A Response to Edward L. Farmer's How Comparison Led Me to World History and Globalization
Global networks of communication and personalized communication devices, their forms and capabilities changing and morphing almost, daily, have erased barriers of time and space that formerly separated us. Physical borders still exist, national identities still exist, but they do not regulate our experience in the same way they did in the past. Networks for sharing information – for work, for entertainment, and for social contact – are expanding and changing as well. Use of electronic devices replaces the actual with the virtual, transforming the nature of both psychological and social reality.
When I first took students to China there was a palpable excitement about being in a strange place and a curiosity about what could be seen out of the bus window. Twenty years later, students I took to China were wired up, in their own personal spaces, oblivious to the passing scene. It is not enough to cross borders physically; the challenge is to get students to cross borders intellectually as well.
In his essay, “How Comparison Led Me to World History and Globalization,” Edward L. Farmer documents his professional journey to move beyond a national-state focus on Chinese history, to becoming an East Asian specialist, and finally, a global historian. Remarkable to this journey is not only the way in which an early recognition of local economic inequality within his own local community led to a more profound recognition of global inequity within Farmer’s academic pursuits, but also the way in which roads not taken, such as a profession in the biological sciences, continued to shape and inspire his scholarship in comparative history.
Like many young academics who chose geographical specializations outside the U.S. and Western Europe during the post World War Two era, Farmer informs us that his career evolved according to U.S. strategic interests: first through military service in East Asia, and then through two major grants, the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) and a National Defense Foreign Language (NDFL) grant (currently Title IV and FLAS). At Harvard, Farmer chose to study China before receiving a Fulbright fellowship to study for two years in Taiwan. In his own words, he was immersed in national-state or area studies training: “In short, I was an East Asian area specialist, trained and hired to reproduce the kind of specialized training I had received in graduate school.”
However, once at the University of Minnesota, Farmer shifted from such narrow training and directed his academic service toward establishing new initiatives, such as a study abroad programs to China; an M.A. in East Asian History; the Center for Early Modern History; changes in distribution requirements so as to encourage global knowledge; and a World History survey course, among many others. Such initiatives encouraged an institutional change toward a broader, comparative understanding of history, and toward a more global approach. Within his own scholarship, Farmer explains that the periodic table of chemical elements inspired his initial desire to transcend the particular in favor of the universal. Over time, he experimented with comparative frameworks, such as the “three P’s: Period, Process, and Pattern;” and larger themes such as “livelihood and identity” that could serve to create a kind of periodic table for global history—a large framework into which concrete data could be inserted, stored, interpreted, and taught. Although Farmer himself recognizes the dangers of a constructed, naturalized, and universalized metanarrative of American and Western European progress, he still believes the pursuit of a larger global narrative to be essential to the study of global history. Currently, Farmer tells us he is dedicated to identifying a larger narrative schema for global history that will allow global historians and students to navigate the complexity and depth of this vast area of study.
Yet, despite Farmer’s detailed account of the arc of his career as a world historian, key questions still remain. For example, how did Farmer reconcile his service to the United States military and government with the increasing internationalization that prompted him to move beyond the parochial concerns of the nation-state, and in what ways did this early government-supported training continue to influence his scholarly orientation? Why did Farmer shift to a comparative mode so early on: was it merely the memory of the periodic table, or were there also political and social reasons for this change to a more comparative orientation? Moreover, if, as Farmer and many others claim, the construction and naturalization of a universal narrative of American and Western European history was damaging and diminutive to other global histories, what are the dangers in attempting to create a universal schema for global history? How does Farmer imagine that such a universal narrative might differ from existing chronological and thematic overviews that exist in world history textbooks such as Societies, Networks, and Transitions, Worlds Together, Worlds Apart and Traditions and Encounters? Finally, how does Farmer’s recent interest in the global history of the information revolution fit into this larger metanarrative of global history?
Currently, Farmer’s work in the classroom focuses on contemporary global history and the relationship between the information revolution and globalization. Farmer’s two insightful statements, cited at the opening of this response, reveal that the relationship between the rapidly changing information technology—in terms of instantly transportable “data, text, speech, images, sound, and music” circulated among larger and larger numbers of individuals outside traditional structures of power—, national identity, and global identity is filled with contradictions and tensions. As Farmer indicates, although the technology of the information revolution has the potential to radically break down borders and boundaries between self and other, it also has the potential to contain and separate the self from other in ways that may enhance individualistic and parochial concerns in new and disturbing ways. Yet, in order to understand this tension, local, economic, and social difference must still be the starting point for global historians rather than universals and metanarratives: for example, historians still need to ask as their starting point how distinct individuals, imbedded in distinct social roles, clustered within distinct economic and social formations utilize information technology for distinct purposes? As Farmer observed firsthand, American students on a recent study abroad trip to China, were quick to utilize information technology to separate themselves from their surroundings. Thus, technology such as mobile phones, and social networking may serve to further entrench middle class students of some developed societies such as the United States within individual and national identities. At the same time, information technology may liberate others in ways never imagined to create new transnational networks, informal marketplaces, and heightened demands for global economic and political equality. While some Americans may call on their mobiles or text regarding a coffee date, other Kenyans may use mobile phones to share the most recent fruit and vegetable prices as a way to retain control of their goods and “quadruple their earnings.” In the case of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, the authors of the Konnessi Blog noted,
"In 2007, Egyptian students arranged a “day of anger”. . . using Facebook. That same social media platform that we use to stay in touch with high school classmates, post photos of frat parties, and stalk former crushes–in the hands of discontented youngsters became an engine for planned civil disobedience.”
Moreover, when the majority of internet, social networking, and mobile lines were cut in Egypt, starting on January 25, 2011, information technology savvy Egyptians were still able to deliver videos, pictures and thoughts from the demonstrations all over Egypt and it didn’t affect mobilizing people to join peaceful assemblies. Even after the government blocked facebook.com, twitter.com and bambuser.com many netizens were still able to access those sites using different programs and tools to bypass the censorship. Before the government shutdown the last ISP, activists in Egypt were able to secure several internet access points to send updates, information, pictures and videos from what’s happening. Activists also built a media center camp in Tahrir Square to gather multimedia from demonstrators then uploading them online through the access points.
Similarly, it is easy to assume, as the authors of the Konnessi Blog and others have, that based upon social networking, Americans only care about frat parties and former high school crushes. Yet, Americans of many different social categories and classes may use information technology for diverse social, political and economic ends. Thus, when we assume the metanarrative or the national category of “we,” such difference and possibility becomes lost and invisible to both the present and the future.
Edited by Jeanne E. Grant
(c) The Middle Ground Journal, Number 4, Spring, 2012.