The International Network for Theory of History (INTH) arranged its third network conference in Stockholm from August 20th-22nd, 2018, at Södertörn University. The goal of the conference is to gather theorists and philosophers of history from around the world and to offer a forum for scholars to exchange ideas, questions and resources. The topic for the 3rd INTH conference was “Place and Displacement: The Spacing of History”.
A panel session (D6) was held on «Eurocentrism» (Aug 21, 13:45-15:45). Participants: Oldimar Cardoso (chair, Brazil, Sao Paulo), Naïd Mubalegh (France, Univ. of Lisboa), and Dag Herbjørnsrud (SGOKI, Oslo, Norway).
Herbjørnsrud’s paper was titled «Beyond Eurocentrism and Tribal History: Towards Decolonization and Connected Histories.»
In 1974, the sociologist Herminio Martins launched a new term: “methodological nationalism.” He defined the concept as such:
“In general, macro-sociological work has largely submitted to national pre-definitions of social realities: a kind of methodological nationalism – which does not necessarily go together with political nationalism on the part of the researcher – imposes itself in practice with national community as the terminal unit and boundary condition for the demarcation of problems and phenomena for social science.”
In 2018, we are facing a larger challenge than a purely national framework. Instead of – or as an addition to – national values or perspectives, most studies and funding have a European or “Western” perspective as the natural condition. We might name this “methodological eurocentrism”, a centrism that also reflects itself in other larger-than-nation-isms.
Such non-global narratives have escalated in the 21st century, possibly as a reaction to economic globalization and a growing feeling of insecurity. As an example, the US College Board recently decided to test students only in history after AD 1450, by chance just before Europe started to gain militarily control over large parts of the world. Today, 77 per cent of all historical research in the UK and North America covers Europe and the US – which account for 17 percent of the world’s population – while only 8 per cent focuses on East and South Asia, home to half of humanity.
In his new self-critical preface to the 1991 edition of The Rise of the West. A History of the Human Community (1963), William H. McNeill describes his former scope and conception as “intellectual imperialism,” an expression of “the postwar imperial mood”, and a result of “residual Eurocentrism.” As today’s history discipline faces the effects of the #RhodesMustFall-campaign and scholarly calls for decolonizing medieval studies and historical narratives – the revised perspectives of McNeill are as relevant as ever. Instead of framing the past based on today’s nation states, or on myths about a fictitious “West” and “East”, we could rather implement narratives built on Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s term of “connected histories”.
Such a change will not come easy. The different tribal narratives, based on “Western” or “Islamic” communities, are seductive as they create an “imagined community” (Benedict Anderson) which also historians trying to go beyond the national perspective is influenced by. The terminal unit of Europe creates an artificial community which hinders both historians and the public from investigating how Portugal is more connected with Brazil and Angola than with Finland.
Eurocentrism supports tribalism, as it easily can foster isolationist nationalist and religious identity politics. As an alternative, I will propose a global and comparative methodology based on the notions of context, connection, and comparison. We need to denationalize in order to reconnect to a past beyond national pre-definitions. We need to decolonize in order to connect to the world without “intellectual imperialism”. Hence, now is the time to rethink how we think and write about our past. Consequently, one also equips the public better for both the present and for the future.
Historian of ideas. Author of Global Knowledge (Globalkunnskap. Renessanse for en ny opplysningstid, Scandinavian Academic Press, 2016). Founder of the independent SGOKI, Center for Global and Comparative History of Ideas. E-mail: email@example.com. www.sgoki.org