University of Cambridge > World History Workshop > Introduction



Each subject group in the History Faculty sponsors a graduate-led workshop. The World History Workshop runs a series of seminars, reading groups and conferences and provides MPhil and PhD students with the opportunity to present on their research in a less-formal setting. We welcome graduates from related disciplines, as our seminars and reading groups deal with historical, social, economic and anthropological theory and methodology of interest to a number of different fields.

'World history' refers to a variety of theoretical approaches, united only in their rejection of 'the nation' as a basic unit of historical analysis. Topics covered include all aspects of colonial and post-colonial history as well as studies of Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America c. 1750-2000. While the workshop continues to maintain a focus on European expansion and imperialism, the methodology reading group and workshops have recently focused on comparative approaches to world history, including topics such as migration and trade networks, colonial and post-colonial law.

What is world history?

World history focuses on transnational networks. However, it can also concentrate on how bigger issues are reflected in a small area, or in the lives of a few people. It can be empiricist historiography focusing on the global interchange of peoples, goods and ideas. It may also be inspired by particular theoretical concerns, particularly those emphasising the need for reaction against Eurocentrism. These include post-modernist approaches, and post-colonial analyses, as well as the particular form of economic analysis known as World Systems Theory. For many undergraduate and school teachers, world history is about considering the human historical experience as a whole, emphasising the interconnectedness of human societies alongside their diversity. As such it functions partly as a form of ethical pedagogy.

Meanwhile, specialists in the field argue that world history must complement nation-based analyses for historiographical reasons. World historians may stress the historical importance of transnational elements such as: trading networks and international investment, diasporas and slavery, intellectual exchange and the media, disease, sea transport routes, technology, empires, pilgrimage, tourism, and so on. These can be seen both as global historical phenomena to be studied in their own right, and also as important components of national histories. World history can also include any comparative study of historical processes in different regions. Other disciplines besides history have long concerned themselves with transnational processes. Consequently world history makes use of many inter-disciplinary approaches, drawing on areas as diverse as anthropology, economics, history of science and technology, and critical theory.

World history and global history are not the same, though a piece of historiography may be both. Global history seeks to weave the history of all the humans on the planet into a single story. To do so, global historians will generally employ world history approaches - though they might choose to relate global history instead in a way rejected by world historians, emphasising the development of nation states and the conduct of their wars. Similarly, world historians will generally be interested in global questions, since their network-centred approach naturally leads them outside any given geographical area. However, a study of a single village can still be 'world history' if it uses that village to examine and explain the operation of international networks.

For more information about world history at Cambridge and elsewhere, please see our online resources section.