Academic journal article Journal of Social History

On Seeking Global History's Inner Child

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

On Seeking Global History's Inner Child

Article excerpt

Globalization and childhood are both treacherously familiar terms. Fashionable categories used in serious and provocative scholarship, their wide currency owes too much to their indeterminacy. Almost any screed about social change, whether denouncing its direction or proclaiming its promise, acquires a tone of historical depth by attributing those changes to globalization. Almost any assessment of social values gains poignancy and power when connected to issues of childhood. Not that these moves are wrong or the motives for making them suspect; they are just too easy. Words guaranteed a warm reception tend to induce loose thinking.

There is no general protection against such dangers, but let me begin by making some distinctions: between globalization and global history and between childhood and children. Globalization indicates a process of change and places it in time. Hence analysis in terms of globalization gains substance when that process is addressed directly, establishing the chronological period, social conditions, and cultural context in which it is thought to operate. Much of the writing about globalization is more interested, however, in the future than the past; for that suffix--ization--can barely contain the teleological thrust within it. To temper that, it helps to consider whether the process of change under study could shift direction or cease to matter. Furthermore, the case for globalization ought to include more than economics. (1) Not only should ideas, technology, culture, and political pressures be taken into account but analysis must weigh the possibility that these processes may not all work toward a common end nor favor the same sort of change.

History is helpful here. Thinking in terms of global history, rather than globalization, reduces teleological temptations and opens inquiry to a broader view. Global history, or the new global history as some of us call it, (2) is clearly inspired by contemporary experience but encompasses more than the history of globalization. It calls for exploring the past thematically (rather than through an all-encompassing narrative) and doing so through significant global relationships (thus seeking more than the fact of parallel development in, for example, commerce, state making or modernization). A global history of the present does not have to be a history of globalization. Global history does not assume chronology but rather discovers the periodization appropriate to specific topics. It looks for widespread connections while recognizing that change can be discontinuous and that one set of changes may induce other contradictory changes. Because such openness provides little initial guidance, focused research in terms of global history requires a clear statement of the historical problem to be investigated and a strategy for recognizing global connections. This is less overwhelming that it sounds at first, and I will suggest some ways of looking for global relationships. The important point, however, is the benefit that comes from thinking first within the framework of global history, thereby creating more solid grounds for determining when to declare that a process of globalization is in play.

The historical problems of interest here have to do with childhood, and another distinction--between childhood and children--although obvious and familiar, is worth recalling. Childhood is a cultural concept, being a child is a stage of life rooted in biology. The meaning of childhood is deeply embedded, in a family, a particular culture, and the social conditions of a specific time and place. These multiple vectors of meaning make childhood both a telling social indicator and a peculiarly complex topic. Even within the family the meaning of childhood changes with age, gender, and family size; between families with location, income, and status. In different contexts childhood refers to different phases of life, carries different expectations, and offers different protections, opportunities, and dangers. …

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