Date: Sun, 27 Oct 1996 12:12:36 -0800
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Historical Comparisons and Connections at the AHA

By Andre Gunder Frank, 27 October 1996

Here is a complete outsider's reaction and comment to the insiders' “Program Committee Guidelines” for the 1998 AHA Annual Meetings in Seattle, as published in PERSPECTIVES September 1996, pp. 15–19. The procedural guidelines are signed by the chair and co-chair for the 1998 meetings and the chair of the 1997 meetings, Professor Patrick Manning at Northeastern University, who wrote the original version now revised for 1998. These procedural guidelines are accompanied by a box entitled “1998 Program Committee Invites COMPARATIVE Panels,” which is signed by the 1998 chair and co-chair alone. They are Professor Sara Evans and Professor Ann Waltner, respectively, both of the Department of History at the University of Minnesota. They certainly merit many congratulations and thanks for inviting AHA members to submit COMPARISONS. Nonetheless, I wish to make and propose some CONNECTIONS as well.

By way of introduction, I mention that I have personal knowledge of the University of Minnesota Department's special interest and strength in “Comparative History,” especially in Asia. For in 1988 I briefly was visiting professor in that Department on “exchange” from the University of Amsterdam, albeit from the latter's Faculty of Economics, so that I much appreciated the invitation, reception, honour and privilege accorded me by the University of Minnesota Department of History. Other than giving my own seminar, I regularly sat in on and sometimes put in my “two cents worth” at its graduate seminar on Early Modern Comparative History. It was led by the leading light and well-known author in the field, Professor Edward Farmer, and three others of his colleagues, and had over a dozen students. Actually, I only had one “cent” to “contribute”: That was my repeated urging to combine COMPARISONS among here and there also with the “scent” of [possible] CONNECTIONS among the same, especially at the same time. I especially recall a session on “Safavid-Moghul-Ming comparisons” [eg. of their political and other institutions], in which I innocently asked whether these might not also be connected by their common Mongol and post-Mongol experiences and exigencies. Alas, this “modest proposal” of mine to make both connections in general and these in particular was only courteously tolerated out of professional courtesy by the seminar staff. However, my proposal was out and out rejected [indeed thrown out!] by each and every one of their students, who seemed appalled at so outlandish an idea. At that time, I was only just beginning my own study of such history and did indeed not know what I was talking about; so I took the rebuff lying down—almost, although over a decade earlier still I had already written pleaded that

however useful it may be to relate the same thing through different times, the essential (because it is both the most necessary and the least accomplished) contribution of the historian to historical understanding is successively to relate different things and places at the same time in the historical process. The very ATTEMPT to examine and relate the simultaneity of different events in the whole historical process or in the transformation of the whole system—even if for want of empirical information or theoretical adequacy it may be full of holes in its factual coverage of space and time—is a significant step in the right direction (particularly at a time in which this generation must "rewrite history" to meets its need for historical perspective and understanding of the single historical process in the one world today). (Frank 1978a: 21).

While I am delighted that the "guidelines" emanating from this same Minnesota Department now urges the AHA also to do comparisons, it is alas my turn now also to be appalled that the same guidelines still do NOT include any CONNECTIONS. Though I may still be no "historian," I have in the meantime done another couple of books, one on the two millennia before 1500 and the other on the early modern period after 1400 [and I don't recall how many articles], which combine both comparison AND connection in world history.

In the meantime my erstwhile colleagues seem to have clung to their comparisons. It is not that I do not welcome any and all of these as do they when they note in the introduction to their special invitation to AHA members that "the historical profession (or at least the job market) is subtly changing, with more emphasis each year on world history and comparative fields" [ibid:17]. At the end, to be practically helpful, they add if anyone has an idea for but needs help with formulating a comparative panel, then "consider posting a message on the relevant H-Net list or on H-World, where readers have a particular interest in comparisons" [ibid:19]. Indeed as a subscriber and [too!] frequent "contributor" to H-World, I can testify to these comparative interests in "world history." But what about the [related?!] CONNECTIONS? However to do "WORLD" history, we cannot confine ourselves to doing only comparisons IN the world; but we must also do history OF the [whole] world. And that means also making connections WITHIN THE WORLD, including also establishing possible CONNECTIONS among the comparisons between here and there. Otherwise, what would be the point of doing WORLD history, rather than doing just comparative history, not to mention history only of here OR [that is to the exclusion of] there or of this OR that?

Perhaps the Department of History at the University of Minnesota has a particularly large stake in the pursuit of "comparative history." That is certainly better than doing history only here OR there, and it is so much the better if the occasion of now chairing the AHA Program Committee affords two of its members the opportunity to try to push these comparisons in the AHA as well. The program co-chairs do well to open their invitation by saying that "the annual meeting of the American Historical Association provides a unique opportunity for scholars working in various cultures to engage in a common conversation. But all too often, the opportunity is missed. In order to facilitate ...[the same] ... the 1988 Program Committee particularly invites the submission of comparative panels" [ibid:17]. But why do my erstewhile colleagues at the Minnesota History Department who now also chair of the AHA program committee fail even to try also to make some CONNECTIONS? All the moreso, if the AHA Program chairs invoke "more emphasis each year on WORLD history"! Is that not an opportunity—indeed a responsibility— missed not only all too often but ALLTOGETHER?

Therefore in several on-going "debates" [among the deaf?] on the same H-WORLD net to which the AHA program chairs refer us, I have been insisting that "the whole [world] is more than the sum of its parts." Therefore it is necessary not only to "compare" parts but also TO CONNECT the parts to each other and to the whole -- even to describe, not to mention minimally to account for or explain not only the whole, but ALSO ANY PART [thereof]. Of course, that is a fortiori so if we wish to do WORLD history, on which as my erstwhile Minnesota colleagues claim there is "more emphasis each year." But I repeat, now with a bit more reason to know, what I already told them apparently to no avail already a decade ago: WORLD history is not and cannot be limited to making comparisons. It must make CONNECTIONS, and as far as possible with and to the WHOLE WORLD. Of course my say so is neither here nor there.

However, at least one pre-eminent historian, shortly before his untimely death, made an even stronger plea to do what he called HORIZONTALLY INTEGRATIVE MACROHISTORY. The historian of Inner Asia at Harvard, Joseph Fletcher (posthumous and published by his friends in the Journal of Turkish Studies 1985, reprinted 1995), wrote:

The fact remains, however, that the field of history, as it is cultivated at most European and American universities, produces a microhistorical, even parochial outlook.... Historians are alert to vertical continuities (the persistence of tradition, etc.) but blind to horizontal ones.... However beautiful the mosaic of specific studies that make up the "discipline" of history may be, without a marcohistory, a tentative general schema of the continuities, or at least, parallelisms in history, the full significance of the historical peculiarities of a given society cannot be seen.... Integrative history is the search for and description and explanation of such interrelated historical phenomena. Its methodology is conceptually simple, if not easy to put into practice: first one searches for historical parallelisms (roughly contemporaneous similar developments in the world's various societies), and then one determines whether they are causally interrelated.... To find interconnections and horizontal continuities of early modern history, one must look underneath the surface of political and institutional history, and examine developments in economics, societies, and cultures of the early modern period. If we do this, it may appear that in the seventeenth century for example, Japan, Tibet, Iran, Asia Minor, and the Iberian peninsula, all seemingly cut off from one another, were responding to some of the same, interrelated, or at least similar demographic, economic and even social forces.

Joseph Fletcher (1985:39,38)

Fletcher himself poses several other "parallelisms" for study in the early modern period 1500-1800, including population growth, quickening tempo, growth of 'regional' cities and towns, the rise of urban commercial classes (renascence), religious revival and missionary movements (reformations), rural unrest, and decline of nomadism. Then he asks "And other parallelisms? Are there not more? Unhappy landings" (ibid: 56).

Other historians have made pleas similar to that of Fletcher with regard to particular historical times and places, and one at least with regard to a particular/ly "unhappy landing." Pity that he was not at "our" Minnesota History Deptartment seminar on "Early Modern Comparative History" in Asia, when Athar Ali asked:

Are all these phenomena mere coincidences? It seems to me straining one's sense of the plausible to assert the same fate overcame all the large Indic and Islamic world at precisely the same time, but owing to quite different (or rather miscellaneous) factors operating in the case of each of them. Even if the search should ultimately prove futile, one must see whether it is possible to discover some common factor that caused more or less stable empires to disintegrate (M. Athar Ali 1975: 386).

I submit that we need to and I believe we can make some of these "horizontal/parallel" CONTEMPORANEOUS connections not only to understand that "Decline of the East" but also additional others to account for the [temporary?!] "Rise of the West" -- and to establish the connections between these contemporaneous historical processes East and West as they then were and still are RELATED within ONE WORLD history!

Fortunately, the same Pat Manning who wrote the original 1997 guidelines now praised and used by the 1998 co-chairs also took the initiative to sell the powers that be at his Northeastern University in Boston on the first fully institutionalized "PhD in World History" program, which he now directs. Thanks to Pat, the functional equivalent of the much missed Joe Fletcher's appeal for HORIZONTAL MARCOHISTORICAL CONNECTIONS has succeeded at least to some extent to make its way already all the way across the Charles River from Cambridge to Boston. Alas, it seems not yet also to have crossed the Mississippi [where the History Dept is located on the other side of the river from the main Minnesota campus] -- and even less to have made its way into the wild blue yonder of the AHA. Even so, we may hope that "the 'discipline' of history" is not destined forever to retain and re-produce the "parochial outlook" that Fletcher observed from his worldly vantage point on world history at Harvard. It would be a pity indeed for historians to remain so parochial in—and isolated from—an age in which everybody else's buzzword is GLOBALIZATION!

Respectfully submitted

Andre Gunder Frank


Ali, M. Athar 1975.
“The Passing of Empire: The Mughal Case” Modern Asian Studies, 9,3: 385-396.
Fletcher, Joseph 1985/1995,
“Integrative Histgory: Parallels and Interconnections in the Early Modern Period, 1500–1800,” Journal of Turkish Studies 9: (l985) 37–, reprinted in Fletscher, Joseph F. 1995. Studies on Chinese and Islamic Inner Asia. Edited by Beatrice Forbes Manz. Aldershot, UK: Variorum.
Frank, Andre Gunder 1978a.
World Accumulation 1492–1789, New York: Monthly Review Press and London: Macmillan Press.