The Possibilities and Pitfalls of Big History

I would welcome comments on this proposed roundtable session that we are undertaking for the American Historical Association annual meeting in Washington, D.C., in January 2018.

“The Possibilities and Pitfalls of Big History”

Abstract: “Big History” has emerged in the last two decades as an academic discipline focusing historical attention on the very long time of the Big Bang to the present, rather than an approach that emphasizes history since the arrival of Homo sapien on Earth less than 200,000 years ago. Using a multidisciplinary approach, practitioners incorporate insights from geological epochs, from the Archean to the Holocene, that long predated the recent history of humans.

To be successful in this approach requires the convergence of both the science and the humanities, with practitioners seeking to place humans in the context of this much larger history. Cosmology, astronomy, Earth science, geology, biology, and many other sciences as well as archaeology and anthropology are critical to the success of this approach to history.

The session will examine the role of science in big history, treating it not as a static or monolithic entity, but as a contingent and changing set of principles and precepts. The current (21st century) incarnation of big history is not the only one possible. What would big history look like if written in earlier eras, for example, in 1894, 1858, or even 1542? How well will the current version of big history stand the test of time?

As a teaching approach, historians have employed “Big History” successfully as a means of expanding the role of history on the campus. At its best, the approach offers a place for history in the larger base of knowledge available to students. There have been a few textbooks written that serve as exemplars of the “Big History” approach. These include a classic by historians David Christian and William H. McNeill, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (University of California Press, 2011 2nd ed.), as well as others such as Cynthia Stokes Brown, Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present (The New Press, 2012, 2nd ed.). As an approach informing research there is much less to show.

This roundtable will bring together scholars of all backgrounds and perspectives to reflect on the place of “Big History” both as a teaching approach and as a research agenda. Each participant will reflect on these three questions:

• What role does (or might) “Big History” play in the curriculum of colleges and universities?

• How might historians best further scholarship relating to “Big History?”

• What are the specific research, analysis, and presentation tools that need to be developed among historians to advance (or critique) the cause of “Big History?”

Each participant will address these questions from their individual perspectives.


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2 Responses to The Possibilities and Pitfalls of Big History

  1. Dan Adamo says:

    Why has “Big History” apparently supplanted “natural history” in our lexicon? Are there distinctions between the two terms I fail to discern?


  2. I can see “Big History” as an outgrowth of environmental history (which would make sense if McNeill is involved). Space history, though not frequently regarded as a legitimate field of study (much as environmental history was not when I was an undergrad), is automatically “Big History” because of the large space science component it involves, and space science necessarily takes in many different specialized disciplines and time-scales measured in eons. Space history in which it is clear that the author has a minimal space science background is thin gruel.

    “Big History” might easily be called “interdisciplinary history,” hence I wonder whether the term has value (except, of course, as a way of making interdisciplinary history seem more novel and exciting). If, however, it can help to legitimize space history (that is, to free it from the chains of space nostalgia), then I’m all for the practice and the label.



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