Replacing the Yardstick and Changing Perspective

 “To overcome methodological nationalism means to ensure that the determination of the space of relevance becomes part of every new research project.”

Ravi Ahuja (photo: Florian Müller for Volkswagen Foundation)

Ravi Ahuja (photo: Florian Müller for Volkswagen Foundation)

In close cooperation with international partners, Professor Ravi Ahuja from Göttingen University has initiated “A Global Network for Global History” which focuses on a southern perspective. The network is funded by the Volkswagen FoundationBeate Reinhold interviewed him about this project and the importance of reaching beyond set research spaces in historical science.

Professor Ahuja, you and your colleagues successfully submitted a research proposal in the frame of “Off the Beaten Track”, a program noted for its exceptionally high aspirations. In what way do you personally think your project stands out by breaking new ground?

Well, research in the area of global history is in itself certainly nothing new: It has become quite a popular research field in many countries, especially in the North Atlantic region. New is the focus on the “southern world” and the project’s approach in respect of researching global-historical topics in close cooperation with partners in the Global South.

How is this reflected in the project design? How do you ensure the objectives are met?

The initiative was conceived in the North Atlantic region by institutes with considerable experience of research in this field – Harvard, Amsterdam, and here in Göttingen – but our network partners are located in the southern world, namely in Dakar, Sao Paulo, Shanghai and New Delhi. That’s what so special about the project – the fact that the main hubs lie outside the North Atlantic region. This means that the fellows of the program are given the opportunity to become acquainted with research approaches in other regions of the world which are highly active and generate novel perspectives.

To what extent are these cooperation partners free to leave their own mark?

Here, we also have a different approach. More often than not, it is the financially strong science locations of the North that decide on the research topic. Once this has been done, they then set about searching for suitable partners in the southern world who are seen fit to carry out the previously determined research program. In contrast to this, we simply stake out the overall framework: How to proceed within this general scope is then discussed together with our partners.

How far have you progressed in this so far? Have some initial topics already emerged?

It’s only a short while since we received confirmation of funding, we are still in the initial stages of discussion and planning our first topic workshop. As to be expected, the project participants have articulated different preferences. A large thematic field that interests everyone, though, is the history of labor. The partners in Brazil, India, Senegal, Amsterdam, as well as in Harvard and Göttingen, have already done a lot in this area. It represents a field in which global relations are very much in play. One immediately thinks of the migration flows which have grown so much since the 19th century and linked parts of the world closely together. I expect this will in one way or another find a place in our research.

To return to what makes the project exceptional – viewing things from the southern world: Why do you think this approach was neglected for such a long time?

Ravi Ahuja (photo: Florian Müller for Volkswagen Foundation)

Ravi Ahuja (photo: Florian Müller for Volkswagen Foundation)

Our entrenched way of thinking also left its mark on our institutions. We tend to view our world from a strongly European and North-Atlantic perspective – even though this may encompass other parts of the world, the general orientation is given. In the Anglo-Saxon world, for instance, it’s still not unusual to find university courses with the title “The west and the rest”. In Germany, the „World Wars“ are generally still taught as if they had been exclusively European Wars. We’re not saying this is the first time that historiography focuses on the global. However, the old imperial history that goes back to the 19th century has left its legacy: university chairs, libraries – and, of course, lines of research are dominated by certain ways of thinking. Consider, for instance, the concept of diffusion: the notion that universal modernization processes emanating from Europe will eventually take hold with similar results in other parts of the world. Empirically unsustainable, the concept shows surprising resilience. This is reinforced by the fact that the discipline of history is still marked by a pronounced national bias today: if this holds true in university departments, things are even worse in schools.

This means that a special effort has to be made?

Yes, it takes a lot to even partially change such entrenched mind sets. The history of global connections has created an extremely uneven landscape since the 19th century. Certain regions of the world are deeply intertwined, whereas others are marginalized. Divergences of historical development are not necessarily worn down in the wake of the historical process but sometimes deepened. To quote an example: The debate in economic history concerning the „great divergence“ in the development of Europe and China. Of course, here we should also ask: Why does Europe, once again, serve as the yardstick and how come we don’t focus on comparing processes of other regions of the world? Why don’t we look, for instance, into twentieth-century political transformations in the area of social policy that had quite different impacts in Latin America and South Asia?

What we should do, then, is set new points of reference in global history and shift the focus onto neglected ones?

Yes, but it goes farther than that. Taking a different look at things might result in revealing other spatial relations, resulting in a different relationship to the global. At the moment I still perceive a predominance of a triumphalist globalization narrative: The world is flat, space is vanishing – dissolved by new technologies – and time is all that matters now. Encompassing a southern-world perspective reveals that time-space compression unfolds in an extremely uneven way, and that we are faced with a much more fissured geography of the world than that conveyed by the conventional narrative and the media.

Is there any one thing you are particularly looking forward  to: Perhaps an area where much is still unknown and where your research approach could possibly open up something really new?

Ravi Ahuja (photo: Florian Müller for Volkswagen Foundation)

Ravi Ahuja (photo: Florian Müller for Volkswagen Foundation)

I’ll answer your question with two examples. Two years ago the Volkswagen Foundation held a conference on the First World War from a global historical perspective, placing a stronger focus on how the war was appropriated in the southern world – this thematic area could also be of interest to our project, by the way. The conference revealed many serious consequences of the war that have received little attention in the North Atlantic region until recently: For instance, the political and economic developments in the Middle East and the accompanying food crises; the massive delegitimization of colonial rule in Asia that led to a nationalism supported by broad sections of the population; and debates in Latin America concerning the inaptitude of the European model for shaping the future of politics on the continent. Conventional world-war historiography took little note of these profound consequences of the First World War. Here, there is really scope for breaking completely new ground. We can open up new perspectives on major world events – events that we previously failed to grasp in respect of their consequences for the world as a whole. Another area that holds promise of revealing new insights is that surrounding the social movements that emerged around 1968; and then there is the economic crisis that spread around the world in the mid-seventies.

A second level could be more structural. Here, I am looking at the present-day situation. In Europe, the phenomenon of precarious employment relations occupies a prominent position in debates surrounding labor market developments. That is to say: the growing job insecurity facing a part of the working population. In the southern world the debate is dominated by another phenomenon: so-called ‚informalisation‘. Informal work is the term given to labor relations not subject to social security schemes or labor law protection. The proportions vary substantially: Whereas in many European countries precarious employment relations still only affect a minority of the workforce and are perceived as an unfortunate departure from ’normality‘, in the majority of countries in the southern world informal labor relations constitute the absolute norm. In many countries of the global South, only a very small minority of people have jobs that are linked to any welfare entitlements or protected by law. This gives rise to the question: What is the history behind these two very different narratives; how are they linked in a somehow strange way? In the 1950s and 60s it would have been assumed that in Europe and America a work norm regulated by a welfare state had emerged, and that this would eventually become the norm around the whole world. Today, we not only have to realize this has not taken place, but that in our countries the growth of precarious labor relations increasingly bears at least partial similarity with the dominating form of informal work in the southern world. Thus, our previous notion of global processes has been refuted by real life. Historiography can play a role in explaining how we reached this point, contrary to all expectations.

I would like to ask you about your personal attachment to this field of research. What is the importance of global history to you?

Historiography has a tendency to develop in turns and waves. Some people say we are currently witnessing a period of global turn which results in global history becoming the adequate modern form of historical narrative. I personally don’t share this view. Rather, I am of the opinion that historical research should be free to choose its own scales of reference – and these may well vary from case to case. For area studies of the kind I specialize in, historiography has made enormous advances over the past decades in terms of local as well as regional history. Due to shifting the focus onto smaller, subnational spaces and exploring these in greater depth it has sought to overcome the previously dominant national perspective. I see this as a significant achievement, and as a result we have gained a multitude of new insights. We should be careful not to lose sight of this. I also believe that the national scale is far from withering away, despite all premature obituaries, and also remains important for writing history. Processes over the past years, though, illustrate that we have to look beyond the nation state if we wish to address urgent questions. With regard to the processes I just mentioned in connection with precarious and informal labor relations, for instance, we need to rescale our perspective. These questions simply cannot be adequately answered within a purely national context – and also not by local studies. Rather, we need research into global political discourses, international crises, and social as well as economic dynamics that don’t stop at national borders. We need research that enables us to look beyond these borders and redefine them.

You don’t see this, though, as the final goal of developments in the field?

What is the most interesting aspect of this development? Conventional historiography has often been criticized for being trapped within the context of a methodological nationalism. The question is what can we do about it? Proclaiming a methodological globalism or localism in its place won’t do. To overcome methodological nationalism means to ensure that the determination of the space of relevance becomes part and parcel of every new research project. To put it another way: It is in the process of defining and pursuing our research question that we also discover what the relevant research space should be. And many of the research questions we pose today reveal that the global space is the most adequate.

A very interesting aspect: To overcome methodological nationalism…

Perhaps I should explain a little further. In Europe, the development of historiography was closely linked to the development of the national states. That was not only the case in Europe but also in post-colonial nations – although this took place in the twentieth century and against quite another background. The postcolonial historiographies in Asia and in Africa first had to free themselves of the imperial perspective. Hence, in many respects the national perspective was the result of overcoming the older dominant perspective, whereas in the European context the national perspective was the original point of departure. That has a great number of consequences. First, in the European space – as well as the American –, young historians find the turn towards global perspectives far less problematic and more liberating. It means reaching beyond a space that had been preset for a long time. In postcolonial contexts the problem is much more complex. Here, too, many historians had perceived over the past four decades the nation-centeredness of historiography to be inadequate and as such unacceptable. However, the turn towards global supranational perspectives is still burdened by the tradition of imperial history. This explains why in India and other parts of the world there was a tendency to concentrate on smaller, subnational levels. A certain naivety in respect of global history might exist in Europe, but not so much from postcolonial perspectives. This may prove beneficial and helpful in respect of developing critical global perspectives on history.

And perhaps another argument in support of purposefully allowing the global South to come to the fore and have more  say …?

Precisely! It is not just about bringing in more empirical material and drawing on more encompassing data dossiers: It’s all about changing our perspectives. For us it is of great importance to investigate topics that also have a global dimension from a decentered perspective: In my case and that of my colleagues this means from South Asia. We are actually already doing this in several different projects. For instance, a large collaborative project funded by the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research for an International Center for Advanced Studies (MICAS: MP) in Delhi, in which several German and Indian partners are participating. In this respect, the project supported by the Volkswagen Foundation is part of a strategic orientation.

The project will run for three years. That’s certainly a good impulse, but what about the prospects for a lasting effect?

In my view, the most sustainable activity you can think of is to invest in people. And that is precisely what the project is designed to do. The objective is to enable the young generation of historians at the start of their career to develop new perspectives. They will be able to explore the plurality of research perspectives in different parts of the world and encouraged to adopt similar approaches. This is a long-term ‘investment’ as many of these young researchers will one day occupy university chairs. The earlier they are given an opportunity to break out of the provincial constraints that exist in every national historiography and reflect critically on their situation, the earlier this will also become anchored sustainably at universities.


Prof. Dr. Ravi Ahuja is head of the research group ‘Modern Indian History’ at the Centre for Modern Indian Studies (CeMIS) of Georg-August-University Göttingen. He has worked on various aspects of India’s social history from 18th to 20th century including urban history, the history of infrastructure and the social history of war. Ahujas research interests have increasingly moved towards contemporary history. Current research projects examine the social history of South Asian seafarers and the emergence of a labour-centred social policy in mid-twentieth century India. After teaching at the South Asia Institute in Heidelberg and conducting research at the Centre for Modern Oriental Studies in Berlin he was appointed Professor of Modern South Asian History at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. 

Ahuja is member of the Academic Advisory Board of the Forum Transregionale Studien and a member of the Academic Advisory Board of the German Historical Institute London, an institute of the Max Weber Foundation. Additionally, he is one of the principal investigators of the Max Weber Foundation Transnational Research Group – India “Poverty Reduction and Policy for the Poor between the State and Private Actors: Education Policy in India since the Nineteenth Century”.

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