining nationalism can benefit from knowing what Southeast Asianist Thongchai Winichakul and China specialist Prasenjit Duara have been up to. Anybody writing about colonialism can learn something important from reading Louise Young on Japan, Rebecca Scott on Cuba, and Florence Bernault on Africa. And so on.

The challenge of reading globally in an era of increasing specialization can seem a daunting one to be sure. But historians of all times and places would be well served to take it up—and to do so in as energetic and open-minded a fashion as possible.

—Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom is acting editor of the American Historical Review and an associate professor at Indiana University.


1. Tony Judt, "The Story of Everything," New York Review of Books, September 11, 2000, and David Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998).

2. Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), and Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).

3. Carol Gluck (Columbia Univ.). Paper given at plenary session, "Consigning the Twentieth Century to History," 2000 annual meeting of the American Historical Association.

4. Michael Grossberg, "Taking Stock: Five Years of Editing the AHR," Perspectives (September 2000), 13.

5. Caroline Walker Bynum, "The Last Eurocentric Generation," Perspectives (February 1996).

6. Omer Bartov, AHR (June 1998); Timothy Gilfoyle, AHR (February 1999); Celia Applegate, Kären Wigen, Vicente Rafael, and Michael O'Brien, AHR (October 1999).