Attention to questions of space and geography are integral to the discipline of history, which is fundamentally concerned with the contexts of human lived experience. Over the course of the twentieth century, the most common approach to contextualizing the spaces and areas of the past has involved designating and mobilizing teaching and research around particular fixed and clearly delineated areas, specifically those of nation-states, western vs. nonwestern civilizations, and cold war regions (Africa, MENA, Central Asia, South Asia, Latin America, East Asia, Southeast Asia, Central and Eastern Europe).
From inside the borders of these national, civilizational, and cold war regional areas, historians have explored a range of political, economic, social, and cultural questions and produced richly contextualized works that have greatly enhanced our understanding of the past.
In recent decades, it has become increasingly apparent that this approach to space, and with it all three kinds of areas, had certain limitations. Despite different challenges inherent in these new concepts, historians have nonetheless begun to work very productively with the notions of the global and the transnational. They have done so not to suggest an all-encompassing spatial unit of analysis or a homogenous scale of historical processes and human experience, but rather to re-focus and re-frame historical studies and courses on understanding connections among and comparisons between different places over time.
Importantly, this global approach has opened up some exciting possibilities for thinking about and through space in much more fluid, complicated, and contingent ways. Previously invisible (or at least ignored) dense patterns of interconnection have been studied, illuminating new historically-significant spatial formations and areas of historical activity. In the process, global historians have also highlighted the significance of scale and the need for thinking with and moving among multiple scales in the process of investigating historical questions; the value of inter-disciplinarity and methodological breadth; and the necessity of developing genuinely collaborative models of teaching and research.
This conference will take stock of current efforts to redesign history’s spatial framing and to explore new ways to think about “areas” of history.