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Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Diego Olstein and the Globalization of History

Diego Olstein
author of Thinking History Globally
(source: Toynbee Prize Foundation)
no copyright infringement intended

The world living now its Globalization Age, social sciences took the appropriate approaches. And so Global History came into the picture; together with Macrohistory (apparently opposed to Microhystory; actually the latter takes a small unit of research, like a single event, a single community or place, etc, applying on it macrohistory techniques), Big History (taking as unit of research the whole time frame from Big Bang to present, and looking for universal constants, if any), Cliometrics (applying econometric techniques to history); all of them close each other in their meaning.

All this means firstly operating on large temporal and spacial spans, then allying history with anthropology (as on such time frames society can be better understood through the generic individual), also with ecology (as the generic individual has to be placed in its environment - humanoid, fauna and flora as peers), also with economics (approached with the same global eye - aiming perhaps to obtain an objective picture of the facts, devoid of any interpretation).

Well, all this seems pretty different from the history as we were used to. It's a lot to say here (firstly that Global History pretends to be ideology-free, which is not accurate, I think: it just follows the ideology of Globalization Age). I would rather say that Global and Traditional histories are just two separate disciplines, each one with its merits and its challenges.

Actually the traditional history takes sometimes macro-approaches: Spengler (in Der Untergang des Abendlandes) and Toynbee (in A Study of History) are just two examples. However they remain distinct fields, and Global History (along with its avatars, Macro-, Big-, Clio-) is extremely vigorous in declaring the independence from tradition. Thus, we have here a radically new orientation in history, and like any new orientation, it has its manifesto: Thinking History Globally, authored by Diego Olstein and published in 2015.

Diego Olstein was born in Argentine in a Jewish family that had come from Eastern Europe. His first years meant a mixed formative universe: the Yiddish of his grandparents and their memories of the shtetl, along with the Argentinian city with its thrilling life and much larger openness. A book of history that young Olstein came upon while in high school opened the world for him even larger. It was Eduardo Galeano's Las Venas Abiertas de América Latina, and it was connecting the Argentinian history and generally the Latin American world to the whole Atlantic basin. The next opening of perspective came for Olstein while at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where - mentored by Benjamin Kedar - he became interested in studying the universe of the medieval Mediterranean Basin and its inter-cultural relationships. In 2006 Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca published his first book, La era mozárabe: los mozárabes de Toledo (siglos XII y XIII) en la historiografía, las fuentes y la historia.

For a while Olstein was a visiting scholar at several universities in US (Boston, Madison WI, Pittsburgh) and Europe (Jacobs), continuing also to work with the Hebrew University. Eventually he settled at Pitt, becoming the Associate Director of the World History Center and getting fully immersed in the global thing. No wonder with such a background.

His Thinking History Globally suggests twelve possible approaches in tackling big-scale history:

  • Comparative history
  • Relational histories
  • New international history
  • Trans-national history
  • Oceanic history
  • Historical sociology
  • Civilizational analysis
  • World-system approach
  • Global history
  • History of globalization
  • World history
  • Big history
Now, of course this is not a bullet-proof list. Some would not see the reason behind all these points, others could devise different strategies. Anyway Diego Olstein makes his case, illustrating the list with concrete examples, sometimes building unexpected parallels (why is the Egyptian Nasser more similar to the Mexican Cárdenas than to Sadat, the man who followed him at the helm of Egypt), sometimes presenting the same example (the rise to power of Argentinian president Perón, or the unfolding of the First World War) under the lenses of almost all twelve approaches.

Saying all this, will the Global History, or the Big-Scale whatever, take the place of the traditional one? Very recent developments on the world stage seem to demonstrate that we should always put caution in our judgements. I would repeat here that we have two separate domains, each one with its own merits, each one with its own challenges.

(A Life in Books)



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