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Making Sense of WH

Making Sense of World History

The main purpose of this set of pages is to discuss the book I am writing. I should note, though, that there are other projects associated with this larger project:
  • It of course draws extensively on my previous research in history of technology, economic history, interdisciplinary studies, and knowledge organization.
  • I wrote several articles for the ABC-Clio Encyclopedia of World History, including a long essay in the introductory volume on drawing lessons from World History. I have since drafted three essays for ABC-Clio’s Online Database for World History: The Modern Era. 
  • I presented “Organizing Devices for World History” at the World History Association, Ghent, Belgium, July, 2016. 
  • I presented "Interdisciplinarity and World History" at the regional conference of the World History Association in Honolulu in February 2017.
  • I  organized a panel on and presented on "Drawing Lessons from World History" at the World History Association, Boston, June 2017.
  • I have been invited to organize a Forum on "Organizing World History" for World History Connected which should appear in October, 2017. An exciting set of authors has agreed to participate in this forum. We have all produced drafts of our essays, and I have drafted a brief introductory essay.

The Book Project: Making Sense of World History

World History courses are increasingly popular in both the United States and the rest of the world. Yet the field is divided as to how to organize a World History textbook. And there is a constant complaint among both teachers and students that it is hard to provide coherence to such a course. Students struggle to draw connections between Babylonians, Aztecs, and Polynesians. 

My solution is to use a set of innocuous organizing devices that provide the necessary coherence without interfering with narrative flow or forcing the narrative into a narrow theoretical perspective. 

First I use over 30 flowchart diagrams to capture the main influences on and effects of key historical events and processes. Effects in early diagrams such as state formation become influences in later diagrams, highlighting for the student that history is a process in which polity, economy, culture, and other key themes interact in a cumulative fashion through time. I take care, nevertheless, to indicate to students that such diagrams necessarily simplify -- mastering the diagrams is no substitute for close reading of the text, but a useful complement to doing so.

When some 20 key types of human actor enter the story -- farmers, rulers, merchants, and over a dozen others -- I discuss the main challenges that these face. For example, farmers need to defend against theft, and rulers need to supervise self-interested bureaucrats. We can then compare how these challenges are addressed (or not) in various times and places throughout the book. World history texts generally record how empire after empire falls due to corruption and over-powerful provincial governors, but miss the opportunity to connect these experiences.

I employ some 50 in-text boxes to briefly explore topics that lend themselves to a treatment beyond the temporal boundaries of a particular chapter: the histories of timekeeping or rubber, or the role that cities play in history. These Boxes also address organizing material such as Malthusian understandings of the relationship between population growth and incomes. 

And I employ the simplest version of evolutionary analysis in studying culture, institutions, technology and science, and art. We can then ask why certain (not-quite-random) mutations were selected (and by who), and how these were transmitted across time and space. Evolutionary analysis guides us to appreciate how each society builds on what went before.

I have drafts of all chapters in the book, though I will be polishing these over the next year. I am happy to share chapters with any interested readers. You can email me at rszostak@ualberta.ca

        List of Tables
        List of Boxes
        List of Figures

See also the Previous Research that informs this project.

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