Sea and Ocean Basins as Frameworks of Historical Analysis

By Bentley, Jerry H. | The Geographical Review, April 1999 | Go to article overview
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Sea and Ocean Basins as Frameworks of Historical Analysis


Bentley, Jerry H., The Geographical Review


ABSTRACT. Since the mid-nineteenth century, historians have taken national states as the principal focus of their scholarship. Since the mid-twentieth century, they have increasingly recognized the importance of large-scale historical processes that transcend the boundaries of national states, and they have identified large-scale zones of interaction that help to bring these processes into clear focus. Sea and ocean basins show considerable promise as frameworks for the analysis of some historical processes. They would not serve well as the absolute or definitive categories of historical analysis because their contours and characteristics have changed dramatically over time with shifting relationships between bodies of water and masses of land. But they are especially useful for bringing focus to processes of commercial, biological, and cultural exchange, which have profoundly influenced the development of both individual societies and the world as a whole. Keywords: economic integration, historical analysis, maritime regions, ocean basins, sea basins, social integration.

For more than a century European and Euro-American scholars have treated history as a property belonging almost exclusively to national states. Leopold von Ranke and his followers lived in an era of dynamic state building, and they focused their scholarly attention on the institutions, constitutions, foreign policies, and political experiences of national communities. Even though more recent scholars have broadened the scope of historical analysis to include social, economic, and cultural themes, they have most commonly placed their studies in the framework of national communities. By the early twentieth century, scholars in China, India, and other lands had begun to adopt the European and Euro-American view of history as the property of coherent national communities in the analysis of their own historical experiences (Duara 1995).

Since World War II historians and other scholars have become increasingly aware that the focus on national communities distracts attention from large-scale processes that have deeply influenced both the experiences of individual societies and the development of the world as a whole. In combination, mass migrations, campaigns of imperial expansion, cross-cultural trade, biological exchanges, transfers of technology, and cultural exchanges have left quite a mark on the world's past. Adequate study of these processes requires historians to recognize analytical categories much larger than national communities, and a growing body of scholarly literature demonstrates the usefulness of such large-scale approaches to the past (Bentley 1996b). The recognition of large-scale economic regions, for example, has been a foundation for the investigation of cross-cultural trade and the formation of world systems (Wallerstein 1974-1989; Curtin 1984). Similarly, the recognition of large-scale ecological zones has underwritten influential studies of biological diffusions and their consequences (Crosby 1972; McNeill 1976; Crosby 1986). Though less developed as an approach, the analysis of large-scale cultural communities also shows promise for purposes of understanding processes of cultural exchange (Bentley 1993; Voll 1994).

On the next-to-last page of their critical look at conventional metageography, Martin W. Lewis and Karen E. Wigen raised the possibility that "maritime regions" and "communities oriented around the world's major seas" might serve as alternatives to national states and the various other terrestrial constructs that scholars, public officials, and the general public have traditionally taken as natural or coherent world regions (Lewis and Wigen 1997, 204). This suggestion was not entirely new: It came almost fifty years after the original publication of Fernand Braudel's analysis of the Mediterranean basin (Braudel 1949, 1972). Braudel's vision of the sea as an avenue of integration has had considerable influence on historical scholarship and has inspired other sea-based studies, such as those of K.

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