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UNIT 23: People Shape the World



Scholars have long debated whether individuals — such as Napoleon or Hitler — were driving motors of history, or if in fact they were simply "thrown up" by pre-existing social forces. Some scholars have argued that individuals function only as results of their particular social networks. Others have argued strongly for individuals' abilities to transcend their social networks and to create unprecedented changes.

Social historians, however, have cautioned against seeing the relationship between individuals and social context in such oppositional terms. Instead, they argue that it is important to understand the ways that social structures and human agency are fundamentally interrelated. That is, persons who act as historical agents are themselves educated, indoctrinated, shaped, and informed by the cultures and societies that they are acting to revise or reshape.

This unit explores the ways that individual stories can help historians understand larger patterns and processes in world history. Indeed, just because world history often focuses on the "big picture" does not mean it should ignore the critical roles individuals have played in shaping the past. The twentieth century alone has many examples of individuals whose efforts and actions have effected dramatic structural changes.

Three in particular-Mao Zedong, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo-are good illustrations of the complex interactions between social structures and the agents of cultural reform. All three acted within the traditions of their respective cultures: Mao was the latest in a line of leaders to spring from the Chinese peasantry; Ayatollah Khomeini reinforced the religious orthodoxy threatened by modernizing efforts that had pressed against his society's tolerance for change; Las Madres took action in accordance with their vision of their duties as mothers responsible for protecting and supporting their families.

The successful agency of each grew from deep personal commitments, which arose from their cultural and social milieus. Moreover, their unique stories reflect the larger global processes that interact with individuals to create the common human experience of world history.


Time Period: Twentieth century

The twentieth century was a period of intense modernization, technological innovation, global and regional war, resistance movements, increasing interconnections between peoples, and massive interventions ofpowerful nations into the affairs of the less powerful. The World Wars, the Cold War, decolonization, and globalization affected the lives of billions of people around the world, although in varied ways. Too often, these events are told without reference to the individuals who experienced them-and from the perspectives of those who succeeded or dominated. However, individual efforts, whether they succeeded or not, can inform the world historian about the structures of the past. Indeed, individual lives can be used to reconstruct the meanings and effects of war, colonial domination, and globalization that so characterized the twentieth century.

AP Themes:

  • Examines change and continuity by exploring the ways that individuals helped change their societies, but within the contexts of existing cultural traditions.
  • Explores systems of social and gender structure through a look at individuals like Mao Zedong and Ayatollah Khomeini. These individuals sought to define the ways these structures should be organized in the new societies they envisioned. Withthe case of Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo, the unit examines how traditional gender ideologies can be modified to fit non-traditional needs.
  • Discusses cultural and intellectual developments by focusing on the ways ideologies-such as Islamic fundamentalism and communism-inspired individuals to action.


  • Question 1: Can the actions of individuals shape the course of world history?
  • Question 2: How are the actions of individuals shaped by the historical times in which they live?
  • Question 3: What roles have individuals played in modern revolutions and resistance movements?
  • Question 4: Which has played a greater role in determining the shape of history-ideas or individuals?


How is this topic related to Increasing Integration?

Individuals can use personal charisma or sheer courage to galvanize the support-and win the loyalty-of those around them. Large numbers of people can turn to individuals for leadership, which in turn can be a powerful force for integration.

How is this topic related to Proliferating Difference?

Individuals can also be powerful forces that encourage perceptions of difference among peoples. Sometimes this emphasis is because individuals promote resistance to the established order or to outside cultural influences, and these leaders encourage their followers to see themselves as different from the targets of their resistance.

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