Context and aim of the programme

‘The number of scholarly works on “globalization” continues to explode. …Years of vigorous discussion … have revealed various intellectual tendencies but no clear sense—nor even an approximate sense—of what this word means.’ (Lang 2006)

Eight years later the situation remains depressingly similar. Disagreement about the timing of globalization symbolizes confusion about its nature, definition, dynamics, sub-units, and component elements. Its origin is variously dated to the 1970s, the 1940s, 1800 AD, 1500 AD, and 2500 BC. Several disciplines, notably International Relations, Economic History, and History, talk promisingly about globalization, but seldom to each other, and History itself is fragmented into sub-disciplinary silos. Such terms as ‘world system’, ‘network’, ‘connectivity’, and ‘circuits’ crop up repeatedly, but there is little agreement on what they mean. Networks, for example, can imply a web, with one spider in the middle, or a multi-focal network of networks. They can be anchored in place, shift bases, or even float, like some Jewish networks. Is network theory helpful here, or does it increase confusion? Scholars and disciplines, of course, will never agree entirely on concepts and methods. But without at least an irritated understanding of each other’s conceptual languages they are doomed to talk past each other.

This project will address these problems by crystalizing the best of existing approaches to globalization, and critiquing and reconceptualising them. This task is beyond any single scholar, and it is best attempted by a multifocal network of networks.

The following is an attempt to factor-analyse and specify some of the questions the network will address. It maintains that globalization has a deep past which, with due caution regarding teleology, can resonate usefully in the study of the present. What is globalization? At least three types might be posited:

1) World orders: Formally connected entities, existing above or between states, which seek to conceptualize, stabilize and even govern their known worlds. Early examples include the Papacy, the Caliphate, and the Chinese tribute system. Recent examples include the League of Nations and the UN, and possibly the orders characterized by a single ‘global policeman’: Britain in the 19th century and the US in the 20th. How do we characterize these orders, and compare them across time?

2) World systems: informal entities that exist across and around states. Early examples include the Chinese anchored Afro-Eurasian system, c.100 – 1800 AD. Immanuel Wallerstein and Manuel Castells would deny this world system the title, on the differing grounds that it lacked a division of labour and mass information sharing. Yet it did enable the Chinese to delegate the dirty work of acquiring and transporting extractives (e.g. silver, furs) in exchange for their silk fabrics and porcelain. It also required trans-national acceptance of the high value of gold and silver, intrinsically useless metals, and of the high desirability of Chinese manufactures – a global sharing of information and valuations if not values. Unlike Western Europeans, who globalized through expansion, the Chinese globalized mainly through attraction.

3) Sub-global ‘worlds’. These are common usage in historical discourse, but have yet to be theorized. They can be oceanic (the Atlantic world); religious (the Islamic world); or imperial or post-imperial (the Anglo-world). They imply an economic and/or cultural cohesion that transcends distance and crosses political boundaries. Can they usefully be seen as the sub-units of a world system, which in turn could be defined as linking two or more of them? Is globalization today a sub-global world gone global, or a world order plus a world system, linking several ‘worlds’?

Filaments of varying types, velocities, and properties bind all these entities. ‘Connectivity’ is the currently favoured label but it too needs unpacking.

1) Connectivity enables significant but irregular and largely one-way transfers. The diasporas of Polynesians in the Pacific and Indo-European-speaking horse nomads on the Eurasian steppes are examples. Transfer of biota including humans was substantial; on-going interaction was not. Are these globalizations?

2) Interactivity, of sufficient substance, reciprocity, and frequency to create at least loose sub-global worlds, and world systems. Luxury trade is a classic vector of interaction, and some contest its real importance. Yet the relevant products were often culturally significant and highly ‘distilled’. A kilogram of musk made three tons of perfume (King 2007); a few tons of raw silk employed thousands.

3) Circulation, of sufficient regularity and bulk to create ‘tight’ worlds and world systems. The annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, which helped glue the Islamic world, is a cultural example; the West Eurasian grain trade, 1st to 8th centuries, and 14th century – present, is an economic one. But where and when is the cut between circulation and interactivity?

Nodes, whose standard form was trading cities, were the transmitters of interactivity and circulation and exporters of culture, including identity. Urban history is a well-developed field, but usually stops at the town gate, and has yet to fully engage with global history. How do we best mesh the two, and can we broaden the concept of ‘nodes’? The idea of transport hubs, cities where transport shifts from one type to another, is old hat in urban studies, but can we expand it to ‘nodal’ regions, societies, and trades? Ancient Transoxiana was the region where the silk trade shifted from cold-adapted Bactrian to heat-adapted Arabian camels, and it even developed a hybrid of the two, so underpinning Sogdian and Bukharan merchant networks. Armenian society had a long tradition of intermediation between trading zones and empires, Roman and Persian, Byzantine and Islamic, British and Mughal. Coloured cloth can be seen as an intrinsically nodal trade, because it mixed, at the point of final manufacture, fabrics, fixatives, and dyestuffs from far-flung regions.

Counter-currents: The interplay of orders, systems, filaments and nodes is crucial, yet its mechanics and countercurrents remain poorly understood. All filaments usually carried unwanted hitchhikers – pests, weeds, and pathogens, which can undermine world systems. They also carried potentially subversive information and ideas, percolated and adapted in the nodes, which can undermine world orders. Global circuits transmitted ideas of global governance and international law, but were also used by dissidents, exiles, religious minorities, indigenous resisters, and counter -cultures. The wires of American globalization carry ideas of Black Power, as well as MacDonald’s.