Introduction to Doing World History

Most fundamentally, doing world history involves the study of cross cultural events or phenomena. History may be defined as research into how cultures develop through time. World history is more general than traditional history and emphasizes trends that transcend cultural boundaries. World history stresses the treatment of inter-action between societies. In eras where such inter-action is limited, it compares different patterns of development around the world. Hence, a world history study may involve cultures that actually had contact and influence on one another, or cultures that went through various stages of development with little or no outside influence. Since history is full of this kind of material, the number of possible world history treatments is very large.

World history tends to be more superficial and general than local or national histories. This is not meant in a negative way, but in the sense of a comprehensive view of history. The old cliche of not seeing the forest for the trees applies here. World history looks at the forest in that it searches for the overall, global meaning of history. The major changes over the time the earth has existed, and particularly since the advent of humans, are emphasized and often displayed on time lines. This is a diachronic (through time) approach to world history.

For any particular time period, world historians may view all areas in a synchronic (at the same time) way and compare the way different societies responded to the environment and met basic human needs. In order to simplify this material they look for patterns of government or religion or other cultural and social institutions.

They also stress connections between civilizations and how they influenced one another. There are many variations of cultural influence due to the different kinds of contacts that occurred, but the most common and most important is syncretism. As items and cultural developments diffuse from society to society, changes take place in any given civilization that fundamentally alter it. A mixing of new and old elements takes place that results in a new civilization. This mixing is called "syncretism."

In looking for global events, world historians often find natural or human movements that affect many cultures. These could be climatic developments, diseases, natural disasters or human movements like invasions and migrations. They could include dealing with new technologies and life styles. These events and processes are called "common phenomena."

To simplify and limit these nearly infinite possibilities, I have selected five methods which I believe capture the essence of the world history approaches. I call them "Doing World History." Remember, the methods are meant as focusing devices to help interpret and give meaning to historical events. They are listed below:

  1. Big Picture, a time line of the most important events of those under study, accompanied by a written explanation of their ultimate significance.
  2. Diffusion or the spread of natural elements, people, artifacts, ideas or other cultural creations from one civilization to others.
  3. Syncretism or mixing of elements from two or more cultures that results in a new civilization.
  4. Comparison or the pointing out of similarities and differences between two civilizations in terms of their histories, institutions, cultural accomplishments and economies.
  5. Common phenomena, the natural or historical events and developments that two or more societies share. Examples could be climate, disease, natural disasters or invasions, shared technologies or other human developments. The basic question here is What is shared?