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Within the expanding field of global history, historians often conceive of distinct integrated ‘worlds’: discrete if permeable cultural units capable of coherent study. Some are defined exogenously through factors such as oceanic geography, others are conceived of endogenously through the cultures and identities of their adherents. In this context, this article critically assesses the recent voluminous literature on the British world: a unit increasingly distinguished from British imperial history and defined by the networks and identities of global Britishness. The article argues that the British world, while making valuable contributions to the historiography of empire and of individual nations, fails ultimately to achieve sufficiently clear definition to constitute a distinctive field of study and neglects the crucial concerns of imperial history with politics and power, while flattening time, space, and neglecting diversity. While highlighting many key concerns, other methodologies such as settler colonialism, whiteness studies, or revivified imperial history are better placed to take these on than the nebulous concept of a world. More broadly, an analysis of the British world highlights the problems inherent in attempting to define a field endogenously through a focus on identity.

Corresponding author
History, School of Humanities, Keele University, Keele, Staffordshire, st5 5bg
Department of History, University of Aberdeen, Crombie Annex, Meston Walk, Old Aberdeen, Scotland ab24 3fx
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1 For challenges to the nation-state and transnational history, Burton, A., ‘Who needs the nation? Interrogating “British” history’, Journal of Historical Sociology, 10 (1997), pp. 227–48; Hopkins, A. G., ‘Back to the future from national history to imperial history’, Past and Present, 164 (1999), pp. 198243 ; Clavin, P., ‘Defining transnationalism’, Contemporary European History, 14 (2005), pp. 421–39; Briggs, L., McCormick, G., and Way, J. T., ‘Transnationalism: a category of analysis’, American Quarterly, 60 (2008), pp. 625–48. For global history, see Bayly, C. A., The birth of the modern world, 1780–1914: global connections and comparisons (Oxford, 2004); O'Brien, P., ‘Historiographical traditions and modern imperatives for the restoration of global history’, Journal of Global History, 1 (2006), pp. 339 ; Hopkins, A. G., ed., Globalization in world history (London, 2002); idem, ed., Global history: interactions between the universal and the local (Basingstoke, 2006); Eley, G., ‘Historicizing the global, politicizing capital: giving the present a name’, History Workshop Journal, 63 (2007), pp. 154–88.

2 Bailyn, B., ‘Preface’, in Armitage, D. and Braddick, M. J., eds., The British Atlantic world, 1500–1800 (Basingstoke, 2002), p. xix.

3 On the Atlantic world, see Armitage and Braddick, eds., The British Atlantic world; Greene, J. P. and Morgan, P. D., eds., Atlantic history: a critical appraisal (Oxford, 2009). On the Indian Ocean, see Pearson, M. N., The world of the Indian Ocean, 1500–1800: studies in economic, social and cultural history (Aldershot, 2005); Alpers, E. A., The Indian Ocean in world history (Oxford 2014); Sivasundaram, S. A., Islanded: Britain, Sri Lanka, and the bounds of an Indian Ocean colony (Chicago, IL, 2013). On the Pacific, see Flynn, D. O., Frost, L., and Latham, A. J. H., eds., Pacific centuries: Pacific and Pacific rim economic history since the sixteenth century (London, 1999); Armitage, D. and Bashford, A., eds., Pacific histories: ocean, land, people (Basingstoke, 2014).

4 For critiques of Atlantic history, see Joyce E. Chaplin, ‘The Atlantic Ocean and its contemporary meanings, 1492–1808’, in Greene and Morgan, eds., Atlantic history,  pp. 35–54; Peter A. Coclanis, ‘Beyond Atlantic history’, in ibid., pp. 337–56.

5 Abu-Lughod, J. L., Before European hegemony: the world system ad 1250–1350 (New York, NY, and Oxford, 1989); A. K. Bennison, ‘Muslim universalism and western globalization’, in Hopkins, ed., Globalization in world history, pp. 74–97.

6 Greene and Morgan, eds., Atlantic history; Falola, T. and Roberts, K. D., eds., The Atlantic world: 1450–2000 (Bloomington, IN, 2008); Weaver, J. A., The red Atlantic: American indigenes and the making of the modern world, 1000–1927 (Chapel Hill, NC, 2014). Paul Gilroy's influential The black Atlantic: modernity and double consciousness (Cambridge, MA, 1993) has a complex relationship with Atlantic history. See D. B. Chambers, ‘The black Atlantic: theory, method, and practice’, in Falola and Roberts, eds., The Atlantic world, pp. 151–74.

7 Key works are cited throughout.

8 Buckner, P. A. and Francis, R. D., ‘Introduction’, in Buckner, P. A. and Francis, R. D., eds., Rediscovering the British world (Calgary, 2005), p. 17. See also Buckner, P. and Bridge, C., ‘Re-inventing the British world’, The Round Table, 92 (2003), pp. 7788 .

9 Buckner, P. A., ‘Was there a “British” empire? The Oxford history of the British empire from a Canadian perspective’, Acadiensis, 32 (2002), pp. 110–28.

10 For example, Louis, W. R., ed., Imperialism: the Robinson and Gallagher controversy (New York, NY, 1976). However, the dominions became important in the gentlemanly capitalism debate. See essays by Kubicek, Davis, and Cain and Hopkins in Dumett, R. E., ed., Gentlemanly capitalism and British imperialism: the new debate on empire (London, 1999).

11 Kennedy, D., ‘Imperial history and post-colonial theory’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 24 (1996), 345–63; Ballantyne, T., ‘Colonial knowledge’, in Stockwell, S. E., ed., The British empire: themes and perspectives (Oxford, 2008), pp. 177–98; Wilson, K., A new imperial history: culture, identity, and modernity in Britain and the empire, 1660–1840 (Cambridge, 2004).

12 Hopkins, ‘Back to the future’, pp. 216–18; Buckner, P., ‘Whatever happened to the British empire’, Journal of the Canadian Historical Association, 4 (1993), pp. 332 .

13 Denoon, D., Settler capitalism: the dynamics of dependent development in the southern hemisphere (Oxford, 1983); Platt, D. C. M. and Di Tella, G., eds., Argentina, Australia and Canada: studies in comparative development, 1870–1965 (London, 1985); Veracini, L., ‘Settler colonialism: career of a concept’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 41 (2013), pp. 313–33.

14 Schreuder, D. and Ward, S., ‘Introduction: what became of Australia's empire?’, in idem and idem, eds., Australia's empire (Oxford, 2008), p. 11. See also Buckner, P., ‘Introduction’, in idem, ed., Canada and the British empire (Oxford, 2008), pp. 1213 .

15 Buckner and Bridge, ‘Re-inventing the British world’; Buckner and Francis, ‘Introduction’, p. 7.

16 Bridge, C. and Fedorowich, K., ‘Mapping the British world’, in idem and idem, eds., The British world: diaspora, culture, and identity (London, 2003), p. 1

17 Pocock, J. G. A., ‘The new British history in Atlantic perspective: an antipodean commentary’, American Historical Review, 104 (1999), pp. 490500 at p. 500.

18 Quoted in Buckner and Bridge, ‘Re-inventing the British world’, p. 81.

19 Bridge and Fedorowich, ‘The British world’, p. 6.

20 Diaspora is frequently used in the British world literature as a synonym for migration. Stephen Constantine has offered a thoughtful justification. See S. Constantine, ‘British emigration to the empire-commonwealth since 1880: from overseas settlement to diaspora?’, in Bridge and Fedorwich, eds., The British world, pp. 16–36. See also DrCleall, Esme, ‘Review of Empire, migration and identity in the British world ’, Reviews in History, 1597 (2016), DOI: 10.14296/RiH/2014/1597 .

21 Buckner and Francis, ‘Introduction’, p. 18.

22 Colley, L., Britons: forging the nation, 1707–1837 (London, 1992); idem, Britishness and otherness: an argument’, Journal of British Studies, 31 (1992), pp. 309–29. On a ‘four nations’ approach to British imperial history, see MacKenzie, J. M., ‘Irish, Scottish, Welsh, and English worlds? The historiography of a four-nations approach to the British empire’, in Hall, C. and McClelland, K., eds., Race, nation and empire: making histories, 1750 to the present (Manchester, 2010). On Irish and Scottish ethnicity in Australia, see Proudfoot, L. and Hall, D., Imperial spaces: placing the Irish and the Scots in colonial Australia (Manchester, 2011). British world conference organizers also sought out keynote papers from leading figures in the new imperial history, which built on post-colonial influences to place new British history in a global context. Nonetheless, an uneasy relationship has existed between new imperial history and with its post-colonial emphasis on the construction of difference, and the British world's with its soft focus on sameness. See C. Hall, ‘What did a British world mean to the British’, in Buckner and Francis, eds., Rediscovering the British world, pp. 21–38. See also Pickles, K., ‘The obvious and the awkward: post-colonialism and the British world’, New Zealand Journal of History, 45 (2011), pp. 85101 .

23 Lester, A., Imperial networks: creating identities in nineteenth-century South Africa and Britain (London, 2001); idem, Imperial circuits and networks: geographies of the British empire’, History Compass, 4 (2006), pp. 124–41; Laidlaw, Z., Colonial connections, 1815–1845: patronage, the information revolution and colonial government (Manchester, 2005); Ballantyne, T., ‘Race and the webs of empire’, Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, 2 (2001). See also Potter, S. J., ‘Webs, networks and systems: globalization and the mass media in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century British empire’, Journal of British Studies, 46 (2007), pp. 621–46.

24 Armitage, D., ‘Greater Britain: a useful category of historical analysis?’, American Historical Review, 104 (1999), pp. 427–45; Armitage and Braddick, eds., The British Atlantic world.

25 Bridge and Fedorowich, eds., The British world; Buckner, P. A. and Francis, R. D., eds., Canada and the British world: culture, migration, and identity (Vancouver, 2006); Buckner and Francis, eds., Rediscovering the British world; Darian-Smith, K., Grimshaw, P., and Macintyre, S., eds., Britishness abroad: transnational movements and imperial cultures (Carlton, VIC, 2007).

26 Buckner and Bridge, ‘Re-inventing the British world’, p. 87.

27 Buckner and Francis, eds., Rediscovering the British world.

28 Bickers, R., ‘Shanghailanders: the formation and identity of the British settler community in Shanghai, 1843–1937’, Past and Present, 159 (1998), pp. 161211 .

29 For a succinct discussion, see McIntyre, W. D., The Britannic vision: historians and the making of the British Commonwealth of Nations, 1907–1948 (Basingstoke, 2009), pp. 7680 .

30 See Bickers, R. A., Britain in China: community, culture and colonialism, 1900–1949 (Manchester, 1999); Bickers, Shanghailanders’; Cain, P. J. and Hopkins, A. G., British imperialism, 1688–2000 (Harlow, 2001), pp. 274, 530.

31 Bridge and Fedorowich, ‘Mapping the British world’, p. 6.

32 There has also been a rich crop of more focused research monographs under the banner of the British world.  Almost all are explicitly conceived as contributions to British imperial history focusing on the settler colonies and use the term British world as a convenient synonym for the dominions. See for example, Potter, S. J., News and the British world: the emergence of an imperial press system, 1876–1922 (Oxford, 2003); idem, Broadcasting empire: the BBC and the British world, 1922–1970 (Oxford, 2012); Pietsch, T., Empire of scholars: universities, networks and the British academic world, 1850–1939 (Manchester, 2013). The same is also true of Attard, B. and Dilley, A. R., ‘Finance, empire and the British world’, a special issue of Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 41 (2013).

33 Magee, G. and Thompson, A., Empire and globalisation: networks of people, goods and capital in the British world, c. 1850–1914 (Cambridge, 2010). For further discussion, see Dilley, A. R., ‘Empire, globalisation, and the cultural economy of the British world’, Journal for Maritime Research, 14 (2012), pp. 1455 ; Howe, S., ‘British worlds, settler worlds, world systems, and killing fields’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 40 (2012), pp. 691725 .

34 Magee and Thompson, Empire and globalisation, p. 231.

35 G. Magee and A. Thompson, ‘Author's response to DrWard, Stuart, “ Review of empire and globalisation: networks of people, goods and capital in the British world, c. 1850–1914 ”’, Reviews in History, 1000 (2010).

36 Dilke, C. W., Greater Britain: a record of travel in English-speaking countries during 1866 and 1867 (London, 1868); idem, Problems of greater Britain (London, 1890).

37 Bell, D., The idea of Greater Britain: empire and the future of world order, 1860–1900 (Princeton, NJ, 2007).

38 Smith, A., ‘Patriotism, self-interest and the “empire effect”: Britishness and British decisions to invest in Canada, 1867–1914’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 41 (2013), pp. 5980 ; Clarke, P., ‘The English-speaking peoples before Churchill’, Britain and the World, 4 (2011), pp. 199231 .

39 O'Rourke, K. H. and Williamson, J. G., Globalization and history: the evolution of a nineteenth-century Atlantic economy (Cambridge, MA, and London, 1999).

40 Belich, J., Replenishing the earth: the settler revolution and the rise of the Anglo-world, 1783–1939 (Oxford, 2009).

41 Potter, News and the British world; idem, Broadcasting empire.

42 Pietsch, T., ‘Rethinking the British world’, Journal of British Studies, 52 (2013), pp. 441–63 at p. 447.

43 Ibid., p. 449, citing Harvey, D., ‘Space as a keyword’, in idem, ed., Spaces of global capitalism (London, 2006), p. 125; idem, Cosmopolitanism and the geographies of freedom (New York, NY, and Chichester, 2009), p. 135 ; Sheppard, E., ‘David Harvey and dialectical space-time’, in Castree, N. and Gregory, D., eds., David Harvey: a critical reader (Oxford, 2006).

44 Pietsch, ‘Rethinking the British world’, p. 456.

45 Anderson, B. M., ‘The construction of an alpine landscape: building, representing and affecting the eastern Alps, c. 1885–1914’, Journal of Cultural Geography, 29 (2012), pp. 155–83.

46 Dubow, S., ‘How British was the British world? The case of South Africa’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 37 (2009), pp. 127 at pp. 67 .

47 Lowry quoted in ibid., p. 17.

48 Ibid., p. 19

49 Thompson, A., ‘The languages of loyalism in southern Africa, c. 1870–1939’, English Historical Review, 118 (2003), pp. 617–50 at pp. 620, 622, 647.

50 Belich, Replenishing the earth.

51 Wolfe, P., Settler colonialism and the transformation of anthropology: The politics and poetics of an ethnographic event (London, 1999).

52 Lloyd, C., Metzer, J., and Sutch, R., Settler economies in world history (Leiden, 2013).

53 Veracini, L., ‘Introducing’, Settler Colonial Studies, 1 (2011), pp. 112 at p. 2; idem, ‘Settler colonialism: career of a concept’; Elkins, C. and Pedersen, S., ‘Introduction – settler colonialism: a concept and its uses’, in idem and idem, eds., Settler colonialism in the twentieth century: projects, practices, legacies (New York, NY, and London, 2005); Edmonds, P. and Carey, J., ‘A new beginning for settler colonial studies’, Settler Colonial Studies, 3 (2013), pp. 25 .

54 A good example is Boehmer, E.Where we belong: South Africa as a settler colony and the calibration of African and Afrikaner indigeneity’, in Bateman, F. and Pilkington, L., eds., Studies in settler colonialism: politics, identity and culture (Basingstoke, 2011), pp. 257–71.

55 The first issue of the Settler Colonial Studies journal, in 2011, was subtitled ‘A global phenomenon’.

56 See Elkins and Pedersen, eds., Settler colonialism in the twentieth century; Bateman and Pilkington, eds., Studies in settler colonialism.

57 Bell, Idea of Greater Britain; Potter, ‘Webs, networks and systems’; idem, ‘Richard Jebb, John S. Ewart and the Round Table, 1898–1926’, English Historical Review, 122 (2007), pp. 105–32; Palen, M.-W., ‘Adam Smith as advocate of empire, c. 1870–1932’, Historical Journal, 57 (2014), pp. 179–98.

58 McIntyre, Britannic vision; Bell, Idea of Greater Britain.

59 J. Darwin, ‘A third British empire? The dominion idea in imperial politics’, in Brown, J. M. and Louis, W. R., eds., Oxford history of the British empire, iv: The twentieth century (Oxford, 1999), pp. 6487 ; Zimmern, A., The third British empire (London, 1926).

60 Hall, H. D., The British Commonwealth of Nations (London, 1920); idem, Commonwealth (London, 1971).

61 Bridge and Fedorowich, ‘The British world’, pp. 9–11.

62 Simon Potter's on the media is an important exception, but sits squarely within imperial history. See Potter, News and the British world; idem, Broadcasting empire. A. G. Hopkins's significant reintegration of the old dominions into the history of decolonization highlights the role of global economic, political, and cultural forces in eroding the Anglo-dominion connection. See Hopkins, A. G., ‘Rethinking decolonization’, Past and Present, 200 (2008), pp. 211–47.

63 Bridge and Fedorowich, ‘The British world’, p. 4.

64 The debate surrounding the later work of Cain and Hopkins on ‘structural power’ remains a more useful point of departure. See P. J. Cain and A. G. Hopkins, ‘Afterword: the theory and practice of British imperialism’, in Dumett, ed., Gentlemanly capitalism and British imperialism; Hopkins, A. G., ‘Informal empire in Argentina: an alternative view’, Journal of Latin American Studies, 26 (1994), pp. 469–84; idem, Gentlemanly capitalism in New Zealand’, Australian Economic History Review, 43 (2003), pp. 287–97; Attard, B., ‘From free-trade imperialism to structural power: New Zealand and the capital market, 1856–1868’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 35 (2007), pp. 505–27; Dilley, A. R., Finance, politics, and imperialism: Australia, Canada, and the city of London, c. 1896–1914 (Basingstoke, 2012).

65 Belich, Replenishing the earth.

66 A. Perry, ‘Whose world was British? Rethinking the “British world” from an edge of empire’, in Darian-Smith, Grimshaw, and Macintyre, eds., Britishness abroad, pp. 134–5.

67 Pietsch, ‘Rethinking the British world’, p. 446; Dubow, ‘How British’, p. 2.

68 Magee and Thompson, Empire and globalisation, pp. 25–6.

69 Potter, News and the British world; Bright, R. K., Chinese labour in South Africa, 1902–1910: race, violence, and global spectacle (Basingstoke, 2013).

70 For one critic alive to the seeming revival of a celebratory imperial history, see Chilton, L., ‘Canada and the British empire: a review essay’, Canadian Historical Review, 89 (2008), pp. 8995 .

71 Seeley, J. R., The expansion of England (London, 1883), p. 11.

72 Potter, ‘Richard Jebb’.

73 On these changes, see Hopkins, ‘Rethinking decolonization’; Davidson, J., ‘The de-dominionisation of Australia’, Meanjin, 32 (1979), pp. 139–51.

74 Pocock, J. G. A., The discovery of islands: essays in British history (Cambridge, 2005); Bourke, R., ‘Pocock and the presuppositions of the new British history’, Historical Journal, 53 (2010), pp. 747–70.

75 McKenzie, F., Redefining the bonds of Commonwealth, 1939–1948: the politics of preference (Basingstoke, 2002), pp. 266–8.

76 Lake, M. and Reynolds, H., Drawing the global colour line: white men's countries and the international challenge of racial equality (Cambridge, 2008). See also Bright, R. K., ‘Asian migration and the British world, 1850–1914’, in Fedorowich, K. and Thompson, A., eds., Empire, identity and migration in the British world (Manchester, 2013); Hyslop, J., ‘The imperial working class makes itself “white”: white labourism in Britain, Australia, and South Africa before the First World War’, Journal of Historical Sociology, 12 (1999), pp. 398421 .

77 Schwarz, B., Memories of empire, i: The white man's world (Oxford, 2011), p. 15.

78 Hyslop, ‘Imperial working class’; idem, ‘The British and Australian leaders of the South African labour movement, 1902–1914: a group biography’, in Darian-Smith, Grimshaw, and Macintyre, eds., Britishness abroad, pp. 90–108.

79 Ballantyne, T., Orientalism and race: Aryanism in the British empire (Basingstoke, 2001), p. 3.

80 Harper, M. and Constantine, S., Migration and empire (Oxford, 2010).

81 Frederick Cooper and Rogers Brubaker offer an excellent critique of the imprecisions of the concept of identity. See Cooper, F. and Brubaker, R., ‘Identity’, in Cooper, F., ed., Colonialism in question: theory, knowledge, history (Berkeley, CA, 2005), pp. 5990 .

82 Idem, What is the concept of globalization good for? An African historian's perspective’, African Affairs, 100 (2001), pp. 189213 .

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