World History's Got 99 Problems, and Periodization Is One of Them

Periodization is merely an organizing tool, something used to organize and have some semblance of control over vast swaths of history.

5 months ago

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I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past. [S]o good night! Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1 August 1816

Periodization and Its Discontents.

Peter Stearns offers a rather intriguing discussing on periodization in his piece, “Periodization in World History: Challenges and Opportunities,” where he argues, “Periodization represents the historian’s efforts to manage time, to make change and continuity over time bother more intelligible and more manageable — as opposed to the incoherence of simply listing one development after another.”¹ In other words, periodization is merely an organizing tool, something used to organize and have some semblance of control over vast swaths of history. Moreover, it allows the historian to do something everyone wants history as a discipline to do: offer macro-level analyses that show connections between events within a given timeframe. Moreover, this macro-level analysis asks historians to look for less obvious connections, threads of continuity, common themes, and the like.

Thus, if we take Stearns at his word, periodization is merely a useful tool and nothing more. It bears no ill will toward history or those wishing to study it. Nevertheless, like anything in history, periodization is a powerful conceptual tool that, once in place, is extremely hard to challenge. For example, the concept of feudalism in medieval studies has gained such a prominent position within the field that it has been entirely too difficult to scrub the concept away from conversations in those regions where feudalism didn’t exist as part of the law or in reality.²

The problem with periodization in world history stems from a myriad of issues. These issues include the breadth of the history being covered. Depending on the project, some world histories begin around the time of the Big Bang, snaking their way down into the contemporary period. Other issues include naming the various periods that slice time into subjective yet manageable pieces. According to Stearns’ “Periodization in World History,” he offers at least six (6) distinct historical periods, ranging from the beginning of human culture and civilization to the current or contemporary period. However, as Stearns himself points out, these are merely subjective containers in which to pour the contents of history, allowing the historian in question to do deeper, more meaningful work.

Some historians believe that periodization is a biased tool that has no place in history. Many of the arguments against periodization include discussions on the Western-centric bias that comes with current modes of periodization in history. Chinese historians might decry the focus on particular movements or themes, especially with Chinese history’s focus on dynasties, among other things. North American historians might consider many periodization schemes to be far too focused on Eurasian history. Thus, periodization is a problem for many detractors, because it feels too European to many scholars, who study outside of Europe.

The Power of Periodization in World History.

Although there are some serious issues pertaining to periodization in world history, it does provide a useful conceptual tool for historians and those interested in macro-history. If we are to take Stearns seriously, periodization as a scholarly tool, and nothing more, is something we should spend some time on when writing macro-histories or global histories. For my own macro-history, a book I’m currently writing, I have found that periodization allows one to organize research, themes, and ideas quite easily. However, as the detractors have pointed out, it is hard to get away from Euro-centric contexts.

I have decided to divide my macro-history according to nine (9) distinct historical periods. These historical periods begin about 13.8 to 13.5 billion years ago, with the Big Bang and the creation of the universe. This first period is, by far, the longest of the historical periods, ranging from 13.8/13.5 billion years ago to 10,000 BCE. The advent of agriculture serves as the second period of human (global) history, which (roughly) starts about 10,000 BCE. The third period of human history is that of early human civilizations, ranging from 3,500 to 600 BCE. The classical civilizations follow this third era for the fourth period of my scheme, which takes place between (roughly) 600 BCE and 600 CE. The post-classical period, following the so-called classical civilizations, lasts between 600 and 1450 CE. The early modern period, by far the shortest at this point, takes place between 1450 and 1750 CE. The so-called long nineteenth-century, 1750 to 1914 CE, is probably the most controversial, given that it encompasses about sixty-four years beyond the nineteenth-century’s supposed scope. The modern period, something that exists between 1914 and 1970, appears to be the shortest historical period in my scheme. (Aside: In my own macro-history, I have focused on calling this section of my book the Wings of Change, something eerily reminiscent of a speech given by a prime minister of Great Britain in the 1950s.) The final period in my scheme happens to be the era of globalization, c. 1970 CE to the present, which is part conjecture and part history.

Periodization’s Not So Bad.

Although the book is far from completion, I have found that periodization has helped me organize the content in a coherent manner. Moreover, it has helped me grapple with the large swaths of history that exist when it comes to a global historical narrative. As a reader, I find that periodization allows me to conceptualize historical trends, much like I would assume historians conceptualize the histories of their specialties. Nevertheless, we should be wary of cookie-cutter periodization schemes, as they can create a Euro-centric bias within a global history or even a sense that certain unconnected events are indeed connected.


[1]: Stearns, Peter N. “Periodization in World History: Challenges and Opportunities.” In 21st-Century Narratives of World History, pp. 83–109. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, 2017.

[2]: Brown, Elizabeth A.R. “The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe.” The American Historical Review (1974): 1063–1088.

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G. Michael Rapp

Published 5 months ago


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