The Ebb and Flow of Certainties

An article from the series "Elephants & Butterflies" – Science in a nutshell

Global history challenges the certainties enshrined in national historiographies. Michael Goebel explores how migration, world trade, and other global phenomena coalesce to create injustice or spark political upheaval in cities. 

Port cities are gratifying places to study global history because here things are perpetually in flux – there is a constant arriving and departing of commodities, people, and ideas. But it would be wrong to assume that such cities are fully permeable spaces. In fact, they are sites where borders abound: Over centuries, districts may remain linked to ethnic, religious, or national communities, such as Chinatown or Little Italy, or the quarters across the Americas that are home to the descendants of former slaves. 

I am especially interested in port cities that went through a phase of rapid growth in the late 19th and early 20th centuries spurred by immigration – the ports of those world regions that experienced a boom because they exported primary products to industrialized countries: Crops and meat from Argentina, natural rubber from Malaysia, sugar cane from Cuba, Rio de Janeiro, and Manila.  

The question I am keen to answer is: How does their incorporation into global trade and the capitalist economy affect the organization of urban space? How does this global integration produce forms of social inequality, and how do these cities themselves become producers of inequality by creating segregated urban spaces and restricting access to education and incomes? The overarching question for me is whether globalization multiplies inequalities and if so, in which ways. My aim is to provide contemporary political and social debates with a stronger historical grounding. Of course that does not mean that this research gives us a clearer understanding of the things that need to be done today. But it is worth learning about the things that people have said and done in the past. 

Broadly speaking, global history is concerned with the causes and impacts of globalization, the intensification of global trade, migration, and the proliferation of capitalism and colonies. As a branch of history, it explores instances of global connectedness and global networks. It is a product of the internationalization and digitization of research, the diversification of our society, and societal debates about globalization and its impacts. 

My aim is to provide contemporary political and social debates with a stronger historical grounding. It is worth learning about the things that people have said and done in the past

Prior to the emergence of global history as a discipline, it was commonplace in historiography to argue that the emergence and political power of nationalism was rooted in the nations themselves. But just like other developments, nationalism hardly derives its appeal exclusively from a self-contained national unit is capacity to perpetually reinvent itself. That is an old belief that is misleading. Vietnam’s path to nationhood cannot be seen in isolation from contemporary developments in Algeria. In interwar Paris, the French colonial empire’s legal and social inequalities were strikingly palpable, a situation that was formative in politicizing anti-colonial nationalists such as Ho Chi Mihn, and it transformed the city into a hub for anti-colonial nationalisms in the French colonies.  

Looking at the world through the lens of global history enables us to create a new narrative with a focus on connectedness instead of isolation. But this does not mean we always have to consider the entire world. Our focus is not always planetary; it is quite possible to look at very confined geographical spaces and times – interwar Paris, for instance. Similarly, it does not always follow that everything is always connected with everything else or that all things are in a state of flux and ideas such as the nation state are erased. The opposite is the case, as events in so many countries across the world are currently teaching us. I think it is important to bear that in mind. 

Global history itself displays imperialist tendencies in that it never ceases to expand into new territories. For researchers studying the history of Germany, for instance, it is becoming increasingly difficult to justify their exclusive focus on Germany. Which is why I can imagine a point in the future when global history – as a label – will become redundant simply because the global perspective will be something we have learned to take for granted. 

Transcript by Mirco Lomoth