UNIT CONTENT OVERVIEW
Between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, there was a decided shift in the global balance of power. Historians agree that Europeans burst onto the world scene at this time, yet these scholars are widely divided in their views about the reasons why Europeans became such a powerful global force.
For many years, historians believed that the rise of the West was a natural, inevitable, and largely positive development that resulted from the diffusion of superior European technologies, ideologies, and institutions to the rest of the world. Now, however, scholars increasingly frame the story of the rise of the West in a non-Eurocentric world historical context.
This unit traces the changes in the ways historians view the rise of the West, as well as the significance of those changes. In the past, historians have explained Europe's rise-as expressed in European global dominance in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries-by focusing on maritime achievements in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, industrialization in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and imperialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This interpretation has also generally viewed Europe's rise as a result of unique European cultural factors.
More recent interpretations, however, have been critical of Western dominance and have attempted to place that dominance in a global historical context. In the 1970s, for example, world systems theory sought to view European dominance as a product of the expansionary nature of capitalism. In the last decade, scholars with opposing views about when, how, and why the West rose have hotly debated new interpretations. Even more recently, new comparative scholarship has sought to locate Europe's rise within a global trade network long dominated by China. Taken as a whole, this recent work within the field of world history has revised the interpretation and meaning of the rise of the West.
GLOBAL HISTORICAL CONTEXT
Time Period: 1450-1914
At the beginning of this period, powerful societies existed around the world in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas. People had established elaborate trading networks over both land and sea, connecting distant societies through commercial, biological, and cultural exchanges. One of the hallmarks of this period was the establishment of connections between Afro-Eurasia and the Americas via European voyages of discovery. These new links allowed the transfer of diseases, plants, animals, and humans across the seas, with devastating demographic consequences for the peoples of the Americas. In Europe, this was the period of the Scientific Revolution (sixteenth and seventeenth centuries), the Enlightenment (eighteenth century), and the Industrial Revolution (late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries). Although historians once argued that these technological and philosophical developments-in conjunction with the voyages of discovery-allowed Europeans to become dominant in the world, recent historiography (historians' interpretations of past historical writing) has challenged that view. Instead, current historians juxtapose the European perspective with other contemporary world economies. They point to China's vibrant economy-especially after the Manchu conquest in 1644- and China's critical role in trade in the Indian Ocean as a silver importer. Islamic empires (Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal) were also strong and powerful until the eighteenth century, and sub-Saharan states were expanding. In Japan, the Tokugawa Shogunate unified Japan in the early seventeenth century, which resulted in the creation of an increasingly commercial society. European dominance of the world economy, it seems, did not exist until about 1800, when it arose as a result of industrialization.
- Examines interactions in economics and politics by focusing on systems of trade and international exchange as factors in the rise of the West.
- Explores change and continuity by noting the ways historians' interpretations have changed over time and in response to new evidence in the field of world history.
- Discusses technology, demography, and the environment by considering the ways that technological changes-from sea voyages to the Industrial Revolution-allowed for the eventual rise of the West.
- Pays attention to cultural and intellectual developments: Changing historical opinions about the story of the rise of the West has led to a major intellectual reexamination about Western dominance in the past.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER
- Question 1: Historians believe that the world was transformed into a global system dominated by Europe between 1500 and 1900. What are some of the different ways historians have tried to explain this "rise of the West"?
- Question 2: What is meant by the term "world systems theory," and how do world systems operate?
- Question 3: What are the basic issues in the debate between scholars David Landes and Andre Gunder Frank, and what kinds of evidence and arguments do both sides use?
- Question 4: In the last twenty-five years, how have historians' changing views of the "rise of the West" illustrated the dynamic nature of the discipline of history?
THE BIG PICTURE
How is this topic related to Increasing Integration?
While historians may argue about when the West became dominant in world history, they agree that its eventual rise led to increasing global integration.
How is this topic related to Proliferating Difference?
Circa 1800, Europe's increasing domination of the world led Europeans to think of themselves as different from non-Europeans. This perception, in turn, encouraged twentieth-century historians to interpret the rise of the West in terms of Europe's differences from the rest of the world.
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