FRANCESCO PAOLO CIOFFO
King’s College, London (KCL) has been a key participant in British colonial history. To catch glimpses of this past is to give a look at the area surrounding the Strand Campus. The High Commissions of India and Australia, for example, are located in front of the main building, while the Maughan Library, once known as ‘the strong-box of the Empire’, or, to put it more bluntly, the Public Record Office, also echoes this connection with the empire. We should not forget that King’s College is home to the Rhodes Professorship in Imperial History, one of the most important international chairs of its kind.
As far as the latter is concerned, the Rhodes Trust has been financing the course in Imperial History since 1918. Richard Drayton currently holds the Rhodes Professorship in Imperial History. He was appointed to the Imperial and Commonwealth History chair in 2009. In the same year, he reorganised the course and renamed it ‘MA in World History and Cultures’. The students are stimulated to corroborate the course with meaningful modules offered by other KCL departments or by other institution from the University of London, such as Royal Holloway, UCL and Queen Mary.
The MA in World History is one of the first of its kind in the UK and since 2009 has grown considerably. Other institutions in and outside London have also launched their own transnational courses. From LSE and Birkbeck to Oxford and Cambridge, many have joined a competitive market for one of the rising academic trends.
The Master programme is structured around a core methods and a core transnational history modules, four optional modules and a final dissertation of 15.000 words. Academics stimulates students to be aware of the different perspectives and angles from which history can be written, while showing the limits of previous western-centred approaches that privilege political history (the only ‘serious’ history). Authors like Christopher Bayly, Sven Beckert and Erik van der Vleuten are discussed in seminars to introduce the students to a different form of historical analysis. The positioning of national histories within the broader global perspective and the critique of national narratives are surely influencing the new generation of historians. But students are also encouraged to track commodity chains, social groups previously silenced due to gender, class or race, and also to focus on those historical actors that were moving across borders. The study of Transnational History, in KCL as elsewhere, has been also influenced by the increasing level of interconnectedness within the academic world. In fact, now it seems easier for students and academics to convene and communicate with each other through the internet and relatively cheaper transportations.
Last year, students from London and Berlin worked together on this interconnectedness to establish new platforms where young researchers could discuss and develop their projects. The World History conference organised in London last May and the Global History conferences organised in Berlin in the last two years, have accordingly tried to put students in contact to exchange researches and, most of all, perspectives on the different ways in which the transnational method can be applied. Perhaps the most interesting outcome of these conferences was to point out that the approach to the World and the Global is also shaped by whether you have studied in the UK, in Germany or in China.
The shift from Imperial History to World History in the context of KCL raises the question of whether the change in the name of the course did, or did not, entail a consequent change in the programme’s inner structures. The reason why the MA is named after World History acquires significance, if we take into account a trend in the Western academia that originated in the 1990s.The transnational turn formed World History, itself a subject with a long tradition, into a wider bracket around the historical roots of our modern globalised world. From this perspective, World History in KCL might have little in common with the World History courses developed in the US by McNeil and Stavrianos. Yet, it shares with Global and Transnational History programmes an interest in the modern connected period, which, following Wallerstein, originated from the imperial world system sustained, amongst others, by the British Empire. The background of Empire Studies allows KCL to be able to offer a solid starting point to its students who find themselves in one of the greatest research-hubs in the world: London. However, students should also be warned that the use of ‘modern empires’ as the main analytical framework might, in the long run, result in viewing empires as ‘closed’ transnational units. In other words, we must refrain from repeating the same mistake, writ large, that previous scholar applied to national historiographies.
In order to further ‘open’ the category of empire to transnational approaches, we might follow the advice of the old World Historians and simply expand the academic curriculum. Although this is by no means the panacea, it can lead to positive results. Among many, the possibility for the student to take notice of the co-dependency entrenched in the imperial world system and understand different narratives. A look at the list of modules offered by the MA in World History, though, shows a relatively limited diversity. The majority of the modules offered still echoes the previous MA in Imperial and Commonwealth history. It is possible to find incredibly interesting modules on the British and the French empires, the USA, Australia and India. Yet, as this makes up the bulk of the curriculum, alas, a certain degree of eurocentrism still persists in the module list. The other modules on Iran, China, Latin America, are still, at least for now, in the minority. But, the gap is being progressively filled with the inclusion of other geographical areas.
The criticism of the MA at KCL and the criticism of World/Global History as a subject cannot be separated. The blurred boundaries of a research field that uses terms like Global, World, Transnational, Connected and International history as if they were synonyms, echoes a moment of uncertainty. Transnational History, in both KCL and the wider academic world, seems in need of the crystallisation of a few main shared practices that still respect the specificities of different sites of production of knowledge. Simply being more field-inclusive can expand the list of modules offered in universities like KCL, but it will not alone clear the confusion in the seminar rooms. Students in World/Global History courses can hardly say with conviction if what they write is actually transnational, and what that entails. Actually, World History was originally constructed not only as a subject analysing many civilisations, but, most importantly, as an historical field encompassing a very wide time span. Today Transnational History , and consequently World History, has instead limited itself to the modern world and to put Globalisation as the central teleological element. While there surely were practical reasons for the development of the transnational approach upon these lines, we cannot but notice the contradictions that may arise when students read ‘global histories’ limited within the era of the apogee of the West.
Francesco Paolo Cioffo studied History as BA at Royal Holloway, University of London. Now in King’s College, London attending the MA in World History and Cultures. He is currently researching Indian anti-colonial activists in Japan between 1915 and the end of 1920s. In particular looking at the interaction between these groups and the ideals of Asianism.