Postmodernism Research Paper

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Postmodernism can be more easily described by concepts it resists or denies—universal truths, ideas, activities, narratives, and definitions, as well as notions of rationality, authority, progress, clarity, and objectivity—than by a theory its proponents hold in common. The most radical postmodernists see world histories as being no more than rhetorical constructions fashioned from Western concepts of space and time.

In The Postmodern Condition (1984), the philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard (1924–1998) described postmodernism as “incredulity towards metanarratives” (Lyotard 1984, xxiv). While not aimed specifically at world historians, this observation—like many others by postmodern thinkers—has serious implications for the field of world history.

Origins and the Problem of Definition

Trying to define postmodernism is rather like trying to get a uniform and cohesive set of demands from globalization protestors. The adjective postmodern is applied to a varied assortment of nineteenth- and twentieth-century thinkers, including Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), Martin Heidegger (1889–1976), Theodor Adorno (1903–1969), Walter Benjamin (1892–1940), Max Horkheimer (1895–1973), Jacques Lacan (1901–1981), Roland Barthes (1915–1980), Gilles Deleuze (1925–1995), Michel Foucault (1926– 1984), Hayden White (b. 1928), Jean Baudrillard (1929–2007), Jacques Derrida (1930–2004), Felix Guattari (1930–1992), Luce Irigaray (b. c.1932), Frederic Jameson (b. 1934), and Julia Kristeva (b. 1941). It is difficult to identify overlaps in these thinkers’ ideas, let alone any clear program or agenda. This is because they are resistant to, and incredulous of, universal truths, ideas, activities, narratives, and definitions as well as notions of rationality, authority, progress, clarity, and objectivity. Postmodernism thus entails a questioning of the grounds and forms of knowledge claims, including those made in histories and world histories. Postmodernism shares affinities with, but is not synonymous with, poststructuralism. Poststructuralism challenges the view that linguistic structures such as signifiers (sounds or scriptive symbols or words) are stable and reflective of the mind and reality.

Postmodernism is known to most historians through the strong reactions it provokes in those opposed to it. The historians Gertrude Himmelfarb and Arthur Marwick see postmodernism as incompatible with historical study; Keith Windschuttle has connected it with the “killing” of history, and Geoffrey Elton has concluded that it is the “intellectual equivalent of crack” (1991, 41). While extreme, these comments reveal an understanding of the extent to which postmodern claims undermine many of the methods and ideas that give shape to historical research and writing. To postmodern theorists such as Keith Jenkins, notions of truth and objectivity and indeed the very activity of writing history are comforters that need to be dispensed with. Others have struck a more conciliatory chord, suggesting, as Beverley Southgate has, that history be reconstructed to “incorporate rather than repudiate postmodernist ideas and ideals” (Southgate 2003, 29).

World History and Postmodernism

Postmodernism unmasks world histories as constructions—not descriptions—of the world by and for particular groups. They are “grand,” “master,” or “meta” narratives that legitimate certain ideals and gloss over conflicting views and discontinuities. Traditionally that has meant the adoption of a Eurocentric position: that is, events and spaces are named, organized, and judged in line with European ideas and ideals. Framed thus, world histories convey the message that European civilization is the epitome of a modern civilization, that European culture offers a model that other cultures should and will aspire to emulate. In questioning the privileging of a single view of the past—whether Eurocentric or any other “centric” view—postmodernists argue that all we are left with are multiple and often contradictory perspectives. That endpoint appears to be incompatible with the project of researching and writing world history, as that project demands the selection, arrangement, and synthesis of historical experiences.

Adding to the challenge posed by postmodernism, poststructuralism questions whether world histories may be linked back to authors or even to a real historical world. As writers are shaped by the system of language they are born into, world histories should not be studied for their creators’ intentions but for traces of that system through the examination of other texts (intertextuality). Opinion is divided about what texts will be considered relevant in studies of intertextuality: some writers focus on contemporary works from the same genre, whereas others cast their studies much wider, crossing spatial, temporal and genre boundaries. In the wake of the death of the author, as the literary critic Roland Barthes calls it, comes the birth of the reader, who writes and rewrites meaning. This deconstruction is extended even further in the writings of the philosopher Jacques Derrida, who denies that even readers can be a source of meaning and who characterizes the search for meaning as movement in a closed maze of mirrors. In Derrida’s view, signifiers do not refer to phenomena outside of a system of language: They only refer to other signifiers in an endless chain of signification.

Responses to Postmodernism

Given the radical implications of postmodernism for the field of world history, it is surprising that few writers have addressed the topic. Nor is it clear that postmodernism has been the major stimulus for the reduced scope of new world histories and the currently lively discussion on Eurocentrism. The rise of gender history and postcolonial and world systems studies, as well as concerns about the practicalities of world history education may also be credited for these developments.

Writings on postmodernism and world history focus mainly on metanarratives that dissolve the roles of nations and historical agents. Addressing the latter, for instance, the psychologist Lewis Wurgaft has described the writing of national and world histories as a form of psychological projection intended to ensure “narcissistic equilibrium” (Pomper, Elphick, and Vann 1998, 195). The historian Stephen Greenblatt has called for the creation of world histories in which cultural difference and homogenization oscillate and deny one another mastery. Kerwin Lee Klein (2000, 275), also a historian, has taken a more critical stance, suggesting that Lyotard’s distinction between “master” and “small” narratives “carries over the venerable antinomy of people with and without history,” which postmodernism tries to escape. Jerry Bentley, who edits the Journal of World History (and is one of the editors of this encyclopedia), has also been critical of postmodernism, arguing that the reduction of history to discrete micronarratives has led to a neglect of cross-cultural interaction. In response, he has posited a large-scale empirical narrative from which themes like population growth are inducted, not imposed. But Arif Dirlik, a historian whose research focuses on China, argues that Bentley’s inducted empirical themes are fashioned out of Western concepts of space and time—as seen, for instance, in the naming and division of the continents—even in the most inclusive new world histories. To Dirlik’s view, world histories are rhetorical constructions, and world historians have yet to grasp that due recognition of differences “may mean the end of history as we know it” (Stuchtey and Fuchs 2003, 133).

The opinion of postmodernist writers on what will (or should) occur after this death of history varies, and most do not say anything at all on the subject. This is because dictating an “after” is much the same as presenting an endpoint, the concept of which is too universalist for postmodernism. Some may see humans engaged in emancipatory aporia (living lives of radical undecidability, unrestrained by moral, and historiographical norms), whereas others see us engaged in conversations unrestrained by purpose and endpoint.


  1. Barthes, R. (1968). The death of the author. In S. Heath (Ed. & Trans.), Image, music, text (pp. 142–148). London: Fontana.
  2. Dirlik, A. (2000). Postmodernity’s histories: The past as legacy and project. New York: Rowman and Littlefield.
  3. Domanska, E. (1999). Universal history and postmodernism. Storia della Storiagrafia, 35, 129–139.
  4. Elton, G. (1991). Return to essentials. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  5. Greenblatt, S. (1990). Towards a poetics of culture. In Learning to curse: Essays in early modern culture (pp. 146–160). London: Routledge.
  6. Jenkins, K. (2003). Refiguring history. London: Routledge.
  7. Klein, K. L. (1995). In search of narrative mastery: Postmodernism and the people without history. History and Theory, 34(4), 275–298.
  8. Lyotard, J.-F. (1984). The postmodern condition: A report on knowledge (G. Bennington & B. Massumi, Ed. and Trans.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  9. Mazlish, B. (1993). Global history in a postmodernist era? In B. Mazlish & R. Buultjens (Eds.), Conceptualizing global history (pp. 113–127). Boulder, CO: Westview.
  10. Pomper, P., Elphick, R. H., & Vann, R. T. (1998). World history: Ideologies, structures and identities. Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell.
  11. Southgate, B. (2003). Postmodernism in history: Fear or freedom? London: Routledge.
  12. Stuchtey, B., & Fuchs, E. (2003). Writing world history, 1800– 2000. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.
  13. Thompson, W. (2004). Postmodernism and history. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

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