CONTACTS AND THE STRUCTURE OF WORLD HISTORY
Discussions of the main periods of world history, and the larger periodization frameworks, have already dealt with many aspects of the contacts that developed among various societies, at various points in time. Changes in contact patterns – especially though not exclusively through shifts in trade exchanges – are the single most important component in determining transitions from one major time period to another. It is clear that, whether using a civilizational approach or not, world historians have become increasingly fascinated by contacts and how much they add to our understanding of the human story. Contacts press beyond treating one civilization at a time, while also allowing for diﬀerent reactions to interactions when they do occur. Contacts can be double-edged, of course. They can spur mutual
hostilities and violence. On the whole, however, contacts have helped the human species translate gains from one region to another – whether the focus involves diﬀerent types of foods, new technologies, or new styles. They have stimulated change. And they have produced rich human stories, when individuals or groups encountered strange and wonderful behaviors in societies distant from their own. World historians are interested in all sorts of human encounters.
They develop case studies of interactions through migration, disease
exchange, imperial expansion, long distance trade, missionary activity, or the diﬀusion of foods and technologies. They use changes in systems of encounters, including their base in transportation and communications technologies, as one of the organizing principles of the overall human story. They seek to balance attention on the formation of separate traditions – often, the emergence of durable civilizations – with the ways in which encounters prompt or force adjustments and innovations. Many world historians are particularly eager to show that the
obvious contemporary importance of encounters has a clear and steady historical backdrop. As one text puts it, “global interactions … are by no means new features in world history.” By showing how exchanges developed in earlier times, world history provides opportunities to demonstrate what’s new but also to emphasize that the encounters of today ﬁt into a larger continuum. There are indeed some patterns to encounters, some general features that do help an exploration of interactions whether the focus is on a long time ago or on tomorrow. This chapter does not cover all major encounters. It shows why
interactions and contacts are so fascinating. It shows how they often generate unexpected kinds of change. It discusses some general patterns in the results of interactions. There are no ﬁrm laws of history here, but there are some common responses that can help guide interpretations both for the past and for the present. Finally, the chapter returns to the question of change and continuity in the history of interregional contacts. The clear excitement about exploring early cases of contact – one of the real spurs to world history research over the past two decades – should not prevent us from asking also, how contacts have changed.