chapter  4
19 Pages

MANAGING TIME: CHOOSING AND EVALUATING WORLD HISTORY PERIODS

In Chapter 2, basic features of the main world history periods were laid out. But the thinking behind selection of periods was not explicitly discussed. Understanding this thinking is crucial to dealing actively with world history materials. Selection of periods, and assessing this selection, constitute vital elements of the kinds of habits of mind world history promotes – particularly in the category of change over time. To a student encountering them for the first time, world history

periods can seem both abstract and arbitrary. The purpose of this chapter is to go over the criteria used in choosing the periods and to reemphasize how the periods, or rather their definitions, can be applied to organizing and in many ways simplifying world history data. Debate is part of this process as well. Almost all the periods have important flaws and messiness: they were not decreed by some divine hand, but rather devised by historians and open to discussion or revision. Here too is a component of developing appropriate habits of mind – including willingness to deal with controversy – and directing them to one of the essential building blocks of historical scholarship.

For periodization is the way historians try to capture the process of change and make it intelligible to themselves and others, unless

they are simply content to tell stories about past battles or elections or show trials. Periodization assumes – and this assumption itself deserves some discussion – that change is neither random nor constant, but that, at certain points in time, factors converge to change the basic context for the ways societies operate. This process creates a new or substantially new framework that marks the beginning of a definable novel chunk of time – a new period, in short. Historians who believe in deeper and more definable patterns of

change – and most world historians fall into this category – look for at least two, and often three, types of measurements that allow periods to be defined. Assumption #1 in a periodization scheme: themes that had pre-

vailed before the new period begins recede in importance or may even be reversed. A new period does not avoid some continuity from the past, so it is misleading to expect every feature to change, but it does require that the previous framework loses its dominance – otherwise, it must be assumed that the previous period continues to operate. In terms of thinking about change, this first assumption establishes a baseline. Assumption #2 in a periodization scheme then follows by

necessity: if the previous organizing principles fade in importance, or are even replaced, then it becomes essential to define what the new themes are, and how they begin to organize key facets of the human experience. At some point, even the new themes will begin to lose force, yielding yet another period and requiring the same kind of analysis inherent in assumption #1. Defining and assessing periods, then, involves identifying basic

themes in whatever historical subject area is being evaluated, and determining how one set of themes at some point yields to another. Testing any historian’s periodization focuses primarily on the adequacy of this determination, deciding whether a good case is made that one framework gives way to another. Many world history periods offer a third kind of identification, when

the end of one period and the launch of another is triggered or at least heralded by some dramatic event or process. World War I – unquestionably a huge event – is thus seen as a turning point in a whole variety of historical exercises, including most world history formulations. A big event is not an absolutely essential feature of a successful periodization scheme (sometimes basic changes sneak up

more quietly), and not all big events actually yield fundamental, durable changes. Too much emphasis on convenient markers can be misleading. But when a major event or collection of events summarizes or causes basic change, it certainly makes periodization analysis clearer. Sometimes, choosing or evaluating a period may not require a lot

of thought. Any history of modern Japan, for example, will almost certainly identify a period running from the mid-1920s until 1945 in which military authorities dominated the political and diplomatic scene. Pre-1920s features of Japanese history, some of them running well back in time to the culture of the post-classical samurai, helped prepare the new period – but the level of military control was measurably different from the framework of the previous Meiji era, in part because of developments and frustrations during World War I. And without question Japan’s loss of World War II, and the subsequent occupation period, yielded a much different assessment of military motives and structures that continues to define aspects of the Japanese experience even today. Even this fairly tidy framework for determining a distinctive period in Japanese militarism should not be accepted without some testing, particularly on the early end of the process, but it emerges pretty clearly in most formulations. Three common complexities must be noted in periodization

schemes, even in relatively easy cases. First – and this follows directly from the previous chapter’s discussion of change and continuity – a new framework in place does not mean that there is no relevant subsequent change, prior to a period’s ending outright. Change as a process continues, even with the new framework installed. Japanese militarism was not a constant from the 1920s until 1945. The notion of a basic period of authoritarian military control makes sense, but the early stages differed from the intensifications of the later 1930s. Periods, in other words, embrace internal changes, but so long as these don’t overturn the framework – and this is often a judgment call, which can and should be debated – the periodization schema survives. Second, a period in one subject area does not assure a definable

new pattern in other areas. History is not so tidy. Identifying a new political framework does not necessarily have much applicability to changes in gender relations or manufacturing – it may, but the connection must be verified and not merely asserted. Even

big-ticket markers, like World War I, do not extend to all crucial areas, though historians, to save trouble, sometimes use conventional dates of this sort to suggest change across the board. The events between 1914-18, and the factors that led up to them, legitimately designate change in the nature of warfare, in Europe’s position in the world, in Middle Eastern politics, in nationalism and imperialism, even in domestic political structures and movements. But they’re not particularly decisive dates for the history of women. To be sure, World War I prompted some new use of women in factories, but this proved temporary; it helped to move women’s voting rights forward in a few countries (the United States, Britain, Turkey, Germany and the Soviet Union) but not in any sense uniformly even within Europe. Feminism overall did not advance, and in some ways retreated a bit. The war should be considered in women’s history, but it did not shape fundamental or sweeping change save in the few countries literally swept up in a revolutionary process as a corollary of the conflict itself. Women’s history has a periodization too – just a somewhat different one from that applicable to global military and political life. A final complexity – at least in many crucial instances – involves

the messiness inherent in determining precise beginning and ending points of key periods, the need to deal with fuzziness in transitions even when a new period can ultimately be defined fairly clearly. Often, for example, a new set of ideas will pop up, suggesting the beginning of some novel developments; but it will take some time for them to gain any sort of wide acceptance and begin to influence behaviors. It was late in the seventeenth century, for example, in the Western world, that thinkers like John Locke began to argue the novel proposition that children did not have built-in characteristics, but rather were “blank slates” whose mental apparatus would largely be developed or distorted by learning. Here, as a seed, was the inception point of new commitments to education, an attack on older Christian ideas about children shaped by original sin, a potentially distinctive take on childhood in general. But it would take well over a century for these ideas to gain much influence on actual practices concerning children, by parents or educational authorities or political reformers. So when does a new period in the history of childhood begin: with the core new ideas or with more extensive implementations? Clearly, a bit of both, and the

existence of a century or more of complicated transition simply has to be built into the periodization scheme. Similar fuzziness can be attached to big-ticket periodizations such as the industrial revolution. It’s quite easy to determine the dates of major new technologies, like the steam engine or key innovations in textile manufacturing equipment. But it took a long time for the inventions to translate into measurable changes in national economies, even in pioneering industrializers like Great Britain or Belgium, and longer still for wider social implications to become clear. So when does the industrial period of history begin? It could be the mid-eighteenth century, to capture the first new inventions, or a full century later, to capture the measurable advent of industrial societies (it was in 1850 that the British population became half-urban for example, the first such development in world history), or even a bit later still if the world outside the West is to be considered. To sum up: periodization assumes that at certain crucial points,

patterns once dominant yield to different patterns. The crucial task of introducing periodization correspondingly focuses on identifying what the prior patterns were and when and how they began to change, and then identifying the new themes that replace them. Sometimes this task is further clarified by the existence of major events or landmarks that either cause the replacement of one framework by another, or offer symbolic evidence that a shift is underway. Even in the clearest cases, periodization must be complicated by an understanding that further changes will occur, as trends take hold and react to other forces, and by a realization that not all human behaviors respond to the same factors, so that periods must vary depending on subject matter. Often, finally, complexity is deepened by the fact that important periods rarely spring fullgrown at a single date, so that transitions leading into a period and then, later, leading away toward a new set of developments have to be built into the analysis. Periodization, clearly, requires thought, and even when a student

of history is evaluating someone else’s periodization, rather than generating a schema in the first place, thoughtfulness remains essential. Periodization invites careful identification of the assumptions involved, from the transition from one set of patterns to another to the issue of figuring out how many facets of history can be embraced by any one periodization model. The result is a more

intelligent and active appreciation of how change occurs. The result also, however, is an understanding that periodization efforts are constructed by scholars and students of history, not magically determined by some divine hand, and can always be contested and debated.