European History And ‘Eurocentrism’ – A Conversation Between Dina Gusejnova (LSE) And Charles West (Sheffield)
Charles West | 12 May 2021
◇ Doing History / Empire / Europe / Historiography / Imperialism / Medieval Methodology / Modern History / Transnational History / World History
Over the past few weeks, Dina Gusejnova and Charles West have been discussing over email what ‘Eurocentrism’ means for historians studying and teaching European history. What follows is an edited version of their conversation.
There’s lots of conversations going on at the moment about ‘eurocentrism’, and how it relates to the study and teaching of European history, both in schools and in universities (see for instance the project Why Europe, Which Europe?). I take eurocentrism to mean the conceptual privileging of Europe over the rest of the world, as if this part of the world’s history were intrinsically more important than anywhere else’s, and can serve as a universal benchmark for measuring progress.
But it’s increasingly common to hear people saying ‘eurocentric’ when they just mean ‘focusing on the geographical region of Europe’. This seems to me to be an unhelpful slippage. Studying the history of the geographical region of Europe is not in itself eurocentric. It depends how you do it. This might be a point that hardly needs to be made, but still: there are lots of good, non-eurocentric reasons to study, and ways of studying, European history.
And that’s all the more self-evident for people living in Europe. Place matters in history writing, because the world necessarily looks different depending on where one looks at it from: none of us has a God’s eye view of the world, and we need to remember our own positionality. So I see it as neither surprising nor intrinsically problematic if European history features more strongly in European countries’ school and university curricula than elsewhere, for example in India or Kenya or the United States (though of course other geographies and scales of history are and must be studied and taught in Europe too, for all kinds of important reasons: indeed I’ve contributed to this in a small way myself). I wondered what you thought about this as an historian of modern Europe?
First I’d like to say it’s really great to be able to return to a subject which, I recall, we last talked about on a work trip to India. The purpose of this trip was to foster institutional connections with universities in India, which provided a relevant context for the discussion.
Colloquially, overcoming ‘eurocentrism’ often means reducing the study of European history as such. The use of the term is often linked to demands for decolonisation, but in some sense, all historians need to think self-critically about their practice, whether they are historians of Europe or any other part of the world.
If the critique of eurocentrism has any constructive meaning for historical research and teaching, it is as a critique of a certain petrified view of modernity. As Dipesh Chakrabarty put it in Provincializing Europe in 2000, eurocentrism is a philosophy of history which ‘goes to the heart of the question of political modernity in non-Western societies’ by imposing a ‘“first in Europe, then elsewhere”’ mode of thinking about historical time. This mode of thinking was pernicious not only because it placed Europe at the centre, but also because it affected approaches to the non-western world, where those under its spell were prone to ‘replacing “Europe” by some locally constructed center.’
Histories of modern political economy have always been linked to the study of the moral sciences, looking at issues such as agency, complicity, and the eternal question of who benefits. Depending on the epoch of study, ‘European hegemony’ emerged through the expansion of a limited set of European powers and transnational actors, including the Catholic Church or such corporations as the Jesuits, business ventures like the East India Company, the Hanseatic League, etc.. It could also be seen as a product of the globalisation of the trade in people and commodities, the exploitation of labour and many other dimensions of the story.
It is worth pointing out that Europeans were neither the sole beneficiaries of imperialism, colonialism, and associated forms of hegemony, nor were they always the main agents of this process. Like other groups of populations in the world, Europeans today are in some respects products of these processes. In fact, according to Marx, the agent of modernisation is capitalism itself – an abstract force with destructive power. Whichever story about modernity one takes on board, what matters for historians of modernity is that the very idea of Europe as a subject has been one of the by-products of modernisation, and this explains how the charge of ‘eurocentrism’ has been deployed rhetorically in the past.
At the time of Chakrabarty’s book, around the year 2000, many American historians were beginning to think of themselves as the ‘last Eurocentric generation’. Others who were working on areas outside Europe at the time still felt ‘stranded at the discipline’s periphery’. At one level, a lot has changed in the intervening twenty years when it comes to the geographical ‘provincialisation’ of Europe. The study of non-European history has been valorised more than before and uncoupled from European centres (though perhaps not enough) at European and American history departments, journals and institutions.
In the early 2000s as an undergraduate in Cambridge, I witnessed this even in the physical transformation of intellectual spaces around me, as I cycled past a building where the words ‘Oriental Studies’ were quietly erased and replaced with ‘Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies’ – though of course the very assemblage of such large geographical areas in one subject group still bear the structural traces of empire. Faculties such as History and Classics may not have been visibly affected to the same degree, but in these disciplines, too, the changes of the past twenty years have been profound.
Many grands récits of modern history now have a tone of greater humility when it comes to Europe’s place in the world. Such specialists in non-European history as Kenneth Pomeranz or Jürgen Osterhammel, who have both established their intellectual authority by working on China rather than Europe, have argued influentially that the ‘great divergence’ between Europe and other parts of the world in terms of wealth and growth was due to fortuitous factors such as the geographical distribution of coal; they used comparative and partly counterfactual arguments which have opened up a range of new approaches which contextualise Europe within modernisation processes in global history.
In 2004, Chris Bayly, the preeminent historian of the British empire, famously announced that ‘all local, national or regional histories must, in important ways, therefore, be global histories. It is no longer really possible to write “European” or “American” history in a narrow sense’. One historian has recently described ‘area studies’, which was one domain of research where non-European histories emerged in the twentieth century, as a European-dominated ‘struggle for world knowledge’ (in a quip to Fritz Fischer’s critique of Germany in WWI, “The Struggle for World Supremacy”). In short, in the discipline of history, recent historiography has been correcting the representation of Europe in its domain in ways similar to the revisions which geographers have introduced to a Mercator map: Europe has been recontextualised, adjusted proportionally to its significance, moved out of focus, indeed, provincialised, if you like.
I find it remarkable that the critique of ‘eurocentrism’ is not only still prominent in meta-historiographical discourse twenty years after its latest emergence in history, but that the critical meaning of the term has become reduced. It now usually implies the idea of valuing European history over that of other geographical areas or populations, not, as in Chakrabrarty’s interpretation, for instance, teleological thinking as such. To name only one example, in 2020, in a recent Opinion piece for the New York Times, the historian and theorist of postcolonial political thought Adom Getachew insisted that ‘a Eurocentrism that valorised European civilisation as the apex of human achievement’ has been a mainstay in academic culture, adding that elements of nineteenth-century imperialism continue to resonate in the anti-immigrant politics in the EU.
This kind of critique of eurocentrism has a three-fold direction: it is first, directed against academic and public history which has marginalised or exoticised research on geographical areas outside Europe; secondly, it is a critique of historical pedagogy and practice, which affects the ideas and self-valorisation of a much larger circle of people; finally, it is an institutional critique of inequalities in the modern world.
Generally, I think it is a welcome phenomenon that we Europeanists have to think more self-critically about our subject. But I also think that the concept of eurocentrism, if it is to be productive in critical pedagogy and research, cannot be projected outward on an imaginary discrete ‘eurocentric’ other. There is still a lot of work to be done within the historiography of Europe itself in unpacking the emergence of different ideas of Europeanness, and there is also a need for greater contextual and comparative work on a global as well as a local scale. The continent has its own Mercator-like distortions, which make some nations appear larger or more sharply than others. This is also true of urban versus rural histories, etc.
Let me give some more practical examples of the way I use critiques of eurocentrism in my teaching experience in my undergraduate course on interwar cultural history (Interwar worlds: the cultural consequences of the First World War). By contrast to the political history of the First World War, which has become more global in orientation, the historiography of interwar culture remains profoundly tied to a few familiar themes in European or North American history, such as British anti-war poetry, Weimar or Soviet culture, or the jazz age in France and the US.
Between 1919 and 1935 thinkers such as Oswald Spengler and Edmund Husserl acknowledged that the war had caused to think about European civilisation as finite (Spengler) and have admitted that the classic teleology of Philosophy itself culminating in the creation of a ‘European humanity’ at its summit was, in the interwar period, in a profound crisis (Husserl). Yet in the work of historians, for a long time, the master narratives of such cultural transformations remained – well, not only Eurocentric, but centred around the classic European empire-nations, France, Germany, or Russia (the Soviet Union). This is nowhere more palpable than in studies of war memory, where figures like the doyen of French national historiography, Pierre Nora, loom large.
When it comes to designing research areas for students, one response to the charge of ‘eurocentrism’ might call upon historians to dismiss eurocentric studies such as Pierre Nora’s influential conception of ‘lieux de mémoire’ altogether – like the Algerian postcolonial thinker Seloua Luste Boulbina has done in an open letter to Pierre Nora. An alternative option is to reinterpret the whole idea of universalism that is inherent in French national and European history at large, and to examine it as a mode of claiming power that is available to different groups in history. This is something the Senegalese philosopher Souleyman Bachir Diagne has described as ‘horizontal’ or ‘lateral universalism’, a work in progress, with its eurocentric sting taken out.
In that interwar cultural history course, I am closer to Diagne’s view of things. For instance, I tend to encourage students to use this Francophone literature to explore the memorialisation of the war in contexts such as the British Mandates in Africa and the Middle East, emphasising the circulation of memorial designs between different regime types and their different uptake in society; or they can engage with established studies of Soviet or Weimar culture and concepts such as ‘cultural revolution’ (which was itself originally taken from its Chinese context to examine Soviet history) to look at new vernacular movements or modern media in interwar Turkey, China, or Japan. In other words, I don´t think it is productive to start entirely from scratch or ‘write out’ the specific biases that have come to exist. Each research question requires thinking on one´s own feet and reinventing one´s methodological toolkit. The course is intentionally designed around an open question about the war´s cultural consequences, and any historiography is examined in a critical light and used in a modular fashion to expand our horizons.
I agree that the charge of ‘eurocentrism’ might have special implications for historians of modern Europe, as you suggest, since the concept is so tied to that of modernity. But I also think it’s something that medieval specialists need to think about too. And of course they have, for instance by expanding their geographical horizons to think about the wider world, and by collaborating with experts on other parts of that world, including scholars institutionally located in the contemporary global south. And the debates continue as to whether ‘medieval’ is a category which only applies to European history, or whether it can and should be applied elsewhere too (both options can be labelled as ‘eurocentric’, after all). These developments are positive and valuable. Yet as I suggested at the beginning, I would argue that there’s a lot that can be done (and has been done) to tackle eurocentrism within the study of ‘medieval’ Europe as well.
The teaching dimension you highlight is really important: after all, this is how we communicate the priorities and shape of the discipline we work in to the next generation. Eurocentrism is something I’ve thought about (and discussed with students) in the context of in my third-year special subject course. The course is focused on 9th-c. Francia, so on lands now divided between half a dozen modern European countries (France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Austria, Italy, Spain). In a geographical sense it’s obviously a European history course. And there was a concept of Europe in the Middle Ages too, as Klaus Oschema has recently emphasised. The Franks had an idea of Europa.
However, with a few interesting exceptions, they chose not to use it as a frame of reference or context; it wasn’t very important to them. Still, its very existence is significant in all kinds of ways, not least in that it means we shouldn’t blindly impose our concept of Europe upon a period which had its own. That’s an important nuance. We need to avoid seeing the Carolingian empire as a proto-EU, as Marie-Celine Isaïa has pointed out, as if the idea of Europe is unchanging or timeless, but nor should we imagine this idea just popped into existence in the 19th century. Neither is accurate. Historicising the concept of Europe, showing how the concept has meant different things at different times, is a key step in battling eurocentrism, and this is something which medieval history courses can contribute towards.
At the same time, the history of Europe doesn’t have to be only a history of the concept. It’s legitimate also to think about the history of the geographical region we now think of as Europe. In particular I’d suggest it’s important to include perspectives from al-Andalus, and to ensure these are included in the study of Europe as a region. I’ve worked them into my teaching for this very reason – not simply for the sake of it, but because this is relevant history. Al-Andalus is often tacitly sidelined by earlier medieval historians who aren’t specialists, not least for linguistic reasons since its textual records are mostly in Arabic not Latin.
Plus, it was more culturally integrated with the Islamicate world than with the Christian lands to the north, and Amira Bennison has showed that Andalusians didn’t usually think of themselves as ‘European’ (though contemporaries to the north occasionally did). But then, as I’ve just said, the same is true of the Franks. This emphatically doesn’t mean Al-Andalus isn’t part of European history, and there’s a responsibility to make that clear. If we don’t point things like this out, which we can only do by teaching European history, then old framings will be left untouched and unchallenged. And it’s interesting and important, to come to your point about not quietly removing but critically interrogating the European historiographical legacy, for students to consider why Al-Andalus, and for that matter Muslim Sicily and even Christian Byzantium, has often been tacitly excluded from histories of Europe – and how putting them back in changes the picture.
The topic of tacit exclusion highlights an important aspect of the problem we are discussing, namely, that the slogan of ‘provincialising’ Europe and terms such as ‘eurocentrism’ have been used out of context as tools for choosing what to study (or rather, what not to study any longer). This selective appropriation of terminology obscured the fact that these critiques were mostly focused on the question of how one studies phenomena, how things are contextualised and narrated.
The real problem which limits historical research is the adherence to any kind of ‘centrism’ or ‘teleology’, which is often the consequence of an intuitive attempt to relate all unfamiliar phenomena to certain familiar brands of historical events, or assume that by covering the history of, say, urban environments, one has already subsumed the rural, and so on. Such systemic oversights, sometimes modelled around potted national histories of different European states, can be as damaging to a historian as it might be to a political campaigner who never leaves the remits of her home district.
It is tempting to stick to path-dependent accounts of special national histories, particularly of European states, such as the history of National Socialism and the rise of the Third Reich, or Soviet History, where ‘centrism’ has led historians to explain the history of the Third Reich only by looking at Germany (thus missing, for instance, the fact that more than five of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust came from Nazi-Occupied Europe) or looking at the Russian Revolution and Civil War without paying attention to the history of, say, the fortunes of social or liberal democracy in the Muslim Caucasus.
I doubt that manifestos in themselves actually have a decisive impact on historical research. They may be nothing more than flags which blow according to the winds of change caused by other factors around them. For instance, to pick a few examples from a range of subjects in modern European history, one of the most illuminating accounts of the Russian revolution from the point of view of Russia’s non-Slavic peoples was published in 1972; it is Ronald Suny’s study of the Baku Commune.
Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, which emphasises the common genealogies of modern extermination policies in Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia in colonial violence, dates back to 1951. Aby Warburg’s art historical studies of the ‘afterlife of antiquity’ and his provocative Memory Atlas, in their own day, provoked the European establishment by giving equal weighting to ancient and contemporary expressions of feeling, to European and non-European cultures, was a profound challenge to many disciplines – in the 1920s. Simon Dubnow’s Jewish histories, produced in the years between the end of the Russian empire and the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact dividing eastern Europe between Germany and the Soviet Union, could be seen as examples of early subaltern studies.
All this was produced years before the terms eurocentrism or such like were coined. Dubnow’s work could be seen as a way of valorising the history of a marginal people inhabiting so-called Pale of Settlement, the underdeveloped and impoverished western hinterland to which the European Jews were confined under the Russian empire and where many Jews still lived until the extermination of Eastern European Jewry in the Holocaust – including Dubnow himself, who was killed by a Gestapo agent in 1941. Looking at this aspect of European history, the term ‘hegemony’ hardly applies. In short, overcoming ‘centrism’ might look different for histories of modern racism or histories of modern nationalism and dictatorship, and it is certainly not something where one generation of historians can necessarily pat itself on the back for being more historically engaged. Others in the past have taken far greater existential risks in doing this kind of work.
I think this ‘centrism’ of various kinds is a problem in medieval history too. There’s a rich tradition of social, and Marxist, historiography, but I wonder how many medieval European survey courses explicitly make space for the peasantry, who formed the overwhelming majority of the population, and whose production structured the economy, and thus funded all the more glamorous things? Of course there is the added problem that it’s the centres which are not only best documented, but most accessible to students too through translation of the narrative sources, which tend to privilege rulers and elites (with the great exception of Icelandic saga evidence). Thankfully the ‘special national histories’ is less of a problem for the early medievalist these days, though nationalists do often turn to the distant past for the most deeply-rooted authentication of their projects (and I fear we may see more of this in an English context).
But these sorts of problems aren’t pedagogically insuperable, and historians of Europe have some experience in engaging with them. I’d suggest that an anti-eurocentric European history pedagogy might involve explicitly demonstrating how European history can be read as undermining the triumphalist 19th– and 20th-century teleological narratives of European modernity which positioned that history as the universal benchmark, for instance by underscoring the relatively peripheral nature of the western Eurasian peninsula for most of recorded history.
It might involve showing that Europe has always been entangled with the wider world, both when it seemed in a dominant position but also before and after; and crucially, that it has moreover been fundamentally shaped through that entanglement (here I think of Saba Mahmood’s brilliant critique of Charles Taylor’s account of secularism, highlighting its assumption of an ideologically hermetically sealed Europe). Those entanglements need to be understood as forming part of European history too.
Take for instance monasticism, a key social movement and intellectual matrix in Europe, which was initially appropriated from an Egyptian set of ascetic practices, and whose western variant remained strongly influenced by eastern Mediterranean culture. An anti-eurocentric European history needs to have very porous boundaries, because flows over those boundaries have often been of fundamental importance. As I’ve already suggested, it might further involve demonstrating that the idea of Europe was itself historically produced, has never been simply just ‘there’, and has changed its connotations over time. As has often been pointed out, for instance, Europe was not a place or a context that mattered much to the ancient Romans. It might involve revealing and underscoring the human diversities that in different ways have always characterised Europe’s history, putting the lie to any idea of a homogenous ‘white’ European past, whilst doing justice to the processes of exclusion which have often been directed, often cruelly, at these diversities, as set out in R.I. Moore’s concept of the persecuting society, in which the centre defined itself through and against the margins.
It should be stressed that Europe has always been a culturally plural region, though not always peacefully so, as you mentioned earlier. And this approach might involve using comparative approaches, partly to highlight how European history has never embodied the whole world’s history.
In all these aspects, I believe historians looking at the Middle Ages have a significant contribution to make. After all, Kathleen Davis has shown how representations of the Middle Ages were central to European conceptions of (and thus interventions in) the wider world in the nineteenth century. Rethinking the European Middle Ages critically thus destabilises eurocentric analyses from within, so to speak. Approached this way, the study of European history can perhaps not only escape the trap of eurocentrism, but contribute significantly to springing it. Eurocentrism is fundamentally a problem of historical method, not of content. But historians of Europe, including those looking at its more remote past, may nevertheless have a necessary role to play in dismantling it at source. Ignoring or downplaying European history, especially in European pedagogical contexts, might be done for the right reasons, but, in leaving older narratives intact, have all the wrong results.
So far we have spoken about ‘eurocentrism’ as a timeless concept for interrogating pedagogies, particularly those related to courses in modern and medieval European history. But I think it is worth exploring in historical perspective how and when the critique of eurocentrism itself has emerged. The term ‘eurocentrism’ dates back to a specific moment in European and global history and in some ways remains restricted by it. It actually came into circulation in France, coined by the Egyptian-French political economist Samir Amin in 1988. Related critical terminology emerged around the 1970s and 1980s in the United States and in Britain, coined by Edward Said at Columbia, Ranajit Guha and the Subaltern Studies group at Sussex, Teodor Shanin and his studies of the sociology of the global peasantry at Sheffield, and others. One could also throw books such as Martin Bernal’s Black Athena (1987) into this mix.
These critiques of European hegemony emerged at a time of globalisation and also at the height of the Cold War, and reflect the circumstances of this dual moment. What the above-mentioned authors had in common was their critical reflection on the structures of the bipolar world order and its critical shadow, the non-aligned movement, reflected in terminology such as the ‘Third World’, coined in the early 1950s by another French intellectual, Alfred Sauvy. Their use of the term ‘eurocentric’ entailed a critique of capitalism which, however, remained distant from orthodox or Soviet Marxism.
They were influenced by critical readings of Hegel, and of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, which, though written in the mid-1920s, were only translated into English in the 1970s, and which focused on the concept of ‘hegemony’ and the question of subaltern subjectivity. They were also observing contemporary events such as the peasant-driven revolutions of the non-western world. Even though these authors used terms such as ‘development’ and ‘Third World’, they also felt trapped by them. Teleologies came under attack not only from scholars like Amin and Said, who sought to draw attention to the significance of non-European and especially non-Christian civilisations, but also Shanin, who engaged critically with more Eurocentric Marxist conceptions of revolution such as those offered by Eric Hobsbawm.
Forty years from the minting of ‘eurocentrism’, it is time to re-evaluate the circulation of this coin in the context of modern political economies. We have discussed how ‘eurocentrism’ is used as a critique of an ideology which justifies Europe’s dominant position within the global capitalist world system, and as such coupled with a demand to reduce the proportion of attention given to the history of Europe in the teaching of modern history. But even more problematically, the critique of ‘eurocentrism’ often goes hand in hand with the demand to reduce the history of the pre-modern world altogether. I think both dogmatic interpretations of the critique can be very damaging to the discipline.
As a modernist, I am very aware that it is historians of pre-modern periods who have pioneered a variety of methods designed to help bring to live the past lives of those not recorded in institutionalised or written histories, including intellectual history sensitive to marginal voices, oral history, discourse analysis, studies of material culture; they have examined plural ideas of development, contradictory beliefs, forgotten ideologies. There has been an expansion of valid sources for historians together with an expansion of methods to pursue questions about the past (hence the various ‘turns’ since the 1970s). Knowing how to draw on records such as inquisition protocols to tell the history of its victims comes in handy when dealing with modern histories of oppression and persecution, whether it is by the KGB, the Stasi, or Pinochet’s regime. It would be foolish to, say, diminish the place of French historiography by following a zealous attempt to remove European components because in this context. In using ‘eurocentrism’ too fanatically as a tool, one risks throwing out many methodological riches which have accumulated in this domain. The same goes for other peculiarities of European historiographies.
The 20th-century critiques of eurocentrism were not absolutely new, but rather, updated versions of a range of critical positions towards the West which themselves go back much further. They appear in the European Enlightenment, in Russian discourses of anti-westernism from the 19th century, in German mid-twentieth century anti-Westernism, in the anti-westernism of the Ottoman Muslim world, as well as in the political thought of much of South East Asia. In the two intervening centuries, this question as such has often faded from view due to a range of factors, including the rise of nationalism as well as new forms of imperialism which were coupled with the rise of racial science that justified past colonial interventions by drawing up systems of difference. In this context, in Europe itself, history became entrenched as an academic discipline at leading universities, many of which served not only universal but also national purposes – most prominently, in France, with a new, more meritocratic system of higher education promoted by Napoleon.
By the mid-19th century, one answer to the original Enlightenment question regarding the cosmopolitan purposes of history writing was given by Hegel, who could be described as a liberal ideologue for the Prussian state. His answer in the Philosophy of History essentially pitted European history as the focus of universal history, because, as he saw it, it was in and through European history that the ‘world spirit’ manifested itself. It was only in the aftermath of the Second World War that the original Enlightenment preoccupation with cosmopolitan purposes returned to the agenda of public discourse, shaped not least by institutions such as UNESCO but also from within the universities. Here is where ‘eurocentrism’ came into view. It is undeniable that Europe – and I mean in the first instance, western Europe – acquired a dominant position as an object of historical enquiry not only due to the role of some European powers and groups in the political and economic history of the world but also, more narrowly, because of the historical dominance of Germany, France, Britain and the European influence on the US within the modern university system. Unsurprisingly, the critique of this hegemony first emerged in the very institutions which have been shaped by it.
What neither the Enlightenment cosmopolitans nor the present-day critical thinkers like to discuss is the complicity of the elites of colonised countries in processes of colonisation, and the sheer varieties of racism, internal colonialism and slavery within Europe itself. This is a point forcefully made by Frantz Fanon in his critique of the ‘national bourgeosie’ in his 1961 classic Wretched of the Earth. Terms such as slavery, racism, and Orientalism, have their place within the relationship of Europeans with other Europeans as well, and I see it as one of my tasks as an historian of Europe to remind students about this.
To explore this in a more multi-directional way, there is now a formidable Oxford Handbook of the Ends of Empire (2018), with a chapter on China ‘from Manchu to Mao’ by our Sheffield colleague Tehyun Ma, work by Joya Chatterji on decolonisation in South Asia, decolonisation in Eastern Europe by James Mark and Quinn Slobodian, my LSE colleague David Motadel on transnational aspects of Islamic movements against empire, and many others. For Eastern Europe, there is much to learn here at the level of theory and research design from historians such as Alexander Etkind and his students. I wonder how these themes of empire, imperialism, and internal colonisation play out in the context of medieval history, with the shadow of the Roman empire and its diverse legacies lingering on.
While 19th-century empires were different from preceding forms of empire, empire itself was obviously not a modern or indeed a European invention. Parts of early medieval Europe can in some ways be considered a post-imperial set of societies (though not of course Byzantium), and medieval historians have extensively studied colonisation processes within Europe. And there’s a huge and exciting body of work about ethnicity and, more recently, race in the Middle Ages, often led by medievalists of colour. This latter body of work isn’t without its critics – Vanita Seth’s recent piece in History and Theory is important here – but the point that many of the analytical tools often used to describe European involvement with the wider world have purchase on Europe itself is crucial. Treating Europe and the wider world differently from a methodological point of view can be just another, more subtle form of eurocentrism.
To wrap up: the question how historians of Europe should somehow change their practice of research and writing in the light of such critiques does not have a self-evident answer. What does it mean to provincialise Europe in historiographical practice, and in what sense does revalorising the non-European world depend on devalorising the idea of European civilisation? As soon as you start thinking in these terms, you will find the implications of ‘eurocentrism’ as a term to be very prescriptive and the historical accounts they are based on misleadingly reductive.
Many history departments in the UK have recently ‘globalised’ their modern history courses. But even here you have many possible paths for implementing such an agenda. In designing course readings and supporting students´ independent research projects, I see broadly two options. Either I simply remove or reduce readings focusing on Europe. Or I let students work through them and deal with their various imperfections and shortcomings before starting their own explorations. My sense is that students generally are susceptible to manifestos of progress, they want to land on the right side of history, and any promise of shortcuts in this direction is therefore highly appealing. I’ve already written elsewhere about a tendency lately to divide up past thinkers into ‘purely’ progressive or ‘purely’ reactionary figures, by the standards of our day, which, in my view, can only lead to a shallow and self-serving celebration of the ideas of one’s own generation.
Or take another example. What should students from China learn when they study the history of European racial science and its ties to colonial governance? The easier path is to dismiss this history as a problem of the West, to embed it in a political language of anti-westernism. It is far more arduous to think of the ways in which similar processes might be, or might have been, occurring in China itself. Yet, in my view, it is the arduous path that has more potential to lead to new critical histories of modernity, precisely because it does not culminate in the certainty of what it means to be on the right side of history. Students can be selective in exposing ‘eurocentrism’, but in fact they are as unfamiliar with the geography and politics of Eastern and Southern Europe as they are with the distinction between socialist and capitalist-aligned African states during the Cold War. Pitting the study of one against the other because one is supposedly more European than the other misses the point: what is needed is contextual knowledge of modern history, the ability to pinpoint the relevance of one’s local case study in a global framework.
Another way to think about this is that genuine historical inquiry itself rarely starts from narrative. Rather, the story comes at the end. Often the questions take root when you read a text or a document from the past and enter into a dialogue with it. Take, for instance, a historical text such as Max Weber’s (unfinished) study of music as a case study of rationalisation, supposedly a linchpin of western modernity. An intellectual historian who studies this text today will rightly see it as a work of political thought on Europe and the West – but in the 1950s the text would have been contextualised as a case study in sociology as such. In this sense it would be beneficial to ‘provincialize’ Max Weber, but certainly not excise him from the canon.
For all its shortcomings, it was Weber’s status and later, the canonical status of his works, which gave recognition and visibility to non-western musical systems. Moreover, one could look at Weber’s intellectual encounters with W.E.B. DuBois, for instance, in the light of which a re-examination of such a European and decidedly eurocentric text could lead to a productive investigation around the use of musical notation and oral tradition as a source of political thought. This also brings me to related concern raised by many critics of ‘eurocentrism’, which is the demand to reduce the study of canonical thinkers and approaches. Yet some canonical histories have historically been a great bridge introducing underrepresented topics and people to the academy.
I’m sure that the term ‘eurocentrism’ has produced a lot of constructive debates in the past, and the term has become a natural part of our vocabulary, but the sort of disciplinary self-criticism that is needed today should transcend a narrow use of such terminology. It could instead take into account a question that has been debated since at least the Enlightenment, and some landmark interventions by authors such as Kant and Herder (1784), namely: What does it mean [for historians of Europe] to write history with a cosmopolitan purpose? I have tried examining these sorts of questions myself in conversation with colleagues in a volume I edited, called Cosmopolitanism in Conflict.
It is all the more important given that the decades of globalisation have redistributed power geographically – not in the sense of an actual social redistribution of wealth, but in the sense of co-opting more geographical areas as sites of power. This means that the holders of financial capital or power and their locations are no longer as visibly ‘European’ as in the 1980s. Secondly, the globalisation of the university sector, particularly in Britain and the United States, has created a mixed global population of students and academics. But the financial structure particularly of British universities is such that they are only accountable to make provisions for socially inclusive teaching (ie support for students who cannot fund themselves) on a national level, which means that students from places such as the ‘Global South’ or what is now called the ‘Global Majority’ tend to come from much wealthier social backgrounds. The problem of the asymmetry of class in the representation of students outside Britain in my view is often being overlooked. All this has implications for the way in which historians might self-critically reflect on the future of their discipline in research and teaching.
I would like to go back to the Herderian terms of asking the question what it might mean to practise history in a cosmopolitan sense, ie in the interests of all humanity, but also add the dimension of social diversity to this agenda. Historical research is among other things also a process of communication. What is needed is a framework which enables scholars and researchers to form a dialogue with multiple local, national, and global communities – the opening up of universities for this kind of conversation beyond their competitive market relations and rankings. Interestingly, one of the few positives of the pandemic has been the provision of exciting opportunities for just that.
Whatever the problems of modern history are, using the term ‘eurocentrism’ to impose modes of thinking on others strikes me as an unnecessary kind of puppeteering. It is productive when used as an invitation for a conversation, but good historical research comes from thinking about things for yourself, and from open encounters with other minds, including unsavoury characters. Historical research as I see it is not particularly suited for resolving problems, it is there to involve us in them, however uncomfortable the insights.
Charles West is a Reader in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield, where he’s taught since 2008. Current research projects include a collaborative Anglo-German study of local priests in tenth-century Europe, and a general history of eleventh-century Europe, under contract with OUP. His most recent publication is on early medieval ideas of the secular.
Dina Gusejnova is an Assistant Professor at the Department of International History at LSE, having previously taught Modern History at the University of Sheffield from 2015 to 2019. Her current research explores the circulation of ideas of citizenship and nationality in Europe during the Second World War, most recently, in this article on German ideas of Englishness in the context of wartime internment.