Global History of Knowledge from a Latin American Perspective: Overcoming the West-Rest Dichotomy

By Frederik Schulze

One of the key questions of the Global History debate is how to understand the relation between the so-called West and other world regions. Initially, Global History showed very much interest in the rise of the West and the dichotomy between the West and the East, mainly Southeast Asia. Kenneth Pomeranz’ The Great Divergence is a prominent example for such scholarship.[1] At the same time, postcolonial and postdevelopmental theoreticians interpreted the relationship between the West and the rest (i.e. the East) as shaped by power relations. The West, they argued, had produced homogenizing knowledge about non-Western regions and people, often in a dichotomist approach. They tried to overcome these Western hegemonic epistemologies, a claim that found a culmination in Dipesh Chakrabarty’s call for the provincializing of Europe, a call that scrutinizes the foundation not just of knowledge, but also of social and historical science itself.[2] Chakrabarty conceded, however, that such a project has to remain utopian since it would require leaving behind the theoretical and scientific imprints that characterize science, as we know it – a merely impossible task.

For a global history of science and knowledge (and by knowledge I mean all canonized or useful inventories of thought, from science over politics to culture), it is about the question of how we can understand non-Western actors and the knowledge they used and produced. For a long time, Western historiography argued that Western knowledge was transferred to non-Western regions where certain politicians and intellectuals imitated it. Postcolonial theory intended to contrast this single-sided narrative by making a claim for native knowledge and non-Western scientific traditions. The most prominent attempt was Subaltern Studies and their effort to recover the voices of the colonized. In addition, scholars such as Walter Mignolo emphasized the originality of intellectual production in Latin America and argued against scientist colonialism.[3] Representatives of Science and Technology Studies, for instance Sujit Sivasundaram or Eden Medina, recently called for a similar program and underlined the significance of native actors and their knowledge production.[4]

Global History scholarship mainly chose a third approach, and Sebastian Conrad even warned against “new centrisms” in his 2016 book on Global History.[5] While most of global historians acknowledged that Western science spread across the world, they emphasized that local actors adopted Western science in different ways to different localities. These new forms of hybridized knowledge circulated back to the metropolises and affected knowledge and science there. I advocate those who propose a variation of this interpretation. While the concepts of native knowledge and adoption/hybridization are not wrong per se, they do not show the whole picture. This becomes evident if we look at Latin America, a region that hardly fits into the dominant global history narratives. As Matthew Brown has shown, Latin America is a highly underrepresented world region in global history scholarship and often seen as an appendix of European history or as victim of Western hegemony.[6]

Sérgio Buarque de Holanda, Raízes do Brasil, 2nd Edition.

One reason for this is temporality. The region was affected by global entanglements already in early modern times, and it became independent more than a century before other world regions gained independence from European powers. The second reason might be its hybrid character. Unlike Africa or Asia, Latin America’s elites are mainly descendants of the European colonizers, and later on, significant European immigration shaped various countries such as Argentina or Brazil. Additionally, European, indigenous, African, and Asian populations and cultures often intermingled and created hybrid cultures, even though some countries such as Bolivia are still rich in their indigenous heritage. Therefore, it is almost impossible to recover a native history or culture – a task that is, probably, also difficult in the African or Asian case, and Frantz Fanon had to struggle with it in his The Wretched of the Earth.[7] Latin America includes overwhelmingly different cultures and social inequalities. Western and non-Western spheres exist simultaneously and overlap. That makes it difficult to characterize the region as entirely non-Western. However, it is not Western in a hegemonic sense, either. It would be an impractical task to decide if a Brazilian physician or a Mexican geologist represents Western or non-Western science and knowledge. Sure, every nation and local context has its own characteristics that shapes the way it conceives knowledge. Nevertheless, in an era of globalization, politics, economy, science and culture can be produced only globally. Historians should, this is my claim, analyze this global production without ignoring power relations, but also without categorizing knowledge a priori as Western or non-Western, original or copy, good or deficient. Especially in the twentieth century, actors from all around the world often cooperated in creating knowledge, interchanged ideas, met at conferences and worked together in multinational companies and organizations. The result was global knowledge inventories where national boundaries blurred and influence became reciprocal.

Let me give two examples. Georg Fischer and I argue, in a forthcoming article entitled “Brazilian History as Global History”, that Brazil’s contribution to social and historical thought on global interconnectedness had been a part of a globally produced theory.[8] As elsewhere, Brazilians reflected about global power relations, encounters of cultures and new spatial orders. It was neither a copy nor an adaption of Western ideas, but integral part of the sociological and historiographical production at the time. Brazilians scholars read and published in international journals, participated in international conferences, studied abroad, and welcomed scholars from around the world. In the 1930s, the historian Caio Prado Jr. introduced Marxism to Brazilian historiography, but in doing so, he did not simply copy something.[9] He was an integral actor in the global Marxist arena, travelled to the Soviet Union and rethought Marxism for the colonial context. Yet, mainstream historiography considers the World System Theory, invented in the 1970s by US-American Immanuel Wallerstein, as standard repertoire for a leftist interpretation of Latin American history.[10] And of course there were many Prado Júniors in Latin America in the first half of the twentieth century. The same is true for the history of mentalities. Important Latin American historians such as Brazilian Sérgio Buarque do Holanda explored mentalities as early as in the 1930s, exchanging their ideas with the French Annales School.[11] Again, those voices are not part of the present canon.

The Itaipu Dam at the border between Brazil and Paraguay. Operating since 1984, it is still one of the largest Dams in the World. Image: Angelo Leithold, CC-BY SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

A second example: In my current research project, I reconstruct the history of large dams and hydroelectric schemes in twentieth century Latin America. Repeatedly, the master narrative would assume that Westerners sold their technology to the ‘Third World’ and taught the Latin American engineers how to deal with hydroelectric technology. Indeed, there was technological transfer, but a closer look reveals that several Latin American countries had their own engineering elites, planning departments and construction companies. Actors from Latin America met with their counterparts from other world regions and neighboring countries in conferences, construction sites and multinational enterprises. They made their own experiences in dam building, created new knowledge (e.g. how to build dams in the tropics) and built the largest dams on the planet until the 1980s. As consultants, Latin American engineers worked globally and shaped, with their work, the global knowledge on dams. Knowledge about dams could also be environmental, and again activists from Latin America influenced heavily the global anti-dam movement. A global history of dam building would be incomplete without the participation and experience from Latin American, as it would be without that from other world regions.

We cannot think science and knowledge in a globalized world without including voices from all around the world and without looking closer at the global production of knowledge. The analysis of the creation, exchange, challenge, rejection and modification of knowledge inventories, how strenuous it might be, is at heart of global history. It helps to overcome the West-rest dichotomy that still dominates the narrative. It could even make an empirical claim for globalization as a process, because such a global knowledge production is both a producer and a product of globalization.



[1] Kenneth Pomeranz: The Great Divergence. China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy, Princeton: Princeton University Press 2000.

[2] Dipesh Chakrabarty: Provincializing Europe. Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Princeton: Princeton University Press 2000.

[3] Walter Mignolo: Local Histories – Global Designs. Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking, Princeton: Princeton University Press 2000.

[4] Sujit Sivasundaram: Sciences and the Global. On Methods, Questions, and Theory, in: Isis 101 (2019): 146–158 and Eden Medina et al. (ed.): Beyond Imported Magic. Essays on Science, Technology, and Society in Latin America, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press 2014.

[5] Sebastian Conrad: What Is Global History?, Princeton: Princeton University Press 2016, p. 197.

[6] Matthew Brown: The Global History of Latin America, in: Journal of Global History 10 (2015): 365–386.

[7] Frantz Fanon: Les damnés de la terre, Paris: Maspero 1961.

[8] Frederik Schulze and Georg Fischer: Brazilian History as Global History, in: Bulletin of Latin American Research, forthcoming 2018.

[9] Caio Prado Jr.: The Colonial Background of Modern Brazil, Berkeley: University of California Press 1967 [1942].

[10] Immanuel Wallerstein: The Modern World-System. Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century, New York: Academic Press 1974.

[11] Sérgio Buarque de Holanda: Roots of Brazil, Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press 2012 [1936].


Frederik Schulze, Photo: privat.

Frederik Schulze is Assistant Professor for Latin American History at Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster, Germany, since 2013. Prior, he worked as a research and teaching assistant for Global History at Freie Universität Berlin. He received his Ph.D. from Freie Universität Berlin in 2014. His monograph “Auswanderung als nationalistisches Projekt. ‘Deutschtum’ und Kolonialdiskurse im südlichen Brasilien (1824–1941)” won the Friedrich Meinecke Prize 2014. Currently, Schulze is working on the history of large dams in Latin America and the world. Between September 2017 and February 2018, he was a Visiting Fellow in the History of Knowledge at the German Historical Institute Washington DC.

Citation: Frederik Schulze, Global History of Knowledge from a Latin American Perspective. Overcoming the West-Rest Dichotomy, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 17.05.2018

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