Jerry H. Bentley
“Global modernity” is an interesting term. What might it mean? For that matter, what does “modernity” mean? And what does modernity pertain to – a nation, a cultural region, the entire world?
Many historians have spoken of modernity as though it refers to a historical destination – a state of affairs characterized by certain traits, such as science, industry, urbanization, and the nation-state form of political organization. By this standard, the label modernity is only applicable to those lands that acquire the traits associated with modernity.
In recent decades, others have spoken of “alternative modernities” or “multiple modernities.” Their guiding thought is that modernity might have one form in Europe or North America but quite different forms in other societies. Social, economic, and political organization might take different forms in China or India than in Great Britain or the USA and yet still be modern.
While recognizing the appeal of both these approaches – modernity as historical destination and the notion that alternative modernities are conceivable – I personally find it useful to think of modernity as a historical process. In a world of states and societies constantly engaged in cross-cultural interaction and exchange, large-scale historical developments will almost certainly play out differently in different parts of the world.
If there is industrial development in one region, for example, there will likely be repercussions and very different economic developments in other regions. The earliest European industrialists had no domestic source of cotton fiber or natural rubber, both of which were essential elements of the early industrial order. So they had to obtain cotton from India, Egypt, and the American South, while they turned to the Amazon River basin, central Africa, and Malaya for rubber. India, Egypt, the American South, the Amazon River basin, central Africa, and Malaya did not industrialize their economies, at least not for a century or more, but all were essential regions for the development of industrial modernity. They participated just as much as Europe in the development of industrial modernity, but their experiences in doing so were radically different from European experiences.
There are very good reasons to focus historical analysis on developments internal to any given society. At the same time, it is essential to focus historical analysis on relations between different societies in order to understand how large-scale historical processes work their effects differentially in different lands. Personally, I would say that “global modernity” is a useful term and that it draws attention to networks of cross-cultural interaction, influence, and exchange that work their effects in very different ways from one land to another.