The writing of history and the theories that guide it, argues historian Lynn Hunt in Writing History in the Global Era, urgently need “reinvigoration.” The old meta-narratives used to explain historical change looked progressively weaker and fell under heavier criticism as the twentieth century reached its conclusion and gave way to the twenty-first. Globalization, Hunt writes, can serve as a new paradigm. Her work offers a valuable overview of historical theories and develops an important new one, but this paper will argue Hunt implicitly undervalues older paradigms and fails to offer a comprehensive purpose for history under her theory. This essay then proposes some guardrails for history’s continuing development, not offering a new paradigm but rather a framing that gives older theories their due and a purpose that can power many different theories going forward.
We begin by reviewing Hunt’s main ideas. Hunt argues for “bottom-up” globalization as a meta-narrative for historical study, and contributes to this paradigm by offering a rationale for causality and change that places the concepts of “self” and “society” at its center. One of the most important points that Writing History in the Global Era makes is that globalization has varying meanings, with top-down and bottom-up definitions. Top-down globalization is “a process that transforms every part of the globe, creating a world system,” whereas the bottom-up view is myriad processes wherein “diverse places become connected and interdependent.” In other words, while globalization is often considered synonymous with Europe’s encroachment on the rest of the world, from a broader and, as Hunt sees it, better perspective, globalization would in fact be exemplified by increased interactions and interdependence between India and China, for example. The exploration and subjugation of the Americas was globalization, but so was the spread of Islam from the Middle East across North Africa to Spain. It is not simply the spread of more advanced technology or capitalism or what is considered to be, in eurocentrism, the most enlightened culture and value system, either: it is a reciprocal, “two-way relationship” that can be found anywhere as human populations move, meet, and start to rely on each other, through trade for example. Hunt seeks to overcome two problems here. First, the eurocentric top-down approach and its “defects”; second, the lack of a “coherent alternative,” which her work seeks to provide.
Hunt rightly and persuasively makes the case for a bottom-up perspective of globalization as opposed to top-down, then turns to the question of why this paradigm has explanatory power. What is it about bottom-up globalization, the increasing interactions and interdependence of human beings, that brings about historical change? Here Hunt is situating her historical lens alongside and succeeding previous ones, explored early in the work. Marxism, modernization, and the Annales School offered theories of causality. Cultural and political change was brought about by new modes of economic production, the growth of technology and the State, or by geography and climate, respectively. The paradigm of identity politics, Hunt notes, at times lacked such a clear “overarching narrative,” but implied that inclusion of The Other, minority or oppressed groups, in the national narrative was key to achieving genuine democracy (which more falls under purpose, to be explored later). Cultural theories rejected the idea, inherent in older paradigms, that culture was produced by economic or social relations; culture was a force unto itself, comprised of language, semiotics, discourse, which determined what an individual thought to be true and how one behaved. “Culture shaped class and politics rather than the other way around” — meaning culture brought about historical change (though many cultural theorists preferred not to focus on causation, perhaps similar to those engaged in identity politics). Bottom-up globalization, Hunt posits, is useful as a modern explanatory schema for the historical field. It brings about changes in the self (in fact in the brain) and of society, which spurs cultural and political transformations. There is explanatory power in increased connections between societies. For instance, she suggests that drugs and stimulants like coffee, brought into Europe through globalization, produced selves that sought pleasure and thrill (i.e. altered the neurochemistry of the brain) and changed society by creating central gathering places, coffeehouses, where political issues could be intensely discussed. These developments may have pushed places like France toward democratic and revolutionary action. For Hunt, it is not enough to say culture alone directs the thinkable and human action, nor is the mind simply a social construction — the biology of the brain and how it reacts and operates must be taken into account. The field must move on from cultural theories.
Globalization, a useful lens through which to view history, joins a long list, only partially outlined above. Beyond economics, advancing technology and government bureaucracy, geography and environment, subjugated groups, and culture, there is political, elite, or even “Great Men” history; social history, the story of ordinary people; the history of ideas, things, and diseases and non-human species; microhistory, biography, a close look at events and individuals; and more. Various ways of looking at history, some of which are true theories that include causes of change, together construct a more complete view of the past. They are all valuable. As historian Sarah Maza writes, “History writing does not get better and better but shifts and changes in response to the needs and curiosities of the present day. Innovations and new perspectives keep the study of the past fresh and interesting, but that does not mean we should jettison certain areas or approaches as old-fashioned or irrelevant.” This is a crucial reminder. New paradigms can reinvigorate, but historians must be cautious of seeing them as signals that preceding paradigms are dead and buried.
Hunt’s work flirts with this mistake, though perhaps unintentionally. Obviously, some paradigms grow less popular, while others, particularly new ones, see surges in adherents. Writing History in the Global Era outlines the “rise and fall” of theories over time, the changing popularities and new ways of thinking that brought them about. One implication in Hunt’s language, though such phrasing is utilized from the viewpoint of historical time or those critical of older theories, is that certain paradigms are indeed dead or of little use — “validity” and “credibility” are “questioned” or “lost,” “limitations” and “disappointments” discovered, theories “undermined” and “weakened” by “gravediggers” before they “fall,” and so forth. Again, these are not necessarily Hunt’s views, rather descriptors of changing trends and critiques, but Hunt’s work offers no nod to how older paradigms are still useful today, itself implying that different ways of writing history are now irrelevant. With prior theories worth less, a new one, globalization, is needed. Hunt’s work could have benefited from more resistance to this implication, with a serious look at how geography and climate, or changing modes of economic production, remain valuable lenses historians use to chart change and find truth — an openness to the full spectrum of approaches, for they all work cooperatively to reveal the past, despite their unique limitations. Above, Maza mentioned “certain areas” of history in addition to “approaches,” and continued: “As Lynn Hunt has pointed out, no field of history [such as ancient Rome] should be cast aside just because it is no longer ‘hot’…” Hunt should have acknowledged and demonstrated that the precise same is true of approaches to history.
Another area that deserves more attention is purpose. In the same way that not all historical approaches emphasize causality and change, not all emphasize purpose. Identity politics had a clear use: the inclusion of subjugated groups in history helped move nations toward political equality. With other approaches, however, “What is it good for?” is more difficult to answer. This is to ask what utility a theory had for contemporary individuals and societies (and has for modern ones), beyond a more complete understanding of yesteryear or fostering new research. It may be more challenging to see a clear purpose in the study of how the elements of the longue durée, such as geography and climate, of the Annales School change human development. How was such a lens utilized as a tool, if in fact it was, in the heyday of the Annales School? How could it be utilized today? (Perhaps it could be useful in mobilizing action against climate change.) The purpose of history — of each historical paradigm — is not always obvious.
Indeed, Hunt’s paradigm “offers a new purpose for history: understanding our place in an increasingly interconnected world,” a rather vague suggestion that sees little elaboration. What does it mean to understand our place? Is this a recycling of “one cannot understand the present without understanding the past,” a mere truism? Or is it to say that a bottom-up globalization paradigm can be utilized to demonstrate the connection between all human beings, breaking down nationalism or even national borders? After all, the theory moves away from eurocentrism and the focus on single nations. Perhaps it is something else, one cannot know for certain. Of course, Hunt may have wanted to leave this question to others, developing the tool and letting others determine how to wield it. However, hesitation on Hunt’s part to more deeply and explicitly explore purpose, to adequately show how her theory is useful to the present, may be a simple desire to avoid the controversy of politics. This would be disappointing to those who believe history is inherently political or anchored to ethics, but either reason is out of step with Hunt’s introduction. History, Hunt writes on her opening page, is “in crisis” due to the “nagging question that has proved so hard to answer…‘What is it good for?’” In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, she writes, the answer shifted from developing strong male leaders to building national identity and patriotism to contributing to the social movements of subjugated groups by unburying histories of oppression. All of these purposes are political. Hunt deserves credit for constructing a new paradigm, with factors of causality and much fodder for future research, but to open the work by declaring a crisis of purposelessness, framing purposes as political, and then not offering a fully developed purpose through a political lens (or through another lens, explaining why purpose need not be political) is an oversight.
Based on these criticisms, we have a clear direction for the field of history. First, historians should reject any implication of a linear progression of historical meta-narratives, which this paper argues Hunt failed to do. “Old-fashioned” paradigms in fact have great value today, which must be noted and explored. A future work on the state of history might entirely reframe, or at least dramatically add to, the discussion of theory. Hunt tracked the historical development of theories and their critics, with all the ups and downs of popularity. This is important epistemologically, but emphasizes the failures of theories rather than their contributions, and presents them as stepping stones to be left behind on the journey to find something better. Marxism had a “blindness to culture” and had to be left by the wayside, its replacement had this or that limitation and was itself replaced, and so on. Hunt writes globalization will not “hold forever” either. A future work might instead, even if it included a brief, similar tracking, focus on how each paradigm added to our understanding of history, continued to do so, and how it does so today. As an example of the second task, Anthony Reid’s 1988 Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, 1450-1680 was written very much in the tradition of the Annales School, with a focus on geography, resources, climate, and demography, but it would be lost in a structure like Hunt’s, crowded out by the popularity of cultural studies in the last decades of the twentieth century. Simply put, the historian must break away from the idea that paradigms are replaced. They are replaced in popularity, but not in importance to the mission of more fully understanding the past. As Hunt writes, “Paradigms are problematic because by their nature they focus on only part of the picture,” which highlights the necessity of the entire paradigmic spectrum, as does her putting globalization theory into practice, suggesting that coffee from abroad spurred revolutionary movements in eighteenth-century Europe, sidelining countless other factors. Every paradigm helps us see more of the picture. It would be a shame if globalization was downplayed as implicitly irrelevant only a couple decades from now, if still a useful analytical lens. Paradigms are not stepping stones, they are columns holding up the house of history — more can be added as we go.
This aforementioned theoretical book on the field would also explore purpose, hypothesizing that history cannot be separated from ethics, and therefore from politics. Sarah Maza wrote in the final pages of Thinking About History:
Why study history? The simplest response is that history answers questions that other disciplines cannot. Why, for instance, are African-Americans in the United States today so shockingly disadvantaged in every possible respect, from income to education, health, life expectancy, and rates of incarceration, when the last vestiges of formal discrimination were done away with half a century ago? Unless one subscribes to racist beliefs, the only way to answer that question is historically, via the long and painful narrative that goes from transportation and slavery to today via Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws, and an accumulation, over decades, of inequities in urban policies, electoral access, and the judicial system.
This is correct, and goes far beyond the purpose of answering questions. History is framed as the counter, even the antidote, to racist beliefs. If one is not looking to history for such answers, there is nowhere left to go but biology, racial inferiority, to beliefs deemed awful. History therefore informs ethical thinking; its utility is to help us become more ethical creatures, as (subjectively) defined by our society — and the self. This purpose is usually implied but rarely explicitly stated, and a discussion on the future of history should explore it. Now, one could argue that Maza’s dichotomy is simply steering us toward truth, away from incorrect ideas rather than unethical ones. But that does not work in all contexts. When we read Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, he is not demonstrating that modes of discipline are incorrect — and one is hardly confused as to whether he sees them as bad things, these “formulas of domination” and “constant coercion.” J.R. McNeill, at the end of Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914, writes that yellow fever’s “career as a governing factor in human history, mercifully, has come to a close” while warning of a lapse in vaccination and mosquito control programs that could aid viruses that “still lurk in the biosphere.” The English working class, wrote E.P. Thompson, faced “harsher and less personal” workplaces, “exploitation,” “unfreedom.” The implications are clear: societies without disciplines, without exploitation, with careful mosquito control would be better societies. For human beings, unearthing and reading history cannot help but create value judgements, and it is a small step from the determination of what is right to the decision to pursue it, political action. It would be difficult, after all, to justify ignoring that which was deemed ethically right.
Indeed, not only do historians implicitly suggest better paths and condemn immoral ones, the notion that history helps human beings make more ethical choices is already fundamental to how many lay people read history — what is the cliché of being doomed to repeat the unlearned past about if not avoiding tragedies and terrors deemed wrong by present individuals and society collectively? As tired and disputed as the expression is, there is truth to it. Studying how would-be authoritarians often use minority groups as scapegoats for serious economic and social problems to reach elected office in democratic systems creates pathways for modern resistance, making the unthinkable thinkable, changing characterizations of what is right or wrong, changing behavior. Globalization may alter the self and society, but the field of history itself, to a degree, does the same. This could be grounds for a new, rather self-congratulatory paradigm, but the purpose, informing ethical and thus political decision-making, can guide many different theories, from Marxism to globalization. As noted, prior purposes of history were political: forming strong leaders, creating a national narrative, challenging a national narrative. A new political purpose would be standard practice. One might argue moving away from political purposes is a positive step, but it must be noted that the field seems to move away from purpose altogether when it does so. Is purpose inherently political? This future text would make the case that it is. A purpose cannot be posited without a self-evident perceived good. Strong leaders are good, for instance — and therefore should be part of the social and political landscape.
In conclusion, Hunt’s implicit dismissal of older theories and her incomplete purpose for history deserve correction, and doing so pushes the field forward in significant ways. For example, using the full spectrum of paradigms helps us work on (never solve) history’s causes-of-causes ad infinitum problem. Changing modes of production may have caused change x, but what caused the changing modes of production? What causes globalization in the first place? Paradigms can interrelate, helping answer the thorny questions of other paradigms (perhaps modernization or globalization theory could help explain changing modes of production, before requiring their own explanations). How giving history a full purpose advances the field is obvious: it sparks new interest, new ways of thinking, new conversations, new utilizations, new theories, while, like the sciences, offering the potential — but not the guarantee — of improving the human condition.
 Lynn Hunt, Writing History in the Global Era (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014), 1.
 Ibid, 26, 35-43.
 Ibid, 59. See also 60-71.
 Ibid, 70.
 Ibid, 77.
 Ibid, 14-17.
 Ibid, 18.
 Ibid, 18-27.
 Ibid, 27, 77.
 Ibid, chapters 3 and 4.
 Ibid, 135-141.
 Ibid, 101-118.
 Sarah Maza, Thinking About History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017).
 Maza, Thinking, 236.
 Hunt, Writing History, chapter 1.
 Ibid, 8-9, 18, 26-27, chapter 1.
 Maza, Thinking, 236.
 Hunt, Writing History, 18.
 Ibid, 10.
 Ibid, 1.
 Ibid, 1-7.
 Ibid, 8.
 Ibid, 40.
 Anthony Reid, Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, 1450-1680, vol. 1, The Lands Below the Winds (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988).
 Hunt, Writing History, 121, 135-140.
 Maza, Thinking, 237.
 Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 137.
 J.R. McNeill, Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 314.
 E.P. Thompson, The Essential E.P. Thompson (New York: The New Press, 2001), 17.