Thematic Aspects

The international system, its actors and component parts (states, colonies, empires …), and its development

European expansion; colonialism; imperialism; spheres of influence; international organization; state-building; the emergence and globalization of the nation state; international relations; sovereignty, hegemony, dependency; geopolitics; sub- and supranational relations and power structures; concepts of space; international law; international treaties; minority protection; international NGO’s; the state’s monopoly on the use of force; tribalisation and mafiasation of power; structural violence; borders (changes, functions, multiple borders, border management); regional, transterritorial, political entities; etc.

Comments on The international system, its actors and component parts (states, colonies, empires …), and its development

The era of European expansion starting in the 15th and 16th centuries triggered fundamental changes in trans-border interaction and the system connecting and separating diverse political entities, as well as the processes of state-building and territorialisation of governance. Over time these changes came to involve the globe as whole. In the early stages, state-building as a process aimed at internal unification occurred mostly in the core regions of the global system. This process went hand in hand with the marginalization of certain strata of the population and communities, and their interests. At the same time, unification and territorialisation of governance in the core zones was closely intertwined with a “rule of difference” that developed in the various types of non-metropolitan territories dominated by the European powers. The “rule of difference” acquired multiple dimensions and was instrumental in creating social systems strongly based on various combinations of marginalization, discrimination and exclusion.

The short 20th century was characterized by the globalization of the nation state, as well as the emergence and the expansion of new international institutions and regulatory mechanisms of increasingly global scope. Alternative regulations and practices of border-crossing political interaction which had long existed in non-Western regions of the world were now definitively supplanted. Scholarship and politics alike conceived of the international system developing against this background as the sum of territorial states covering the globe as a whole, and as a system of relations among these states. Yet as (partial) formal egalitarianism between states gained ground in the 20th century, this development coalesced with the new and changing politics of global inequality and power interests.

Today we are witnessing a number of changes both in how the international system relates to its component actors and parts, and in how scholars conceptualize these relations as well as the composition of the international system. Some scholars conceive of these ongoing changes as a weakening of the role of nation states and inter-state relations and/or a multiplication of the relevant actors (i.e. beyond nation states) in the international system. Others are rethinking the role and construction of territory as the physical and political base of the international system. Examples of related changes include the changing character and role of international institutions in the international system, the unfolding or strengthening of non-state (and non-interstate) forms of regulation of global relationships, or the politics of humanitarian intervention.

These and other developments unquestionably amount to a fundamental shift in the roles of the nation state and territoriality in the international system. At the same time, however, earlier international relations theory was itself built on narrow conceptualizations of the international system and its history, and thus contributed to reifying the nation state and territoriality, overstating their role as exclusive building blocks of the international system. This is true even for the post-1945 period, when these building blocks did indeed play a key role in shaping the international system on a global level. Recent scholarship based on this insight thus has not only contributed to re-thinking the present but also the past of the international system; thus new and more globally relevant historical and theoretical writing on the past and present of this system is emerging. Research fields include the role of international law in conceptualizing and “doing” colonial expansion, culture as a historical building block of international relations, and the struggle of international actors with global inequality.

Knowledge and belief systems, religion, secularization, rationalization

Secular and transcendent world visions; the making of religion as a separate social sphere; philosophy of religion; comparative religion; world religions and denominations; churches and religious doctrines; ecclesiastical politics and politics toward the church; church law and secular law; religion and politics; religious wars; “the war of belief against unbelief”; crusades; inquisitions; mission (as pursued by various churches and denominations); knowledge and power; secularization and (materialist, idealist, enlightened …) critique of belief; predestination and the human freedom to act; fundamentalisms (as emerging from religious belief, from Weltanschauung, or from scientific world view …); competition over knowledge and faith; nationalism versus religion; myths; mysticism; cults; sects; etc.

Comments on Knowledge and belief systems, religion, secularization, rationalization

In modern Europe, belief, ritual and religion generally have been conceived of as a personal matter. In contrast, secular knowledge systems - understood by many as instruments of rational cognition of the world and contributing to the progress of modern civilization - have been constructed as the only relevant factors with the potential to shape society and politics through the politics of knowing the world. Yet from the point of view of global history, and especially when civilizations and their historical development are compared, it becomes apparent that faith, religion, ritual, and knowledge have been related to each other in a much more complex ways. Ways of knowing and the production of knowledge have been context-bound everywhere and at all times (including in the modern West), and belief, ritual etc. have played an important if changing role in organizing human existence and society over space and time.

From this perspective, knowledge production, religion, and belief all and equally become objects of historical and contextualizing analysis. Other ways of knowing and belief are not per se relegated to secondary status. The intellectual histories of European modernity, as well as Asian or African civilization, are explored as histories of (among others) conflict and contention over how the ways of knowing that dominated each of these civilizations related to other ways of knowing, both within these civilizations as well as in the context of their interaction with each other. These interactions had to come to terms with the unfolding global dominance of originally European ways of knowing in the context of European expansion.

Earlier scholarship more often than not was rooted in the notion of a dualism between the enlightenment on the one hand, and ways of knowing and belief systems with (explicit) transcendental points of reference on the other. This earlier approach is now contested by scholarship which conceptualizes knowledge and belief systems as variously interacting with each other, and as sites of contention and struggle over dominant ways of knowing.

The same perspective enables the development of new concepts with regard to the role of belief and world view in shaping social relations as well as global interaction and contention. Religious conviction and belief, both as driving forces of global and local power politics and embodying alternative identities and resistance, are no longer conceived of as irrational (and thus a-political, pre-political, outside the area of political contention) or wrong consciousness (easily to be corrected through political education). At the same time political strategies that refer to rational justification are no longer discussed in categories such as true or false or constructed as a superior way of doing politics. Similarly, rational justification of politics is no longer conceived of as the quintessential driving force of politics. Scholarship instead, or in addition to the above, explores the role of knowledge and belief systems as individual and collective points of reference in the spheres of power (politics) and resistance, and thus enables historical and social analysis to be less partisan and more integrative.

Cultural contact, transfer, interaction

Transnational public sphere; Eurocentrism; interplay and connection between (post-) colonial and European culture and identity; cultural hegemony, hierarchy and dominance; cultural politics as power politics; cultures of resistance and struggles for representation and recognition; identity politics; culture - “civilization” - “barbarianism”; orientalism; occidentalism; travelling cultures; cultures of knowledge; confrontation vs. interaction of cultures; many cultures into one global culture?; cultural and/or material difference and distinction; media strategies and media politics; multiculturalism and its alternatives; etc.

Comments on Cultural contact, transfer, interaction

As global history and global studies explore geographically bound history from a global perspective, they have been concerned with the question of how the interaction with the global and/or the other has shaped such local histories. The world vision and course of action pursued by a variety of decision makers, local, communal and national bureaucracies, as well as social movements everywhere in the world, have been influenced by translocal and transnational interaction. Many of these actors on the ground have participated in transnational public spheres and other forms of direct and indirect communication; they have travelled, constructed and participated in international networks and organizations. They have thus made themselves familiar with the knowledge, world views and actions of others and have allowed this interaction to impact on their own visions and courses of action, and they have fed their own experience and vision into the global flow and exchange of ideas. On the one hand, patterns of intercultural interaction have often been closely intertwined with endeavours to justify and/or perpetuate global value hierarchies or to justify exclusion and/or marginalization. On the other hand, local social movements and interest groups have used their awareness of, and reference to, global value systems and designs, international conventions, etc. in pursuing their own political agendas.

Social and cultural change, in at times highly diverse contexts and consequently with diverse consequences, can often only be adequately understood if complex dynamics of transfer and interaction are taken into consideration. The long term development of cultural identity and cultural practices has been shaped by both cultural contact with and contention over other cultures, as well as struggle over both the formation and change of local symbolic systems, and social change in a given society. It is evident, for example, that the development of a modern European identity has to be explored with reference to both the experience of religious factionalism within Europe and the experience of conquest and subjugation in the context of European expansionism. The 20th century decolonization movements are another example. These movements borrowed key terms and tropes (such as nation, individual freedom, equality, international social standards etc.) that had long characterized European and European-born globalized consciousness in order to foster their own endeavours. They adapted these terms and tropes to their own needs, and the use/adaptation of these tropes in turn impacted on the self-identification, shape and political strategies of these movements.

Peace and War

Military and defence alliances; peace treaties; schemes for creating or maintaining international order (i.e. deterrence or containment, nuclear balance, balance of power, global governance; logics of war (war of aggression, defensive war, international regulations of war, foreign policy doctrines); reasons for war; consequences of war (displacement, refugees, genocide, shift of borders, revolution …); arms production and the arms trade; militarism; relations between internal (social) peace and external peace (absence of war); types of war (world wars, regional, local wars, wars of independence, the Cold War, civil wars, trade wars, proxy wars, low intensity warfare, guerrilla wars, …); armament systems, military systems; peace movements; anti-war movements; etc.

Comments on Peace and war

War and military intervention, as grounded in a whole variety of geopolitical and power interests, alliances, and military strategies, have long played a key role in shaping the political mapping of our globe and the diverse world regions. The same is true for peace settlements, peace politics and the local, regional and global politics of peacekeeping. These politics of war and peace have strongly impacted on fate and fortune of peoples, communities and ethnic groups, on short and long term social, cultural and political developments, and on producing, transforming and challenging global power relations. At the same time, unequal and unjust global power relations and global inequality as a whole have been and will continue to be a constant source of military contention and confrontation on both large and small scale. The development of ever newer arms systems and military equipment, as well as global competition regarding the disposal over such equipment and knowledge (trade, espionage, parallel and alternative research), have played an important role in defining both the place of military conflict and contention in, and the contribution of war-like and military struggle to, the process of historical change.

The manifestations and political-societal meaning of war and peace are manifold and subject to historical change. The relationship for example between war with a weapon in the hand and “war by other means” has taken different shapes and followed different logics in different parts of the world and in the course of history. Another example is the divergent understandings of the meaning of peace. These include the concept of peace as all-inclusive societal and geopolitical reconciliation or at least compromise, in contrast to the absence and/or control of violence on the one hand, and the concept and reality of peace (or the absence of war) based on containment of social and political conflict achieved through power politics, military superiority and oppression on the other. Local wars can be interpreted as proxy wars, world wars as imperialist war, the fight against terrorism as a new type of global warfare, etc. Civil war can develop into international war, and international conflict or military strategies may be enormously influential in shaping the dynamics of local conflict and war.

Class, race, gender & co.

Race-, class-, and gender relations and systems (compared, intertwined, subject to historical change); gender division of labour in society; racial segregation, Apartheid; class oppression; exploitation of labour; additional categories of difference such as citizenship rights, age, global divergence in access to resources of all kinds…; equality, inequality, difference, hierarchy, asymmetry; inclusion and exclusion; sexism; racism; nature and culture; universalism and particularism; violence related to distinctions of class, race, and gender; construction of subjectivities, ascription of identities; class, race and gender as categories defining socially relevant groups; interlocking systems of oppression relating these categories to each other; variable and multiple self-identifications; relations of dominance, subversion, and resistance; double and triple marginalization and oppression; ambivalent or contradictory class, race, and gender positions; sexual relations across the class and race divides; heterodox/transgressive gender, class, and race identifications and policies; social and biological difference and difference as social construction; etc.

Comments on Class, race, gender & co.

On global and local levels for centuries there have been trends and policies aiming at both the equalization and equal treatment of people (homogenization), and the production and reproduction of inequality (differentiation) in relation to class, social status, gender, race, and other divides. On the one hand, enlightenment philosophy has conceptualized all men (and women) as born equal - with no inborn difference that would justify social hierarchy among individuals of both sexes and all races - and assumed that each individual is endowed with an unambiguous identity. On the other hand, in reality differential class, race, and gendered positions have been ascribed to these individuals (assumed to be born as equals). These differentiations more often than not have gone together with the establishment and preservation of asymmetric and hierarchical class, race, and gender relations.

Recent scholarship has developed a variety of concepts which make it possible to think together class, race, gender, and other categories of difference, and the social and cultural relations constructed with reference to these categories. This scholarship has, for example, tried to make these categories of difference into vectors of historical and social analysis, putting them into use simultaneously and in interaction with each other. This type of research is relevant for global (historical) studies, and not only because it offers methodological and analytical instruments intended to enable inclusive comparative research into diverse and divergent sets of social relations worldwide. In addition, social and cultural relations and living conditions which build on these categories of difference themselves frequently exhibit significant global features. This is true for example when it comes to (including in the analysis) the different social and political value of diverse citizenships worldwide, or to (exploring) the interaction between histories of colonialism, imperialism and decolonization on the one hand and the so-called “racial question” and racism aiming at and justifying the marginalization and oppression of the “darker races” on the other. Conversely, it is imperative for global (historical) studies at all times to ask to what extent and in what ways global difference and polarization have played a role in shaping social and cultural relations between classes, races, and the sexes and to make the analysis of global polarization into a standard vector of social and historical research focusing on local, national, or regional developments.

These research perspectives invite the interrogation of how social and symbolic differences organized along the lines of class, race, and gender in a given society are historical phenomena, and thus subject to historical change. In this sense they contribute to the denaturalization of pre-existing social relations and enable scholarship and politics alike to challenge these relations. This perspective deepens our understanding of how modern conceptualizations of the individual as born free and equal have on two levels been constantly undermined and challenged. On the one hand, attention is drawn to how relationships of dominance and subordination - as they relate to class, gender, race, and other differentiations between social groups and individuals - have stubbornly persisted over time, and how change has often proved to be restricted to form rather than substance. On the other hand, the scholarship exploring the intersection of categories of difference and oppression pays due attention to how individuals develop flexible and multiple strategies to cope with their multilayered and in part contradictory experience, and how resistance and revolution grow from this experience.

Social and political movements

Liberation movements; workers’ movements; the antislavery movement; peasant movements; women’s movements; trade unions; peace movements; Black Power; Pan-Africanism; third world solidarity movements; alternative and ecological movements; new social movements; theology of liberation; anti-globalization movements; forms of organization (cadre parties, grass roots organization, self-government; decentralized and multiple networks; rainbow coalitions; international associations …); forms of action (non-violence; militancy; campaign organizing; heckling; thematic foci; educational work; counter events; guerrilla war …); definition of aims (systemic transformation; reform; revolution; participation in the political system; seizure of power …); transnational political protest, transfer history; internationalism; civil society, NGO’s; social identification; broadening and diversifying the concept of the political; etc.

Comments on Social and political movements

Actions pursued by organized interest groups and collective activism pursued by social groups and social movements have played an important role in shaping the history of global circumstances, relationships, and conflicts in that they have contributed to challenging, transforming and overcoming global hierarchy and asymmetry. This is true not only for transnational activism but also for movements and organizations that pursued their aims within local or national frameworks. The specific shape of social and political movements and their strategies of pursuing and representing particular interests were strongly influenced by global and local conditions and political constellations. Accordingly, the political and social vision and aims of the movements, the dynamics of their organization and action, the development of conflict and cooperation among the movements themselves, and their strategies of confronting the dominant system have taken a myriad contours.

The complexity of these constellations and developments, as well as the fact that some social and political movements have been defeated while others have changed their character as a result of confronting or interacting with pre-existing political structures, have exerted a strong impact on political and scholarly debate and contention over the past and present of these movements. Some scholars (and activists) have focused on exploring how movements have related to and struggled with class and other oppressive relations in a given context. Others have focused rather on interrogating the role unequal global relations and geopolitics have played in shaping the movements’ struggle and whether or not the movements have tried to challenge these relations. A number of key debates in social movement research with a global perspective have emerged from the analytical (and political) challenge of combining these approaches. Examples are many. They include the question as to whether and how the rise of the workers’ movement in the industrial core countries during the decades before World War I contributed to a relocation of oppressive class relations to other parts of the world via colonialism and imperial­ism. They also include the debate about which analytical (and political) conclusions should be drawn from the fact that at times struggles for democracy in a given country, viewed as an indis­pensable precondition for social emancipation by the activists involved, have at the same time (been) utilized internationally to promote a capitalism (and imperialism) of free trade in that same country. Another case is the antislavery movement, in relation to which it has long been debated whether and how the rise of abolitionism was connected to the declining profitability of production based on slave labour and/or whether and how the movement itself contributed to that same process. More recently, some have proposed reconceptualising the history of women’s movements so as to cre­ate a conceptual space for exploring forms of women’s activism pursued in non-core regions of the world and by grass-roots organizations (such as mixed-sex organizing or organizing for non-women’s issues). This has given a new impetus both to theoretical and historical writing in the field and to the debate over the historical role and character of women’s movements in the West.

Taken together it seems evident that - from the perspective of global history and global studies - the relationship and connection between the factual concerns of these movements (such as for example gender equality or national independence) on the one hand, and the question of systemic transformation on a global level on the other, will be at the core of conceptual as well as political contention for some time to come.

Economic and social structures and relations

North-South relationships; East-West relationships; core and periphery; internal peripheries, global South; slave trade; free trade; protectionism; auto-centric development; trade relations, terms of trade; global and local economic division of labour; economic crises; financial systems (monetary policy, foreign exchange policy, indebtedness, debt relief …); economic theory; economic planning (New Deal, Marshall Plan, command economy); neoliberalism, post-neoliberalism; multinationals; economic aid, development aid, bi- and multilateral; modes of production; social and economic systems (capitalism, socialism …); social integration and disintegration; macro and micro social theory; global inequality, global polarization; international social and labour policy; class, caste, race, gender, “tribes” …; industrialization, new agrarianism, post-industrial society …; forms of labour, labour relations and their local, regional and transnational combination (regulated and unprotected wage labour; forced labour, subsistence labour, slave labour, migratory labour); the role of the state and other actors in shaping social and economic structures and relations; etc.

Comments on Economic and social structures and relations

One focus of research on the past and present of global economic relationships has been the inquiry into structures, mechanisms, and (qualitative and quantitative) change of dynamics of unequal relations in the trading and exchange of goods, labour, value, etc. Social historians and social scientists whose work has involved a global perspective explore, for example, the interaction between the changing dynamics of unequal global interaction and the social structures and relations characterizing the development of societies situated at and between the two ends of the global hierarchy, i.e. of hegemonic and (post-)colonial or dominated societies or groups.

The relationship between the visible hand of states, international actors and other decision makers and actors, as compared to the “invisible hand” of the market, in shaping both economic relationships across borders and the societies involved into these relationships has taken different forms over time and space and has been a contested issue everywhere in past and present. The interplay between the territorialisation and compartmentalization of political power in general (and the division of Europe and then the world into a system of nation states in particular) on the one hand, and the transnationalisation and boundlessness of enterprise and economic power on the other, played key role in the historical interaction between and contention over free trade and protectionism, economic imperialism and cross-border dominance and (neo-)colonialism.

Globally informed analyses of social structures and developments, both in different world regions and within individual countries or political entities, have built on complex and open-ended conceptual framings in order to make visible the interplay between local conditions, interests and room for maneuver on the one hand, and the dynamics of trans-border economic interaction and division of labour on the other. They inquire, for example, into why and how social coherence and integration vs. social disintegration and marginalization, or certain combinations of labour relations or forms of production vs. other combination, have been characteristic for a particular society.