What Is World History?

There are a few key qualities that set world history apart from other types of history. World historians use a wide spatial lens, though they do not always take the entire world as their unit of analysis. They tend to de-emphasize individual nations or civilizations, and focus instead on regions defined differently, including zones of interaction, or on the ways in which people, goods, and ideas moved across regions through migration, conquest, and trade. Most world historians think that history should be studied on a range of chronological and spatial scales, including, but not limited to, very large ones. Some world history has a narrow temporal framework, examining developments around the world in a single decade or even a single year. Other historians use an expanded timeframe, beginning with the Big Bang to examine history on a cosmic scale. Histories of single commodities such as salt, sugar, or silver can be world history, as can those of single individuals, organizations, or ideas.

In the twenty-first century, world historians are building on different national and regional roots and traditions to create a multivocal version of world history, working upwards and outwards from the available sources in multiple languages and from multiple sites. World history today is a research field, with academic journals, conferences, books, and research centers, as well as a teaching field, from primary school through postgraduate work. Scholars, teachers, and students have developed innovative approaches and materials and regularly engage in debates about theory, methodology, and content on Web sites, blogs, and in print.

People have actually been doing world history for a long time. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus set his story of the war between the Persians and the Greeks within the context of the world as he knew it, and the ancient Chinese historian Sima Qian told history through an encyclopedic presentation of events, activities, and biographies of emperors, officials, and other important people. Medieval chroniclers in India, Europe, and the Muslim world devised “universal histories” that began with the creation of the world, and from the fifteenth through the nineteenth centuries scholars, poets, nuns, physicians, obscure officials, former slaves, and others wrote histories with a broad scope. In the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century, however, the focus of most professional history—that is, history written by men trained at universities—became the nation-state, which fit with the rising importance of nations as political units and with growing nationalism.

But after World War II, scholars and teachers began to challenge nationally-organized histories. In the United States, area studies programs at universities increasingly trained people to study many parts of the world, some professional historians began to write works with a broad scope, and college instructors and high school teachers created courses in world history. In Europe, the study of diplomacy gradually widened into imperial, international, and what was termed “overseas” history. Beginning in the 1980s, scholars in Asia, Africa, and Latin America critiqued much existing world and international history as overly centered on Europe, and posited different centers or called for a more polycentric world history. The 1990s brought other new directions, including transnational history, histoire croisée, Transfergeschichte, Atlantic World history, borderlands histories, connected history, world systems history, diasporic history, and many others. Some historians began to describe their field as global history, to reflect the increasing integration of world regions into a single system through globalization, though other historians see world and global history as the same.

Today world history has many shapes and many voices. The World History Association is proud to be one of those voices, and we hope you will look elsewhere on this site to see all that we do, including publications, conferences, and awards. The Network of Global and World History Organizations (NOGWHISTO), the international umbrella group to which the World History Association belongs, has prepared a bibliography of recent works in world history which can provide an overview of current trends in world history scholarship worldwide.