Stepping Through History: A Timeline of My Work

My current academic focus is on analyzing the processes of human social change—the continuities and recurring challenges in the social order from the creation of language through present day. I examine these processes through many lenses, including the study of language, community, group behavior, social institutions, and biology.

I arrived here after six decades, during which my work has evolved significantly. The timeline below showcases this evolution, highlighting the main topics of my previous work and explaining how these topics fit together within the study of world history.

  • Beginning in 1963, my graduate studies in African history focused on the centrality of Africa and Africans in world affairs. Although my research has evolved significantly since this time, I continue to study this topic today.
  • From 1965 to 1985, my research centered on the economic and social history of modern Africa, showing how African growth and decline depended on both African and global influences.
  • In the 1980s, I closely examined African population and slavery. My research under a Guggenheim Fellowship is demonstrated in two books exploring how the slave trade reduced African population. Also during this period, I completed studies on community in society, culture, and population, including contending perspectives in African art and a book surveying social, cultural, and political history in French-speaking Africa.
  • From 1988 through 2003, I emphasized methods and questions for world history. By 1990, I was expanding my reading from African history to world history, seeking to understand approaches and interpretations at the global level. I formed a World History Center for research and led the opening of a Ph.D. program with degrees in world history at Northeastern University. I focused on migration history as an approach to world history and concluded this period with a methodological book, Navigating World History.
  • By 2000, I made a plan to learn and create a broad statement on world history by the end of my career. I also signed a textbook contract at this time. With this expanded outlook, I taught graduate courses on interdisciplinary methodology from 2002 to 2015. I also took a step toward linking African studies more tightly to world history, focusing on the African Diaspora and releasing a comprehensive book in 2009.
  • Starting in 2006, I took up several research projects at the University of Pittsburgh, focusing on Africa’s large population and how slavery limited it; building global historical datasets; co-editing three collaborative volumes on the world history of science; and continuing to work on my textbook on long-term human history.
  • In 2014 the various threads of my research and thinking combined to send me in a new direction. I broke away from the textbook’s long narrative of world history and turned toward developing a concise theory for world history. This was the beginning of exploring the idea of a human system. Also in 2014, I was elected to the presidency of the American Historical Association; my year as president was 2016.

The work featured on this site reflects my current (yet still evolving) perspective on world history. In particular, I offer expanded content in a few key areas: community-level social institutions, governed by language and group behavior;  interdisciplinary methodology, linking many sorts of new knowledge; and the human system, linking all the networks of human society. I’ve also created a new platform, the blog Contending Voices, which leverages my historical perspective to debate current social priorities.