Global History as Polycentric History
The article identifies an imbalance in the attention given to global history’s two fundamental objectives, the focus hitherto having fallen more on the study of cross-border connections than on the vaunted decentring of historiographical perspective. The example of the modern history of the prison serves to illustrate some basic problems faced by efforts to identify cross-border transfers and assess their historical significance for local, national or regional developments. The need for a decentring of historiographical perspectives is illustrated firstly by reference to the fact that, contrary to the established narrative, the globalization of the prison was a process characterized by a multiplicity of shifting centres. To help grasp such global processes it proposes the concept of a multiple “frame of references”. Secondly, the article emphasizes the importance to global historical research, alongside attention to transfers, of the comparative approach. Deploying the distinction between “hard” and “soft” versions of global history, it finally distinguishes between polycentric global history and global history still written from the standpoint of area history, only the former properly engaging with the globality of historical phenomena.