Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-5c569c448b-qzllc Total loading time: 0.422 Render date: 2022-07-02T08:50:36.287Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "useRatesEcommerce": false, "useNewApi": true } hasContentIssue true


Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 November 2013

University of Pittsburgh


African history and world history each became substantial fields of historical study in the aftermath of the Second World War. African history organized rapidly in the 1950s and 1960s, an era dominated by modernization-thinking. World history developed slowly until the 1990s, then quickly expanded and generated institutional homes in a time of globalization-thinking. This piece considers issues of time, scale, and scholarly diversity within the two fields. The conclusion argues that world historians should pay more attention to Africa and that African historians should do more to set the African past in a global context.

JAH Forum: Africa and Global History
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2013 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)



Author's email:


1 The focus here is on the fields of African and world history as they interacted with each other and with European and US history. Area studies fields arose for other world regions, including Russia and Eastern Europe, at much the same time.

2 In my view ‘modernization theory’, a formalized analysis, was surrounded by a more informal, popularized, and metaphoric ‘vision of modernization’. The latter, informal view was arguably more influential and longer lasting. There were even capitalist and communist versions of modernization. For the foundations of modernization theory, see Parsons, T., The Structure of Social Action: A Study in Social Theory with Special Reference to a Group of Recent European Writers (2nd edn, Glencoe, IL, 1949)Google Scholar; and also Latham, M. E., Modernization as Ideology: American Social Science and ‘Nation Building’ in the Kennedy Era (Chapel Hill, NC, 2000)Google Scholar.

3 Ultimately, area studies programs developed (in rough chronological order) for Latin America, East Asia, Russia and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia.

4 The Journal of Social History was founded in 1967. On historical modernization, see Brown, R. D., Modernization: The Transformation of American Life, 1600–1865 (New York, 1976)Google Scholar.

5 Wallerstein, I., The Modern World-System: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century (New York, 1974)Google Scholar. The New Left and Black Power–led student strike at Columbia University in 1968 was important in shifting Wallerstein's outlook and research agenda.

6 African studies became part of the School of Oriental and African Studies in 1938; the Program of African Studies at Northwestern University opened in 1948; the African Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin opened in 1961. Journals appeared: Transactions of the Gold Coast & Togoland Historical Society (1952); Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria (1956); The Journal of African History (1960); Cahiers d'études africaines (1960); and African Historical Studies (1968). The African Studies Association of the US formed in 1957; the African Studies Association of the UK formed in 1963; the Canadian Association of African Studies/Association Canadienne des Etudes Africaines formed in 1970. For major synthetic works assembling comprehensive interpretations of African history, see Ki-Zerbo, J., Histoire de l'Afrique noire, d'hier à demain (Paris, 1972)Google Scholar; Fage, J. D. and Oliver, R. (eds.), The Cambridge History of Africa, Volumes 1–8 (Cambridge, 1975–86)Google Scholar; and UNESCO, General History of Africa, Volumes 1–8. (London, 1981–93)Google Scholar.

7 Dike, K. O., Trade and Politics in the Niger Delta, 1830–1885: An Introduction to the Economic and Political History of Nigeria (Oxford, 1956)Google Scholar; Ajayi, J. F. A. and Smith, R., Yoruba Warfare in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, 1964)Google Scholar; Ogot, B. A. (ed.), History of the Southern Luo, Volume 1, Migration and Settlement, 1500–1900 (Nairobi, 1967)Google Scholar; Vansina, J., De la tradition orale: essai de méthode historique (Tervuren, 1961)Google Scholar; Oliver, R. and Fage, J. D., A Short History of Africa (Baltimore, 1962)Google Scholar; Curtin, P. D., The Image of Africa: British Ideas and Action, 1780–1850 (Madison, WI, 1964)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The level of scholarship on the continent remained an indicator of the advance of Africanist historical scholarship generally.

8 Greenberg, J. H., The Languages of Africa (Bloomington, IN, 1963)Google Scholar; Vansina, J., Paths in the Rainforests: Toward a History of Political Tradition in Equatorial Africa (Madison, WI, 1990)Google Scholar; Ehret, C., An African Classical Age: Eastern and Southern Africa in World History, 1000 B. C. to A. D. 400 (Charlottesville, VA, 1998)Google Scholar.

9 After the First World War, H. G. Wells wrote his Outline of History (1920); after the Napoleonic wars, G. W. F. Hegel composed his Lectures on the Philosophy of World History (1822–3); Voltaire's multivolume world history (Essai sur les moeurs et l'esprit des nations) appeared in 1756 in the midst of a great Anglo-French war.

10 By ‘civilizational history’, I mean works by such authors as A. J. Toynbee and W. and A. Durant, aimed at general readers; by ‘professional history’, I mean university-based academic history. Toynbee, A. J., A Study of History, Volumes 1–12 (London, 1934–61)Google Scholar; W. and Durant, A., The Story of Civilization, Volumes 1–11 (New York, 1935–75)Google Scholar. McNeill, W. H., The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community (Chicago, 1963)Google Scholar. McNeill's own second thoughts, especially on the Cold War in recent history and on China in the long term, appear in his introduction to the 1990 edition of this work.

11 Among the influential world-historical works of the era from 1960 to 1980 were Hobsbawm, E. J., The Age of Revolution, 1789–1848 (Cleveland, 1962)Google Scholar; Stavrianos, L. S., A Global History of Man (Boston, 1962)Google Scholar; McNeill, Rise of the West; Bairoch, P., Diagnostic de l'évolution économique du Tiers-monde, 1900–1966 (Paris, 1967)Google Scholar; Amin, S., L'Accumulation à l'échelle mondiale: critique de la théorie du sous-développement (Dakar, 1970)Google Scholar; Crosby, A., The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (Westport, CT, 1972)Google Scholar; Stavrianos, L. S., Global Rift: The Third World Comes of Age (New York, 1981)Google Scholar. For earlier studies, see Voltaire, Essai sur les moeurs et l'esprit; Wells, H. G., Outline of History (London, 1920)Google Scholar; Toynbee, A Study of History. An important example of a distinctive world-historical interpretation from the perspective of an African scholar is that of Cameroonian Victor Julius Ngoh, especially in his The World Since 1919: A Short History (Yaounde, 1989).

12 Curtin, P. D., The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census (Madison, WI, 1969)Google Scholar; Harris, J. E. (ed.), Global Dimensions of the African Diaspora (Washington, DC, 1982)Google Scholar; Curtin, P. D., Cross-Cultural Trade in World History (Cambridge, 1984)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Curtin, P. D., The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex: Essays in Atlantic History (New York, 1990)Google Scholar. For succeeding examples, see Asiwaju, A. I. (ed.), Partitioned Africans: Ethnic Relations Across Africa's International Boundaries, 1884–1984 (New York, 1985)Google Scholar; Dunn, R. E., The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveler of the Fourteenth Century (Berkeley, CA, 1986)Google Scholar; Northrup, D., Indentured Labor in the Age of Imperialism (Cambridge, 1995)Google Scholar; Cain, P. J. and Hopkins, A. G., British Imperialism, 1688–2000 (2nd edn, Harlow, England, 2002)Google Scholar.

13 Greenberg, Languages of Africa; Greenberg, J. H., Indo-European and its Closest Relatives: The Eurasiatic Language Family, Volumes 1–2. (Stanford, CA 2000–2)Google Scholar; Wallerstein, Modern World-System; Goody, J., Ghana Observed, Africa Reconsidered (Legon, 2007)Google Scholar; Amin, S., Unequal Development: An Essay on the Social Formations of Peripheral Capitalism, trans. B. Pearce (New York, 1976)Google Scholar; Mazrui, A., The Africans: A Triple Heritage (Boston, 1986)Google Scholar; Clark, J. Desmond, The Prehistory of Africa (New York, 1970)Google Scholar.

14 For the Atlantic, see Curtin, Plantation Complex; Miller, J. C., Way of Death: Merchant Capitalism and the Angolan Slave Trade, 1730–1830 (Madison, WI, 1988)Google Scholar; Manning, P., Slavery and African Life: Occidental, Oriental, and African Slave Trades (Cambridge, 1990)Google Scholar; Thornton, J. K., Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400–1680 (Cambridge, 1992)Google Scholar. For the Indian Ocean, see Harris, J. E., The African Presence in Asia: Consequences of the East African Slave Trade (Evanston, IL, 1971)Google Scholar; Campbell, G., An Economic History of Imperial Madagascar, 1750–1895: The Rise and Fall of an Island Empire (Cambridge, 2004)Google Scholar; Larson, P. M., Ocean of Letters: Language and Creolization in an Indian Ocean Diaspora (New York, 2009)Google Scholar; Sheriff, A., Dhow Cultures of the Indian Ocean: Cosmopolitanism, Commerce, and Islam (New York, 2010)Google Scholar.

15 In another response to the vision of Africa as ‘below’, African popular audiences and supporters of African nationalism sought historical symbols of African leadership; hence D. T. Niane's Sundiata, celebrating African empire and civilization, became a great favorite on the continent and in the diaspora. Niane, D. T., Soundjata: ou, l'épopée mandingue (Paris, 1960)Google Scholar; translated as Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali, trans. G. D. Pickett (Harlow, England, 1965).

16 The extensive African literature on oral tradition, which could reach back multiple generations, remained separate from the Euro-American literature on oral history, which centered on individual life histories. J. Vansina, De la tradition orale.

17 Iliffe, J., The African AIDS Epidemic: A History (Oxford, 2006)Google Scholar.

18 Elaborations of systems theory included the study of open and closed systems, emergent properties, and the functioning of subsystems. von Bertalanffy, L., General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications (New York, 1969)Google Scholar; Robertson, R., Globalization: Social Theory and Global Culture (London, 1992)Google Scholar.

19 Hopkins, A. G., ‘The history of globalization – and the globalization of history?’ in Hopkins, A. G. (ed.), Globalization in World History (New York, 2002), 1146Google Scholar; C. A. Bayly, ‘“Archaic” and “modern” globalization in the Eurasian and African arena, c. 1750–1850’, in Ibid. 47–74; Acemoglu, D., Johnson, S., and Robinson, J. A., ‘Reversal of fortune: geography and institutions in the making of the modern world income distribution’, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 117:4 (2002), 1231–94CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Nunn, N., ‘Historical legacies: a model linking Africa's past to its current underdevelopment’, Journal of Development Economics, 83:1 (2007), 157–75CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

20 Said, E. W., Orientalism (London, 1978)Google Scholar; Mudimbe, V. Y., The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge (Bloomington, IN, 1988)Google Scholar; Spivak, G. C., The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues, ed. S. Harasym (New York, 1990)Google Scholar; Trouillot, M.-R., Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston, 1995)Google Scholar; Chakrabarty, D., Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, NJ, 2000)Google Scholar.

21 World-historian journals include the Journal of World History (1990); Comparativ (1991); World History Connected (2003); and Journal of Global History (2006). Earlier journals in comparative and transnational history included Comparative Studies in Society and History (1958) and Itinerario (1977). Overviews of world history appeared after 2000: Dunn, R. E., The New World History: A Teacher's Companion (Boston, 2000)Google Scholar; and Manning, P., Navigating World History: Historians Create a Global Past (New York, 2003)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Another set of overviews appeared after 2010, notably Bentley, J. H. (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of World History (Oxford, 2011)Google Scholar; and Northrop, D. (ed.), A Companion to World History (Chichester, West Sussex, 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

22 Among the various approaches to large-scale history are Bentley, J. H., ‘The new world history’, in Kramer, L. and Maza, S. (eds.), A Companion to Western Historical Thought (Oxford, 2002), 393416Google Scholar; Mazlish, B., ‘Comparing global history to world history’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 28:3 (1998), 385–95Google Scholar; Subrahmanyam, S., ‘Connected histories: notes towards a reconfiguration of early modern Eurasia’, Modern Asian Studies, 31:3 (1997), 735–62CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Iriye, A., Global Community: The Role of International Organizations in the Making of the Contemporary World (Berkeley, CA, 2002)Google Scholar; Werner, M. and Zimmermann, B., ‘Beyond comparison: histoire croisée and the challenge of reflexivity’, History and Theory, 45:1 (2006), 3050CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Crossley, P. K., What is Global History? (Cambridge, 2008)Google Scholar; Shryock, A. and Smail, D. L., Deep History: The Architecture of Past and Present (Berkeley, CA, 2011)Google Scholar.

23 Diego Holstein is preparing a volume discussing as many as twelve ‘macrohistories’ or approaches to large-scale interpretation, showing how they are substantially complementary. Holstein, Macrohistories: Global Horizons for a Global Age, forthcoming.

24 Two outstanding exceptions are R. J. Barendse and Marcus Rediker, each working within maritime history. Barendse, R. J., The Arabian Seas: The Indian Ocean World of the Seventeenth Century (Armonk, NY, 2002)Google Scholar; Rediker, M., The Slave Ship: A Human History (New York, 2007)Google Scholar.

25 McNeill, J. R., Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (New York, 2000)Google Scholar; Benton, L. A., A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires, 1400–1900 (New York, 2010)Google Scholar; Burbank, J. and Cooper, F., Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference (Princeton, 2010)Google Scholar; Christian, D., Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (Berkeley, CA, 2004)Google Scholar. On institutional change in world history, see Manning, P. (ed.), Global Practice in World History: Advances Worldwide (Princeton, NJ, 2008)Google Scholar.

26 Legal changes in Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, and other South American countries beginning in 1990 gave recognition to their African heritage and launched both scholarship and curriculum on Africa and the African diaspora. See especially the journal América Negra (Bogotá), published from 1991 through 1998.

27 For studies emphasizing links within Africa, see Chrétien, J.-P., L'invention de l'Afrique des Grands Lacs: une histoire du XXe siècle (Paris, 2010)Google Scholar; Iliffe, , African AIDS epidemic; C. Kriger, Cloth in West African History (Lanham, MD, 2006)Google Scholar.

28 Scholars who have conducted research on Africa and on overseas regions include Gomez, M. A., Black Crescent: The Experience and Legacy of African Muslims in the Americas (New York, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Heywood, L. and Thornton, J. K., Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles, and the Foundation of the Americas, 1585–1660 (Cambridge, 2007)Google Scholar. Gwyn Campbell has led in editing numerous wide-ranging volumes, including Campbell, G., Miers, S., and Miller, J. C. (eds.), Child Slaves in the Modern World, (Athens, OH, 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For recent works on the African diaspora worldwide, see Gomez, M. A., Reversing Sail: A History of the African Diaspora (New York, 2005)Google Scholar; and Manning, P., The African Diaspora: A History through Culture (New York, 2009)Google Scholar.

29 Thematic syntheses for the African continent include Lovejoy, P. E., Transformations in Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa (New York, 1983)Google Scholar; Iliffe, J., The African Poor: A History (Cambridge, 1987)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Freund, B., The African Worker (New York, 1988)Google Scholar; Manning, Slavery and African Life; Coquery-Vidrovitch, C., Les africaines: histoire des femmes d'Afrique noire: du XIXe au XXe siècle (Paris, 1994)Google Scholar; and Gilbert, E. and Reynolds, J. T., Africa in World History (3rd edn, New York, 2011)Google Scholar.

30 For a book on Africa that is popular with teachers of world history because of its attention to the interaction of multiple scales, see Wright, D. R., The World and a Very Small Place in Africa (Armonk, NY, 1997)Google Scholar.

31 Pomeranz, K., The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton, NJ, 2000)Google Scholar.

32 For an example of a thematic, world-historical interpretation relying on these periods, see Manning, P. with Trimmer, T., Migration in World History (2nd edn, London, 2012)Google Scholar.

33 I have chosen not to include the history of hominids preceding Homo sapiens sapiens, though this could reasonably be added. Shifting definitions of ‘human’ sometimes cause confusion at this point.

34 Manning, The African Diaspora, 40–2 and 51.

35 Cann, R. L., Stoneking, M., and Wilson, A. C., ‘Mitochondrial DNA and human evolution’, Nature, 325 (1987), 31–6CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed. The work was confirmed repeatedly thereafter.

36 Tishkoff, S. A. et al. , ‘The genetic structure and history of Africans and African Americans’, Science, 324:5930 (2009), 1035–44CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

37 The leading institutions of the historical profession need periodic reminders on these points. As an example, the American Historical Review, which in its articles has published a growing number of pieces on the African past and on global historical change, continues in its review section to marginalize books on world history and especially African history.

38 Manning, P., ‘Africa and the African diaspora: new directions of study’, The Journal of African History, 44:3 (2003), 487506CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

39 On island and maritime history, see Sundiata, I. K., From Slaving to Neoslavery: The Bight of Biafra and Fernando Po in the Era of Abolition, 1827–1930 (Madison, WI, 1996)Google Scholar; Allen, R. B., Slaves, Freedmen, and Indentured Laborers in Colonial Mauritius (Cambridge, 1999)Google Scholar; Pearson, A., Jeffs, B., Witkin, A., and MacQuarrie, H., Infernal Traffic: Excavation of a Liberated African Graveyard in Rupert's Valley, St. Helena (York, 2011)Google Scholar. In general, the literature on the oceanic slave trade from Africa can be considered as a part of African maritime history. A key journal in maritime history is the International Journal of Maritime History (1989).

40 For African history one may note the range of national origins and thus of national perspectives of those born in Africa. One may note that the language of publication for world history is overwhelmingly English. For African history, the language of publication is primarily English, although significant publication takes place in other languages – for instance, French and Portuguese (widely used in Africa).

41 The Network of Global and World History Organizations (NOGWHISTO), (, founded in 2008, was recognized in 2010 as an affiliate of the UNESCO-linked International Committee of Historical Sciences (CISH). NOGWHISTO is composed of organizations based in North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

42 This example, while relevant, is not satisfactory in itself, as it might imply that Africans influenced world history mainly by leaving the continent.

Cited by

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Available formats

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

Available formats

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *