Globalisation presents formidable challenges for history, a discipline which is congenitally nationalist. The academic study of the past emerged during the 19th century in tandem with the rise of European nationalisms, and remains coloured by its origins. This sinister twinship wasn't acknowledged, however, until in recent decades historians began to confront their subject's provenance and the ways in which this early nationalist imprint had distorted its agenda and approaches. In reaction, some historians have displayed a willingness to transcend the limits of national history and to engage with the study of a variety of non-national entities such as border zones and marchlands, the multinational territorial acquisitions of great dynasties and the shared littoral worlds created by seas and oceans. Nevertheless, the primary focus of inquiry remains nation-states - not only their politics, but the societies, economies and ideas which sustain them. Conventional historical training provides inoculation against parochialism, but of a chronological rather than geographical sort: steeled against the temptations of teleology or hindsight, historians aspire to avoid the parochialism of the present by studying the past on its own terms. Otherwise, the bulk of the profession, oriented largely towards the West - Europe and North America - is only slightly less parochial than the society from which it is recruited.
LRB 2 September 2004 | PDF Download