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Open Access Publications from the University of California

UC World History Workshop

UC Berkeley

Modernity’s Histories: Rethinking the Long Nineteenth Century, 1750-1950


The paper suggests that the UC Multi-Campus Research Group in World History should consider undertaking a collaborative research project aimed at rethinking the history of the long nineteenth century in comparative world historical perspective, suggesting some reasons why demarcating a research area on this scale might be productive, as well as some broad topics within it that appear to be potentially of interest. These days for a variety of reasons we are suspicious of large scale historical narratives and the uses to which they have been put. But faute de mieux, we continue to frame our work in terms of the dichotomous division between the West and the Rest, often without our being aware of it. It is the author's contention that by neglecting the larger frames in which our work might be inserted, we deprive it of larger resonances that will enable us to connect with broader audiences. Whether we like it or not, big narratives will inevitably be invoked by readers as they seek to render intelligible our smaller scale histories. There is therefore a compelling need for a self-consciously comparative world historical approach.

Why the nineteenth century? Because it seems to be the piece that has thus far been left out of the rethinking of modern world history. Little noticed until now, the outlines a new world historical framework for the early modern period has begun to emerge. Similarly, the outlines of a global framework for the history of the twentieth century can be perceived (though here for a variety of reasons the crystal ball remains cloudier). The paper explains, however, that despite major progress, both enterprises seem at the moment to be stuck, and unlikely to progress until the job of inscribing nineteenth century history into world history has progressed. The nineteenth century is key. Yet despite a lot of research, we’re still far from being able to devise a truly world-centered historical framework for the nineteenth century. Accordingly, it is time for scholarly energy to be focused on integrating this new work into a self-consciously world historical narrative framework.

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