Problems of comparative global history

[This post was basically written in November 2014 and queued, and is presented here with a light dusting of updated relevance but basically from the position I was in then, not now, hopefully still worthwhile.]

As recent posts will probably have made clear, I am something of a novice at thinking about global history as a field. As with a lot of things I didn’t cover at undergraduate level, I have had to work to see what is worthwhile about it; my initial feeling, not entirely dispelled, was that a lot of what is called global history would be better described as “explaining a place to Occidental Anglophones that is outside their cultural tradition”. I would now admit that a lot of people identifying as global historians are actually striving to do something more meaningful than that, and the things that they attempt are potentially pretty major.

World map drawn by Gerard van Schagen in Amsterdam in 1689

World map drawn by Gerard van Schagen, quite the name and quite the artist, in Amsterdam in 1689, and now the masthead for a great many global history courses and the Toynbee Prize, none of whom seem to bother attributing it! A full version of it is available on Wikimedia Commons, linked through.

Of course, they must by nature be big. Something’s not a global phenomenon if it only happens in one place, and as we’ve previously discussed it also needs to be connected not just to be coincidence, a particular problem for the low-connectivity scenario of the early Middle Ages. It seems to me that evaluating whether something is ‘global’ thus ineluctably means comparison; even if this thing looks like that other thing, are the causes the same, do the different backgrounds invalidate the resemblance, and so on? (Think if you like, of the attempts to match up European seigneurial lordship and the society of the fifteenth-century samurai under the banner of ‘feudalism’.1) It also probably needs to be big in time, simply because short of meteorite impact or volcanic action on a huge scale, very little can affect the whole globe at once without being very slow and therefore necessarily long-lasting if it’s to have that effect. The different contexts in which these changes must play out to be comparable also seem to me to dictate fairly high levels of abstraction, so that small-detail phenomena will be much harder to match as well as less observable. You also have to look at things that your comparanda actually have to compare, which since most cultural factors didn’t resemble each other very exactly before globalisation, leaves you choosing things that can be described vaguely enough to match up.2 So I think that most would-be global comparison must be longue durée. At this rate it becomes hard to say much that has a lot more grip on its metaphorical tyres than “agriculture starts or changes” or “a technology diffuses now”.

Drawing of Don Quixote charging at a windmill

A medievalising reference to two new forms of technology at once, the couched lance and the mechanical windmill! Thankyou Cervantes for such a relevant commentary…

This post, like the last one on such issues, was occasioned by reading S. A. M. Adshead’s T’ang China: the rise of the East in world history, and it must be said that he strives for a good deal more complexity than this in his explicitly comparative scheme.3 The book, having spent a chapter tearing apart his opponent’s schema, then does four chapters which each take a particular sphere of social development, describe the T’ang version of that sphere in detail and then compare to India, Byzantium, the world of Islam and the Latin West at about the same time (which is to say 500-1000 CE). The four spheres are politics, by which he seems basically to mean development and efficiency of the apparatus of state (or states), economy (meaning standard of living, economic activity, both production and distribution, and the extent of purely financial operation), society (by which he mainly means family structures and marriage, graded more or less according to the extent of initiative and space of action left to women) and intellect (by which he means both scientific and philosophical innovation and sophistication). These are, arguably, all things that one can at least attempt to assess in all these societies or groups of societies, so that seems like a model worth abstracting. My essential question here is whether the uses of the model, both as designed and applied, preset its results so much as to remove its value as an empirical framework of comparison.

Diagram of grid-group cultural analysis

A grid-group diagram, just for reference, linked to a really enthusiastic but clear write-up by Dustin Stotz

The terms of Adshead’s assessment are at least always explicit, and they are rarely as simple as being a single analogue scale. Instead, he rather favours something quite like grid-group analysis, with two axes of comparison allowing one to place a society in one of four quadrants or move between them over time. Here is an example:

“[China’s intellectual development under the T’ang] may be assessed by reference to a grid composed of two axes, one horizontal from paradigmatic to syntagmatic, the other vertical from categorical to critical. The grid provides four registers of intellectual activity: paradigmatic-categorical, categorical-syntagmatic, syntagmatic-critical, critical-paradigmatic. The contrast paradigmatic/syntagmatic is between, on the one hand, intransitive, self-referent, declaratory thinking such as mathematics, myth, music or other art forms and linguistic syntax; and on the other hand, transitive, other-referent descriptive thinking in theories and hypotheses, as may be found in science, scholarship, theology and metaphysics. The contrast categorical/critical is between prior, first-order thinking, whether about paradigms or syntagmata, and posterior, second-order thinking, whether in the intransitive arts or in the transitive sciences. The degree of complexity, or intellectual depth, may be measured by the number of registers in which intellectual activity is taking place, while the degree of pluralism may be measured by the number of alternatives within each register.”4

This nicely exemplifies the problem Adshead’s book gives me. I don’t feel that this structure is anywhere near justified by its references: mathematics would jump categories the minute one applied it, music that was meant to make money or was written to excite patriotism also doesn’t fit, scholarship surely exists in all these modes, and in any case is this really enough to contain the full range of human intellectual endeavour? But even if the answer is, ‘almost certainly not’, that doesn’t necessarily stop this being a framework that one can, with a certain amount of forcing, fit over most societies. So does that actually do any good? If one could somehow patch the terms of reference, would it be better, or do we just run up against the fact that outside categories don’t always work when drawn into a foreign context? Does it help, for example, to say that the British Empire in the nineteenth century had a much more active land market per capita than the Maori of New Zealand when in-depth work suggests that that Maori did not consider land to be alienable, and so disposed of it on utterly different terms?5 One can certainly make the comparison, but is it not effectively to penalise the Maori in the balance for not playing the Western game?

Illustration by Yen Li-Pen of Emperor Taizong granting an audience to Ludongzan the ambassador of Tibet in 641

T’ang China in its international, but still intracontinental, aspect: Emperor Taizong gives an audience to Ludongzan the ambassador of Tibet in 641. Yen Li-pen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

In Adshead’s case, of course, the aim is to show T’ang China ahead in all scales, and so the terms of reference are ones in which it excels: indirect taxes, bureaucracy, management of resources, variety of marriage forms, religious and cosmological plurality and philosophical competition. I suspect that one could, if one did not accept these terms, come up with a set that favoured Byzantium or Islam just as heavily and that could just as easily be assumed to be good—citizen military involvement, governmental centralisation, religious unity and coherence of intellectual culture, for example—and thus find China seriously wrongheaded in its priorities. India tends to lose out on all Adshead’s scales of achievement, and that reminds me of an Internet conversation I saw once in which one westerner was being horrified at poverty in India: they said something like, “India’s population has multiplied by five in the last fifty years and the percentage of people in poverty hasn’t changed a bit!” To which, someone else said, “So they’ve multiplied the number of people using their resources five-fold and still managed to maintain the level of wealth in the economy? Sounds like a success story to me!” The figures may be basically fictional but the terms of the assessment really do matter, you see… I think that Adshead’s initial attempt to compare T’ang China to the USA of 2004 shows where his categories are coming from, but that only increases the likelihood that some of the parties in this comparison would have rejected them. That rejection of a value set would still be historical, but if the conclusion is that T’ang China being better at these things made it the most significant world power of the early Middle Ages, quite apart from the difficulty already pointed out of whether or not anywhere was a world power in so weakly-connected a world, since they did not really affect each other, we really have slid very smoothly from data to value judgement without clearly justifying the values (except by their use in showing Frank’s rival book wrong).

Again, however, there lurks within this the possibility still that a comparative exercise done like this, with maybe different terms of reference and maybe even three-axis comparisons in some spheres, might actually enable truly global comparison. It’s quite hard to tell with Adshead’s attempt what the potential of the method really us, however, because the data he uses outside China is so shaky. His range of references for the Latin West is quite broad, but with Islam there is a great deal of early Patricia Crone in the very occasional references, including some stuff that I think she might now modify, and the only cite for India is John Keay’s India: a history, and that only for the political section; for the others there is just nothing to show whence the dismissal of India’s success comes from.6 (I have no particular interest in championing India here, I should say, it’s just very clearly got the worst of Adshead’s attention.) The Latin West is pretty well favoured; there’s a range of serious and detailed works, often quite modern, in several languages, and while I personally cringe somewhat at seeing Richard Fletcher’s book on Anglo-Saxon feud used as a cite for information on the size of York in the year 1000, at least he had read it. One might expect at least that much attention to all the areas compared, though!

The Pancha Rathas at the shore temple site of Mahabalipuram, said to be seventh-century

Actually as we have said before now quite a lot was plainly going on in India, especially in the South, in our Middle Ages but it’s awfully hard to date precisely. Here the Pancha Rathas at the shore temple site of Mahabalipuram, said to be seventh-century and so T’ang-contemporary, but on what basis I have no idea… “Mamallaratham” by ThiagupillaiOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

The treatment of Byzantium gives me a mean suspicion of what might be going in both here and in the far-better-covered China, however. The political cite of reference for the Byzantine Empire is that very old chestnut, Dimitri Obolensky’s The Byzantine Commonwealth, which will make some readers groan I know; why doesn’t Adshead at least use a more up-to-date textbook like Treadgold’s A Concise History of Byzantium or something more analytical like a Cambridge History or two? (The ones for China do turn up.) And the answer is that elsewhere he does, Treadgold at least, but not for the politics, where he has a particular view about the stasis of Byzantine political theory, of course compared unfavourably to a supposed Chinese reconception of government in new circumstances, that Treadgold would not allow him to support.7 The same thing is probably going on with the cites of Crone’s old work, I guess; times may have moved on but that would ruin the argument… And this is all very well for the power of the argument but of course in historical terms, or rather computing ones, it’s garbage in, garbage out; the comparison can’t be valid if it’s founded on information selected especially to make the comparison work, rather than an earnest attempt to find out the scholarly consensus on an issue.

So at the end of this I am very undecided about this book. I am certain that I don’t want to accept the premise that T’ang China was briefly a leading world power, in any of these measures, but I don’t know whether to accept the assessment of it by those measures; I am also certain that the comparison has not been fairly managed, but feel that a comparison by means like this could still be a way of making global-scale comnparison actually dig into something of meaning. Could we use these tools to build something better? I wonder…

1. The most developed example of this I know is Joseph R. Strayer, “The Tokugawa Period and Japanese Feudalism” in John W. Hall and Marius Jansen (edd.), Studies in the Institutional History of Modern Japan (Princeton 1968), pp. 3-14, repr. in Strayer, Medieval Statecraft and the Perspectives of History (Princeton 1971), pp. 63-89, to which cf. Elizabeth A. R. Brown, “The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe” in American Historical Review Vol. 79 (Washington DC 1974), pp. 1063-1088, online here, repr. in Lester K. Little & Barbara H. Rosenwein (edd.), Debating the Middle Ages: issues and readings (Oxford 1998), pp. 148-169, and indeed Susan Reynolds, “The Use of Feudalism in Comparative History” in Benjamin Z. Kedar (ed.), Explorations in Comparative History (Jerusalem 2009), pp. 191-219, repr. in Reynolds, The Middle Ages without feudalism: essays in criticism and comparison on the Medieval West, Variorum Collected Studies 1019 (Farnham 2012), VI.

2. As ever my go-to statement of the requirements that comparative history must meet is Chris Wickham, “Problems of Comparing Rural Societies in Early Medieval Western Europe” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th Series Vol. 2 (Cambridge 1992), pp. 221-246, DOI: 10.2307/3679106, rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 201-226.

3. S. A. M. Adshead, T’ang China: the rise of the East in world history (London 2004).

4. Ibid. p. 131. His note references Claude Lévi-Strauss, L’Homme Nu, Mythologies IV (Paris 1971), pp. 575-586, which is perhaps where I should really be looking for his tools…

5. The place I actually read all this, apart from the great old internet of course, is Claudia Orange, The Treaty of Waitangi (Wellington 1987), so I hope it’s credible.

6. John Keay, India: a History (London 2000), cit. Adshead, T’ang China p. 55 n. 14. There is simply nothing else cited for India in the later comparative sections, and no other works relating to it visible to me in the Bibliography.

7. D. Obolensky, The Byzantine commonwealth: Eastern Europe, 500-1453 (New York City 1971), cited Adshead, T’ang China, p. 60 n. 22, vs W. T. Treadgold, A Concise History of Byzantium (London 2001), published by Adshead’s own publishers and cited Adshead, T’ang China, p. 96 n. 37. I suppose it’s only fair to admit that the Cambridge History of Byzantium did not actually yet exist when Adshead wrote; it is now Jonathan Shepard (ed.), The Cambridge History of Byzantium (Cambridge 2007) and is really useful. But the field had not stood still until its emergence!

12 responses to “Problems of comparative global history

  1. Pingback: Towards a Global Middle Ages I: going global in the first place | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  2. Pingback: Musing on connectivity and world systems apropos of T’ang China | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  3. Hi Jonathan. The problems you identify with comparative history are not new and have been addressed before. I would say that the works you critique here are not the best examples of global history, which seems to have reached your shores much later than ours.
    World history has been theorized and practiced for quite awhile in the US. I confess to being at one of the premier institutions for training in world history, so I will shamelessly promote it even though I am not a world historian. You might take a look at the World History Association and the Journal of World History.
    World history may have begun with McNeill et. al. world systems theory, but it has developed much more complex ways of examining transnational and transcultural phenomenon (migration, trade, spread of religions, etc. in such zones as the Silk Roads, Atlantic world, Indian Ocean world, Oceania). Admittedly such approaches require knowledge of more languages to examine the primary sources as well as depth in the secondary literature.

    • Well, I’m only critiquing one work here! I’m sure there is much more for me to know, and I’m also grateful for the implication that my lines of thought were at least sensible enough to have been followed by others, even if so as to be closed. I don’t think it’s ever going to become my field, but I remain very interested in ensuring that when I make comparisons they’re valid and useful.

  4. The few times I have engaged in comparative history, the results tended toward dissolving the superficial similarity and emphasizing cultural uniqueness and contingency in history.
    For example, a number of years ago I team taught a class with a Japan specialist on “warrior cultures Europe and Japan.” One of the things we deconstructed was the feudalism model, using Eiko Ikegami’s study of samurai culture in which she called European feudalism a “Cinderella slipper” (and I used Reynolds et. al. to point out the problems with it even for Europe). Further, the seeming similarity in the court culture vs warrior ethos does not hold up once you look more closely at both cultures and their histories. At the end, we analyzed film representations of both cultures’ warrior histories, which showed students how modernity constructs a medieval past for itself.
    So comparative approaches in world history are a much more dicey game than the approaches emphasizing transnational or transcultural phenomenon. It is one thing to discuss the independent development of agriculture, for example, in various locales around the globe to help identify the common factors that contribute to it and its spread to less likely locales. It is another to take a construct derived from one culture (usually western) and try to make it work in both places. Besides feudalism and “medieval,” magic-religion-science comes to mind.

    • Crikey, yes, well fair enough and of course I waved vaguely at the feudal samurai stuff precisely because it’s an easy target with which many people are already familiar. I might also nominate ‘bureaucracy’, which is a thing I don’t think compares half as well globally as people who invoke it seem to believe and could, in general, use some holes shot through its rather baggy definitions. Your course sounds exemplary, particularly the wrap-up that explains how we got to the idea of similarity in the first place. If I ever rerun my Apocalypse course, that is what I should have tried to do with its final ‘modern’ session. Thanks for the voice of experience!

  5. Allan McKinley

    A question inadvertently spurred by the conversation above. Is global history the same as world history? I would suggest not, as world history seems to focus on what was there and comparisons between these things whereas global history is about networks and narratives (the T’ang as a global power for example, or the comparability of bureaucratic experience…). Both highlight links by their very nature, but it is the construction of the ideology to understand the links (interaction against system to oversimplify) that could distinguish world and global history. Mind you, this is just a pretty uninformed speculation…

    • I had noticed that we’d suffered some slippage of terminology, and indeed that I started it; Adshead claims to be contributing to world history and it was mainly my being sunk in Birmingham’s global history fascination that made me link it to the earlier global history discussions. But the potential for slippage is obviously there, as your using T’ang China as an example of global not world even in the service of your excellent point shows…

  6. World history, as the is used in US universities, includes both comparative and transnational/transcultural approaches. From what I can tell, “global history” as meaning the latter emerged later and maybe from outside the US, but I could be wrong.
    Agree on bureaucratic, especially when the Byzantines get implicated!

    • Allan McKinley

      Thanks. I think that is pretty much what I was groping towards without consideration as to whether global history might be a subset of world history. I think that definition works well and probably means a lot of what is being taught as global middle ages (and periodisation here is obviously tricky) in the UK is really world history. It also allows my scepticism of systemic claims such as the T’ang being a world power rather than a supra-regional hegemony to be better voiced without having a perception generated that I favour the study of the local only (always a risk when one of your default archives originated half an hour from your house).

      • Yes, but your other one is at least one country away and sometimes two, and is far less well published on (he says significantly). I suppose my serious point is: your research has always been comparative, even if not global. My less serious point: publish more Wissembourg stuff!

  7. Pingback: Lost in translation III: transmission of sources for China and Aragón | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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