The Role of the Individual in World History

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Authored by

  • Mary Jane Maxwell
    Washington State University
    Pullman, Washington

When the entire globe can be the unit of analysis for a research topic, what is the role of the individual in world history—especially in the pre-modern world? Or if the scale of time on which world history should be studied is, as David Christian argues, ten to twenty billion years, how important are particular historical figures? Over the past several decades, particularly since professional historians formed the World History Association (WHA) in 1982 and began publishing the Journal of World History (JWH) in 1990, world historians have discussed and debated the time-scale and geographic scope of world history in a search for an overall definition of the field. Important works such as Patrick Manning's Navigating World History (2003), Jerry Bentley's Shapes of World History in Twentieth-Century Scholarship (1995), and Marnie Hughes-Warrington's (ed) World Histories (2005) have all offered definitions of world history, presented various models of world history scholarship, proposed methodologies for conducting new research, and suggested new directions for future research on global topics.

Most of these prescriptions focus on large-scale global processes such as long-distance trade, migrations, and the spread of disease, technology, or agriculture. For many, the entire globe is the preferred research topic or, at the very least, a large transnational portion of it. It would seem, therefore, that few individuals would have a place in a global or large-scale unit of analysis, especially in the pre-modern world; an exception might be Christopher Columbus or Chinggis Khan. But if, as Patrick Manning argues, "the work of the world historian is to portray the crossing of boundaries and the linking of systems in the human past," then the time-scale and geographic scope of our field ought to accommodate studies that range from "big-history" to biography. This column explores how world historians have used individuals in their works. I contend that world historians frequently use individuals from 1500 onward as a means to elucidate broad historical patterns and processes in a global context. However, they largely neglect to use individual accounts from earlier periods. This, I believe, is a neglected area in world history as studies of individuals have and will most likely continue to fulfill an essential role in the field. Biographies have yet to lose their appeal to either readers or scholars.

One of the many arguments for utilizing world history methodologies is that they put the seemingly unrelated and disjointed pieces of various micro-studies into a meaningful whole. In recent decades, world historians have built upon the voluminous works of area studies and linked distinct regions or themes into global patterns such as plagues, war, colonization, and "world-systems." Many operate on the assumption that all these facts in isolation fall short of their full significance because they fail to interpret and illuminate the larger whole which frequently spans several continents and many centuries. Critics of world history, in response, often charge that the field is a history without people. Yet a survey of the use of historical figures in current world history scholarship reveals that individuals, primarily in the modern era, are often the subject of inquiry. Over a dozen articles on individuals appear in fourteen volumes of JWH. Although the majority of these are concerned with modern history, four examine pre-modern figures.1 Jessica Coope's 1993 article, "Religious and Cultural Conversion to Islam in Ninth-Century Cordoba," for example, argues how the writings of two Christian martyrs in a specific time and place "can be understood as part of a process that was taking place throughout the Islamic world." The process she refers to was a pre-modern global process of religious and cultural conversion, or Islamization, and took place from the seventh through the fifteenth centuries from Spain to Indonesia.2 Another article from 2000, "In Search of Longevity and Good Karma: Chinese Diplomatic Missions to Middle India in the Seventh Century," emphasizes how the travel and diplomatic accounts of three Chinese individuals (a monk, an emperor, and an ambassador) influenced the contemporary Buddhist community and mercantile groups in India and also promoted subsequent Sino-Indian contacts. The palpable actions of these individuals permit readers—as well as the writer—to comprehend the abstract generalization of how "encounters" stimulated the cross-cultural flow of ideas in a more convincing and comprehendible fashion.

Monographs on individuals also support and clarify broader studies of global patterns and processes. One of the first to publish an account of an important figure in world history was Ross Dunn in 1989. The Adventures of Ibn Battuta elucidates the unifying features of Islam in diverse regions of Asia and Africa—a topic that world historians frequently investigate, as in Richard Eaton's "Islamic History as Global History" (1993). In contrast to Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta, a native of Morocco, traveled in his own cultural comfort zone on most occasions. Throughout his journey he encountered like-minded Muslims who all spoke a common language, Arabic, and maintained universal Muslim customs including prayer habits, food and drink restrictions, and social relations. Dunn's portrayal of one key historical figure enhances and supports studies of larger scale and scope such as Janet Abu-Lughod's Before European Hegemony (1989) and K.N. Chaudhuri's Trade and Civilization in the Indian Ocean (1985), which argue that economically unified zones preceded European hegemony and the post 1500 A.D. western dominated "world-system." Analysis of a single life offers the historian a vehicle to contextualize the contemporary social, political, economic, and cultural landscape. Dunn's extraordinary work on Battuta demonstrates this new emphasis in world history research.

In teaching world history, individuals have always been an important means to examine the intricacies of various complex societies. Yet Ken Wolf's Personalities and Problems (1998, 2004), now in its third edition, and the recent publication of Global Passages (2004) present more than just case studies of individuals who affected their own societies. These supplemental sources, intended for the world history classroom, underscore a cross-cultural and comparative approach to world history. They examine both important political leaders as well as little known curious travelers, thus mirroring the recent methodological approaches (comparative history and cross-cultural encounters) used by researchers in the field.

New doctoral dissertations in world history also examine individuals in a global, comparative, or cross-cultural context. Focusing on a historical figure allows doctoral students to engage in extensive archival research while utilizing relevant secondary sources to place their historical figures in a world history context. At Northeastern University, David Kalivas examined Owen Latimore in a world history context by using unpublished primary sources such as travel diaries and extant correspondence.3 Eric Martin investigated three anti-colonial figures, Mahatma Ghandi (1869-1948), Kwame Nkrumah (1909-1947), and Ernesto Che Guevara (1930-1954) "to illustrate the existence of a dynamic relationship between the individual and the global. This relationship demonstrates the influence of global forces upon individuals and the individual's role as an influence on global systems." 4 Thus, new research on individuals has and will continue to reflect a central question of world historians: how do historical figures illuminate the broader issues of a global, comparative, or cross-cultural problem?

In my own research, I examine three fifteenth-century travel accounts to show the effects of the commercial milieu on the personal religious identity of individuals.5 Afanasii Nikitin (1468-1474), a Russian merchant from Tver', Nicolo de Conti (1419-1444), a merchant from Venice, and Ludovico de Varthema (1503-1508), a self-styled adventurer from Bologna, each left detailed records of their everyday encounters with Muslims, Hindus, and Christians during their travels through India. Their accounts reveal that foreign merchants converted to Islam for different reasons and in various degrees and that conversion to Islam varied from region to region. Their unique perspective on the challenges faced by individuals conducting business in the dar al-Islam (the region where Muslim authorities held power) presents an original perspective on the relationship between trade and religion. While world historians frequently acknowledge the close association between trade and conversion to Islam in the pre-modern era, most of their conclusions avoid individual accounts and instead focus on large-scale conversions of entire societies.6

The role of the individual, in this example, is not intended to replace or dispute more synthetic works which illuminate broad global patterns and processes such as Islamization.", but rather to add new dimensions to the discussions. Moreover, personal accounts—critically evaluated and interpreted like any other form of historical evidence—are germane to all historical inquiries. The narratives of Nikitin, Conti, and Varthema reveal contemporary concerns (whether they were biased or not) about such things as apostasy, which was a crime in both Christianity and Islam. While often reinforcing the multi-factored secular explanations that currently dominate the literature, their accounts add a neglected element by considering the spiritual concerns of these men traveling in the fifteenth century dar al-Islam. They demonstrate that during this time, secular motivations for assimilation did not exist without spiritual considerations. Therefore, biographical accounts investigated in a world history context—especially in the medieval era where fewer cases have so far been examined—offer fruitful areas for new research in the field.

As previous studies reveal, the role of the individual in world history is not a novel concept. More and more publishers are making available primary source material on ancient and medieval historical figures for the world history survey, including M.E. Sharpe's Sources and Studies in World History. However, biographical investigations of pre-modern individuals remain an underutilized approach to historical research in the pre-modern world. With the exception of Dunn's Adventures of Ibn Battuta, most of the new research focuses on modern figures where documents are more plentiful and accessible. Language barriers, such as ancient languages and alphabets, may also limit research possibilities for world historians.

In my own research, I worked closely with linguists at Tver' State University and relied heavily on scholarship outside the field of history. Just as world historians who investigate environmental history have learned to extrapolate new information from scientists, the field of world history also has much to gain from new studies in linguistics—especially new translations of ancient and medieval historical figures. In Navigating World History Patrick Manning also writes that, "The impact of new scientific work on world history has already been substantial. The work of new cultural studies (with more variables to account for and less research for funding) is moving more slowly, yet its implications for world history are sure to be profound."7 Important examples include Frances Karttunen's Between Worlds: Interpreters, Guides, and Survivors (1994). Karttunen, a linguist, examines the lives of sixteen individuals who she describes as "marginalized," who have acted as intermediaries between two or more cultures. In doing so, she raises important questions for world historians who examine frontiers, marginalized peoples, and survivors in multicultural worlds.

There exist numerous opportunities for world historians, especially in an interdisciplinary setting with linguists or cultural anthropologists, to investigate the lives of individuals in order to both stimulate and substantiate new themes in world history. Such analyses allow for deep archival research and pave the way for synthesis of the secondary sources on a particular theme. As new translations of historical figures surface, increased prospects for new research in cross-cultural encounters and "connections within the global human community" present themselves. Long before the professionalization of history, indeed since ancient times, the lives of individuals have been considered to be instructive to future generations for a variety of reasons, from examples of how one should live his or her life (such as the Lives of the saints), to the commemoration of rulers, to the notion that the life of an individual is valuable simply for its own sake. In a world history context, real people have yet to lose their appeal to either readers or their writers. Scholars who work in the medieval era should take note.

Biographical Note

Mary Jane Maxwell received her Ph.D. in World History at Washington State University, Pullman, WA in 2004. She has taught for the General Education and History departments at WSU.

1. "Africa and the Atlantic Islands Meet the Garden of Eden: Christopher Columbus' View of America," JWH 3:2 (Fall 1992), 149; Jessica Coope, "Religious and Cultural Conversion to Islam in Ninth-Century Cordoba," JWH 4:1 (Spring 1993), 47-68; "In Search of Longevity and Good Karma: Chinese Diplomatic Missions to Middle India in the Seventh Century," JWH 12:1 (Spring 2001), 1-27; "Tamerlane's Career and Its Uses," JWH 13:1 (Spring 2002), 1-25.

2. Coope, 67.

3. Abstract from David Kalivas, "A World History Worldview: Owen Latimore, A Life Lived in Interesting Times, 1900-1950," April 2000.

4. Abstract from Eric Martin, "Anti-Colonial Worldviews: An Intellectual World History of the Twentieth Century," August 2001.

5. Forthcoming in Journal of World History, Fall 2006.

6. See Richard Bulliet, Conversion to Islam in the Medieval Period (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979); Jerry Bentley, Old World Encounters (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993); Nehemia Levtzion, ed., Conversion to Islam (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1979); Patricia Risso, Merchants and Faith: Muslim Commerce and Culture in the Indian Ocean (Boulder: Westview Press, 1995); Richard Foltz, Religions of the Silk Road (New York: St Martin's Griffin, 1999).

7. Manning, Navigating World History, 4 (ff.).

This article was originally presented online at World History Connected Vol. 3, Issue 3.  The online journal World History Connected is partially supported by the College Board and published in association with the History Cooperative. Copyright © 2006 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Reproduced here with permission.

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