Rethinking Helen Cavanagh’s How Local Is Local History?

Published in Recounting the Past. Normal, IL: Illinois State University, Spring 2001. Pp. 1-8.

In 1976, Helen M. Cavanagh, Distinguished Professor of History at Illinois State University in Normal, published How Local is Local History? “as a reminder of the Historical significance of the Bi-Centennial celebration of the United States…and as a Clarion Call (1) to preserve the American Experience in the Minds and the Hearts of Americans through excellent educational programs and (2) to awaken the citizenry to preserve vital documentary material, [in order to] insure an enriched and amplified history of the United States.”1 Similarly to the United States’ Centennial in 1876, the Bi-Centennial produced numerous works on local history through the efforts of universities, as well as state and local governments across the country, of which Cavanagh’s was one. John Cumming of Central Michigan University wrote of the importance of such documentation: “As a consequence of this notable event, much of the early history of many communities, that would otherwise be lost or forgotten, has been recorded and preserved.”2 Cavanagh emphasized the crucial role local history plays in the development of a thorough and all-inclusive national perspective, that it is indeed defined by the sum of its parts. “As the United States matures as a nation, historians begin to look more carefully at the smallest regions from the inside-out in order to build a more adequate national history.”3

The changing emphases in historiography, however, as well as the drastic transformation of the world’s state and function, has brought on the need to view the study and context of local history with a different set of lenses. The emergence of what could arguably be called a global culture, though not rendering Cavanagh’s ideas invalid, requires that considerations, taken in the study of local history, now be put into a larger frame of reference. Historians must now work beyond the national context, and demonstrate the relationship between locality and the transnational and global framework. This paper will attempt to accomplish the following things: to extract and develop Cavanagh’s ideas of local history as they were used in the context of the national framework, to provide a synopsis of the popular interpretations of globalization, and to rethink Professor Cavanagh’s ideas of local history by placing them in the context of world history in this period of globalization.

To Cavanagh, there was an undeniable relationship between local history and the construction of an adequate national history. For those unfamiliar with historiography’s evolution, this relationship may appear rather obvious or, perhaps, insignificant; thus, certain questions may come to mind. What was wrong with how national history had been written up to that point? What necessitated this emphasis on local history? When writing their own national history, American historians by Cavanagh’s time had been perceived as generally being inadequate for the task.

Conversely they achieve[d] flashes of brilliance and excellence when highly trained scholars, whose education included wide historical scope with considerable depth, directed their efforts toward a better understanding of the necessary perspectives to build an adequate national history by placing emphases on less grandiose patterns.4

Cavanagh attributed the American historians’ inadequacy to the relative youth of the United States, allowing time to study only the highest levels of society and politics, without yet realizing the need to study all of society.5 In New Perspectives on Historical Writing, Peter Burke aptly describes the traditional historians’ bias against endeavors such as the pursuit of local history. He quotes Sir John Seeley of Cambridge who said, “History is past politics: politics is present history.” It was generally understood that politics meant matters of the state at the national and international level; studying history at the local level was considered “peripheral to the interests of ‘real’ historians.”6 It is no surprise, then, local history was once exclusively the field of amateur historians and antiquarians. However, before proceeding further, it may be useful to establish how this essay will deal with the meaning of the term, local history.

“Many ideas can profitably be introduced into the general maze of inadequacy now surrounding the explanation of that indefinite term, Local History,” says Cavanagh.7 She asserts, early on, the futility in attempting to give local history a concrete definition: “the meaning of Local History is largely in the mind of the [labeler] and the beholder.”8 The process of determining local history can be confined within the most restrictive criteria or characterized by the boundless imagination and insight of the historian. In any case, the goal ultimately remains the same: to construct a history of all society, a total history. In this particular work, Cavanagh truly embraced the freedom allowed in defining local history. Her philosophical ideas and historical examples demonstrate an effective synthesis between the traditional and the new approach to history. Clearly, her work occurred during a time of philosophical and methodological transition for the field. By this time, recognition or validation of new histories was only beginning to gain widespread acceptance. Burke suggests these new histories, though not really new at all, generally refer to historiographical developments in the 1970s and 1980s.9 These new histories include previously ignored fields such as social history or women’s history. This essay will only make mention of these fields, for it would be beyond the scope and capability of this essay and author to adequately introduce or discuss their roles in a total history with any specificity or sophistication. A work such as New Perspectives on Historical Writing would be a much better introduction and discussion of these increasingly important and influential fields. It is very likely that current students and practitioners of History will easily understand that local history in this essay, can include any imaginable perspective, whether traditional or not.

On a superficial level, one may find the lack of parameters associated with local history to be quite liberating. In actuality, using local history to tell a national story can often be an overwhelming burden with grave responsibilities. In a way, traditional political history was much easier to conceptualize as it required fewer principal actors (fortunately, the acting pool was reduced by more than half by excluding females), considered fewer levels of socio-economic status or culture, and often relied on fewer kinds of sources; the official sources and points of view usually worked just fine. In their defense, most traditional historians were not pressured by society or their profession to write a total history as it is currently stipulated. The standards, however, have changed, and national or world historians, especially those who build their work with local history, are faced with additional challenges. By acknowledging the inadequacies of traditional history, misrepresentation, or simply a lack of it, becomes less excusable. All the bases must be covered.

Given such considerations, how does the historian present an adequate national history? The procedure can be truly mystifying, and almost always frustrating. Cavanagh says the “unsuspecting searcher after truth” is often in the habit of forming relationships between the particulars and the universals.10 This tendency should seem only natural. After seemingly endless research and reflection, historians must surely wish to present their theories and perspectives with some assertiveness. Cavanagh, however, laments, “With sufficient information historians dare to generalize.”11 Justifying this professional regret, Cavanagh offers historian Carl Becker’s statement “Everyman His Own Historian to the localized environment where he lives.”12 The plausibility of this statement makes it easy to accept. Yet, accepting this idea further complicates the process as records of Everyman may not only confirm, but could also modify or simply contradict, assumed universal qualities that contributed towards wide explanations, such as those of a national consciousness or identity. The state of Everyman’s locality is ambiguous for he may represent numerous identities and interests. Geographic location also adds to the confusion, especially when several have to be taken into consideration. Even if his physical geographical location is constant, “he may simultaneously relate to the farm, the township, the county, the city…then to the state, the nation, the world…and today even to space.” As historians discover, their generalizations prove to be inadequate; notions that were thought to be universal, turn out to not be universal at all.13 Yet, the complexity of the past, and the desire to avoid lengthy and incomprehensible accounts, makes generalizations necessary. Thus, the historian has to make decisions about what to include in the account and to what scale the past will be examined. The historian must also decide which local histories have national significance, and therefore, should be included.14

If local histories are found to be significant to the national framework, is it truly accurate to refer to the history as local? This is precisely what the title of Cavanagh’s work is asking; how local is local history? When discussing Everyman, Cavanagh wonders how local he is or has ever been.15 Whether consciously or unconsciously, humankind’s “many activities lead into many different realms so that their influence, actions, ideas, and contributions cut across state, regional, national, and international boundaries.16 In discussing microhistory, Giovanni Levi illustrates this point quite effectively. He states, “it becomes immediately obvious that even the apparently minutest action of, say, somebody going to buy a loaf of bread, actually encompasses the far wider system of the whole world’s grain markets.”17 When considering this, the impact of local history upon national, or even world, history is more than simply a matter of total representation, but an avenue towards a more complete understanding of the cause-effect relationships that explain how the world functions.

Burke says, “National history, which was dominant in the nineteenth century, now has to compete for attention with world history.”18 Additionally, scholars and non-scholars alike, agree the world is getting smaller; welcome to the era of globalization. Expectedly, approaches to history are not unaffected. Now, historians must conscientiously transcend their national boundaries and study how local history affects the world globally. How will local history impact the history of the world in a global era? Before we probe for an answer, it would be wise to make the important distinction between traditional world history and global history. Bruce Mazlish, in his article, “Comparing global history to world history,” makes the following distinctions:

World comes from the Middle English for “human existence;” its central reference is to the earth, including everyone and everything on it. Worlds can also be imaginary, such as the “next world,”…or they can designate a class of persons – the academic world, for instance,…the New World…a first, second, and a third world…demarcating different levels of development.

[Globe] occupies a different valence, deriving from the Latin, globus, the first definition of which is “something spherical or rounded.” Only secondarily does the dictionary offer the synonym, earth. Global thus points in the direction of space; its sense permits the notion of standing outside our planet and seeing “Spaceship Earth.” 19

Whereas traditional world history focused on civilizations, global history recognizes nation-states and “examines the processes that transcend the nation-state framework.”20 To better understand these processes, we must next examine the conditions that led this current state of globalization.

Although historians debate the definition and origins of globalization, it has become quite clear that many previous and current approaches to history (such as world history, as stipulated by Michael Geyer and Charles Bright) are on their way to becoming outdated, if not already, and that historical study must now be conducted with global considerations and implications.21 As globalization is a relatively new phenomenon, its periodization is tenuous. Depending on the point of view, globalization began in the 1970s with the emergence of revolutionary technology that has become commonplace today; or the 1950s during the aftermath of World War II and the transition into the Cold War; perhaps 1917, kicking off “a very short century of permanent crises and contestation over world leadership;” or even as early as the time of Christopher Columbus which saw the development of Trans-Atlantic trade and foreign colonization by Western Europe.22 Regardless of the point of departure, there is little doubt the state of the world is in a global era.

Evidence of globalization is so pervasive, it is practically overwhelming. The problems and hindrances of spatial distance have been eliminated by the Internet, international capital markets, supersonic travel, cable television, satellite communication, as well as speedier and more cost-effective transportation of goods. The threat of nuclear war, the consequences of worldwide environmental and ecological abuse, and the economic totalitarianism impressed upon the world by multinational corporations fosters a sense of global unity by suggesting a common cause or the sharing of common problems in global proportions.23 All at once the world is connected and functioning “with new capabilities, to synchronize global time and coordinate actions within the world.”24 In 1774, German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder commented on the state of the world during a time of expanded European control and commerce:

All nations and all continents are under our shadow, and when a storm shakes two twigs in Europe, how the entire world trembles and bleeds. When has the entire earth ever been so closely joined together, by so few threads? Who has ever had more power and more machines, such that with a single impulse, with a single movement of a finger, entire nations are shaken?25

Reflecting on his own times, the prophetic value of Herder’s observation is uncanny when placed in the context of the modern global era. Not only does he vividly describe the interconnectedness of the world, he also places the traditional West (Western Europe and, now, the United States) in the center of the action.

For the world historian, the problems presented by Cavanagh become greatly magnified. Just as Cavanagh’s national historian has poorly written our national history, the world historian has poorly written the history of the world. In their article, “World history in a global era,” Geyer and Bright outline this inadequacy very clearly. The Eurocentrism of traditional world history has been obviously apparent for some time and widely criticized, especially in the face of the emerging global culture. The reconciliation of this problem is difficult to achieve, however, as historians have little beyond the European frame of reference from which to narrate the world’s history. They cannot help but to draw from the previous and often inapplicable paradigms that place the west in the center of the action as the “single cause or prime mover at work” from a metaphorical control booth. “This is [, however,] a crisis…of Western imaginings, but it poses profound challenges for any historian: the world we live in has come into its own as an integrated globe, yet it lacks narration and has no history.”26

It is difficult for global history to escape from the Western frame of reference. Globalization, itself, is a development spearheaded by Western powers. The Westernization of the world is certainly a phenomenon in transit, a “[new] European imperialism” designed to exploit and extract from other regions struggling to gain their own footing in the global setting. Global homogenization is the ultimate goal in this scenario with the use of technology and manipulation of regional infrastructures to facilitate a practically instantaneous transmission of Western culture. Countries and localities, in a stage of self-improvement and self-mobilization find themselves sought out by the revamped imperialist powers for sources of labor, capital, and consumer markets.27 To be included in the developing global framework, non-Western states are forced to adopt Western standards through the toppling of authoritarian governments and the improvement of weak human rights records.28 Due to this development, the pursuit of local history gained importance and significance “as a site of contention, developing a veritable romance of the locality, politically charged as identity Politics. It ends with people asserting difference and rejecting sameness around the world in a remarkable synchronicity that suggests…the high degree of global integration that has been achieved.”29 This interaction has not simply been another example of Old World on New World domination and victimization; this global conquest has not had the expected results. Many of these “victims of Western expansion” have entered into these new relationships with agendas of their own. Geyer and Bright explain:

Running at full tilt themselves, they engaged Western power in complex patterns of collaboration and resistance, accommodation and cooptation to reproduce and renew local worlds, using imperialists to shore up to or to create positions of power, using sites of indigenous power to make deals, using the European and American positions as interlopers in order to selectively appropriate the ways of the conquerors to local ends.30

Unable to achieve this goal to their ends and “never impart[ing] a sure capacity to shape and mold the world into a homogenous global civilization,” European expansionists received a reality check in the form of local forces and identities asserting themselves into the global structure.31 According to Levi, practitioners of microhistory present history in a similar fashion. Demonstrating their Marxist roots, historians who align themselves with microhistory seek “realistic description[s] of human behavior.”

[They employ] “an action and conflict model of man’s behavior…which recognizes his…freedom beyond…the constraints of prescriptive and oppressive normative systems. Thus all social action is seen to be the result of an individual’s constant negotiation, manipulation, choices and decisions . . . which . . . offers many possibilities for personal interpretations and freedoms.32

It has become less satisfying and less acceptable to present these “victims” as acquiescent primitives, mystified by the West’s superior knowledge and technology, dazzled by the prospect of trading their abundant resources for shiny trinkets. Whether to the benefit or the detriment of these various groups, things happened because they let it happen. Once again, Everyman appears to complicate the historical account. To further develop Everyman and Everywoman’s roles as they confront the global era, however, it may be worthwhile to ask whether the relationship between locality and globality is essentially the same as Cavanagh’s local/national dynamic, simply magnified, or if it is a unique phenomenon of its own. Geyer and Bright, rather esoterically, suggest the following:

We would rather see these tensions as arising out of worldwide processes of unsettlement (the mobilization of peoples, things, ideas, and images and their diffusion in space and time) and out of the often desperate efforts locally and globally to bring them under control or, as it were, to settle them. The outcome of these processes is a radically unequal but also radically de-centered world.33

One cannot simply say that ‘this is going on locally’ while ‘that is going on globally’ as if they were mutually exclusive ideas. Additionally, it becomes increasingly difficult to make global generalizations when confronted with the recognition of individually different, yet collectively integrated, localities. Like a sage, Cavanagh reminds us, “history . . . is involved with the particulars and universals of organizational activity ranging from the smallest to the largest units of human participation which can never be studied wholly in a vacuum.”34

Although the above has discussed several challenges facing historiography in the fields of local, national, and global history, suggestions to resolve these them are conspicuously absent. Additionally, only a few fundamental challenges and obstacles have been addressed; it is personally mind-boggling realizing how much more could be discussed within this topic. So what conclusions can be drawn? There are no universals; there is no single underlying theme or generality representative of a global consciousness. One would be hard pressed to successfully pinpoint a local consciousness or identity, whatever that means. Whereas past historiography would have created limited and unfounded universals with confidence, no such attempts can be made today with satisfaction. A world that is recognizing and integrating a multiplicity of viewpoints requires “particularization to the local and human scale,” as Levi describes.35 Even then, as people change, so will the standards. Jacques Revel’s definition of microhistory as “the attempt to study the social not as an object invested with inherent properties, but as a set of shifting interrelationships existing between constantly adapting configurations,” assumes this perpetual volatility.36 How can the human experience be defined in a global era by reducing the scale of examination down to the person? It is a goal as elusive as objectivity. Perhaps the human experience cannot be comprehensively formulated into some pleasantly digestible theory of universality. If it could, human life would then have become so stagnant as to render it pointless, while surely reducing the number of available positions for historians and other social scientists. Levi says, “the true problem for historians is to succeed in expressing the complexity of reality, even if this involves using descriptive techniques and forms of reasoning which are more intrinsically self-questioning and less assertive than any used before.”37 Historians must consider history at the micro-level, yet transcend the boundaries of locality and nationality, in order to narrate the story of Spaceship Earth. Rethinking Cavanagh’s ideas of local history brings us to this point. Instead of asking, “how local is local history,” it may now be more appropriate to ask, “How global is local history?”


1. Helen Cavanagh, How Local is Local History? (Normal: Illinois State University, 1976), p. iii.

2. John Cumming, A Guide for the Writing of Local History (Lansing: Michigan American Revolution Bi-Centennial Commission, 1976), p. 1.

3. Cavanagh, How Local is Local History?, p. 14.

4. Ibid., p. 2.

5. Ibid., p. 6.

6. Peter Burke, New Perspectives on Historical Writing (University Park, The Pennsylvania State University Press: 1991), p. 3.

7. Cavanagh, How Local is Local History?, p. 1.

8. Ibid., p. 2.

9. Burke, New Perspectives, p. 7.

10. Cavanagh, How Local is Local History?, p. 3.

11. Ibid., p. 13.

12. Ibid., p. 3.

13. Ibid., p. 14.

14. Ibid., p. 6.

15. Ibid., p. 5.

16. Ibid., p. 11.

17. Giovanni Levi, “On Microhistory,” in Peter Burke, ed. New Perspectives on Historical Writing (University Park, The Pennsylvania State University Press: 1991), p. 96.

18. Burke, New Perspectives, p. 1.

19. Bruce Mazlish, “Comparing global history to world history,” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 28 (winter 1998): 389.

20. Mazlish, “Comparing global history,” p. 392.

21. Michael Geyer and Charles Bright, “World history in a global age,” American Historical Review 100 (October 1995): p. 1034. Although the instruction of world history survives in academic institutions, Geyer and Bright argue that it is a “foolish enterprise.” An explanation of this idea is included below.

22. Geyer and Bright, “World history,” p. 1039. Mazlish, “Comparing global history,” p. 390. Kevin A. Yelvington, “Caribbean Crucible: History, Culture, and globalization,” Social Education 64 (March 2000): p. 70.

23. Emma Rothschild, “Globalization and the Return of History,” Foreign Policy Issue 115 (summer 1999): p. 107. Mazlish, “Comparing global history,” p. 389.

24. Geyer and Bright, “World history,” p. 1041.

25. Rothschild, “Globalization,” p. 110.

26. Geyer and Bright, “World history,” pp. 1035, 1040.

27. Ibid., p. 1041.

28. Ziya Onis, “Neoliberal Globalization and the Democracy Paradox,” Journal of International Affairs 54 (Fall 2000): p. 284.

29. Geyer and Bright, “World history,” p. 1035.

30. Ibid., pp. 1041-1042.

31. Ibid., p. 1043.

32. Levi, “On Microhistory,” p. 94.

33. Geyer and Bright, “World history,” pp. 1043-1044.

34. Cavanagh, How Local is Local History?, p. 13.

35. Geyer and Bright, “World history,” p. 1046. Levi, “On Microhistory,” p. 95.

36. Levi, “On Microhistory,” p. 110.

37. Ibid., p. 110.