[This is the third in a series of reviews of world history texts by Northeastern University graduate students.]
Mark H. Kishlansky, et al, SOCIETIES AND CULTURES IN WORLD HISTORY, 2 vols. (New York: Harper Collins, 1995)
--reviewed by Matthew T. Roberts, Northeastern University
Instructors of World History considering material for their courses would benefit from SOCIETIES AND CULTURES IN WORLD HISTORY. The two-volume text boasts state-of-the-art illustrations, from intricately detailed maps to attention-grabbing shading. In contrast to other uninteresting texts, SOCIETIES AND CULTURES IN WORLD HISTORY presents information in a structured and easy-to-read way. However, those looking to break away from a Western conceptualization of World History will not find it in this text.
Two predominant threads weave through the narrative: a Western perspective in analyzing World events, and the conceptualization of World history in terms of civilizations. Further, the authors do not develop an interpretation of what we could call civilizations outside the Western experience; consequently, they lose track of key elements making up the broader scope of the discipline of history. All in all, this text serves well in analyzing Western civilization, but instructors might take heed of its limitations in World History. That limitation aside, the text presents materials in a fashion the promises to hold students' attention.
Each chapter begins with a shaded narrative section. The initial section in Chapter 1 directs the reader by establishing the tone of the chapter and a framing concept: the idea of civilization guides and frames the data. The authors differentiate what is and is not a civilization, using a Western prism and categorizing data into pre- and post-civilization periods. "Traditional civilizations appeared around the world at roughly the same time, ca. 3500 B.C.E. ... but under different circumstances and in forms so varied that scholars attempting to apply models of civilization based on European experience have been hardpressed to recognize some of these early civilizations" (p. 2). This method works dichotomously. The concept of civilization alienates certain perspectives since some societies do not fit into the lens nor the frame. On the other hand, the concept channels the student through the material.
Similarly, the concept of civilization limits the coverage of areas. In a parochial way the concept clouds the diversities that characterize World History. The authors do not treat the variety of areas equitably. For example, in Volume 1 they treat Africa twice, the first time as a pre-civilization contributing to some sort of diffusion. In a sweeping section covering Africa from the beginning to 700 CE, the authors generalize: "In sub-Saharan Africa people shifted gradually from their earlier hunting and gathering existence to systematic stock breeding, fishing and hunting" (p. 4). The accuracy of this statement is not as important as the generalization of a culture. Secondly, the authors treat Africa in context with Byzantium and Islam: "Africa was in contact with the Mediterranean and Indian worlds through commercial ties . . ."(p. 211). Africa's importance is based on its ties with other regions, rather than as an independent culture within the world spectrum. In Volume 2 the authors reduce Africa to its relation with European conquest. On Benin City in 1897, the authors note that "by now the colonial takeover is in its last stages"(p. 559). They thus reduce Africa to a submissive tendency. It is obvious to most historians that Africa has many other merits, especially in a global setting. To the untrained student of history, however, taking a world history course as a core requirement, Africa has no other merits than as an effect in the Western World scheme.
Aside from the parochialism of the analysis, all is not lost The text does seek to live up to the second part of its title, on culture Three sections expand the notion of gender in society. These sections, entitled =D2Gender and Culture,=D3 appear at the end of certain chapters. Ironically, the areas where coverage is sparse are exactly where these appear. For example, one appears in the section on India and another for Asia. I am not quite sure of their logistical placement, other than to rely on gender to fill out the picture. The contents act more as filler than to develop discourse. In this regard, the text fails in the attempt to fulfill the cultural implications of its title.
The climax of the text as a testament in World History is in the illustrations. In all, dozens of maps along with some very appropriate illustrations support and corroborate the narrative. The idea that a picture supplements and reinforces the text works well here. The maps are intricately drawn and strategically placed to give the student a substantive look at the geography of world history. Similarly, the timeless pieces of art and ancient sculpture give some necessary horizontal movement as alternative documents. The result is a wellsupported visual impact.
The authors present numerous excerpts from primary sources. Most of the supporting documents are straightforward: many of them are letters or literary excerpts. The authors position the documents to strengthen their analysis. While this contributes to the coherence of the text, it limits the student=D5s opportunity to analyze primary sources independently.
As for cohesion, SOCIETIES AND CULTURES IN WORLD HISTORY delivers a cogent analysis supported by primary sources and dynamic illustrations. However, the authors might have altered to title to reflect more of their argument. Civilization is indeed a viable concept when framing world history. To use Western civilization as a base, however, and to weave out from it into different cultures and societies, presents problems. Most of these arise when Western culture is the center and therefore drowning out other areas. To be sure, cultures other than Western represent a diversity that a Western perspective, frankly, is not adequate to analyze. This is my strongest criticism of this text as World Historical testament. Since the set is primarily used in undergraduate settings, the implication for students is a one-sided view. In sum, SOCIETIES AND CULTURES IN WORLD HISTORY has some very redeeming qualities of presentation and conceptual arguments. But these arguments have limitations, especially considering the environment in which they are used.
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