Empire in Asia

A New Global History

The Colonizer’s Model of the World

Book Cover

Book Title

The Colonizer’s Model of the World: Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History. New York: The Guilford Press, 1993

Author

Blaut, J.M.

Synopsis

Blaut offers the reader a critique of the idea that Europe was historically superior to the rest of the world. This is by showing how the concept of “Eurocentric diffusionism”, which entails the belief that Europe had internally been more progressive and advanced than other regions of the world before 1492 , led the continent, through colonialism, to subsequently spread modernization is false: it is “in a sense folklore”. Thus, the book sets out to show why the concept of diffusionism is historically inaccurate, because it is a by-product of modern European colonialism.

As a product of European thinkers’ conceptions of progress in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, by 1870 it would be clear that the ideology of internally generated progress in Europe would be a firmly accepted proposition. This was a period where Europe had established itself as a colonial power around the globe.
By distinguishing between classical and modern diffusionism, Blaut recognizes two periods of European intervention in the world through colonialism- the latter is marked by the second world war, and eventually, decolonization.

The book is clear to put forth that it cannot demonstrate that its assertions are true, instead, it is able to produce a coherent theory within which the propositions fit. In this way, it uses the evidence to posit a theoretical framework. Thus it raises good questions about the nature of methodology and veracity.

In concluding that diffusionism is a “serious malady of the mind”, the book shows how many fields, including economic history, are still being written in relation to an understanding of diffusionism- especially those dealing with the impact of the Industrial Revolution. The book invites more scholarly contribution to the field, by rejecting scholarship by writers such as Eric L. Jones in the work The European Miracle as containing false claims and being laden with oriental despotism. The book is both well written and intellectually stimulating.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The book is clearly structured, and deals with Eurocentric diffusionism,its spread and prominence in European scholarly thought, and subsequently refutes the idea of a historically superior Europe. The book can be divided into two major periods, before and after 1492. By showing how colonial accumulation led to Europe’s rise as a capitalist society, whilst Asian and African protocapitalist centers declined, this justifies the colonial ideology and subsequent exaltation of a tradition based upon a constructed myth- that Europe was always historically superior to the rest of the world. Blaut manages to use themes such as environment, biology, rationality, technology, religion to dissect claims of European historical superiority. This allows for a well- structured argument and understanding of how he wishes to analyze the phenomena. By rejecting deterministic theories, Blaut is clear to highlight that the rise of capitalism legitimized the shift of European society away from feudalism. By highlighting the rise of industrial development in Europe as a result of colonial processes, the book shows how the topic of European supremacy must be understood as legitimizing itself through a narrative of both racial and historical supremacy: the colonizer’s model is one that can, in the book’s view, be disproved through a greater analysis of longer historical periods and evidence which could lead us to a better and more valid understanding of the past.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

The clear premise of the book is to displace previous views about European diffusionism and myths about European superiority before 1492. By arguing that the views are a product of mythology, Blaut is essentially arguing that there is a necessity for scholarship to critically assess colonialism and its forms of knowledge; especially in the way we look at the experience of interaction between Europe and the rest of the world. By assessing how subjects such as history and geography would be taught at different periods of time in the past, the book allows the reader to understand the concept of changing fields and development of human knowledge in an accessible way.

The book argues against European historians who place emphasis on events in the past that attest to Europe’s centrality in history, this giving rise to the legitimacy of diffusionism as a ‘super theory’, something that gives credence to many other theories that substantiate it.  

By showing us how history is taught and written about (and thought about), the book offers a good critique of the way we think about the past. It is not just limited to an assessment of the roles of colonizer and colonized, but expands the question to the legitimacy of colonial dominance and how scholarship has legitimized an image of superiority and deserves to not just be challenged, but also refuted.

By taking such a position, we are able to question even the concept of ‘modernity’ and what constitutes it. If progress itself is an idea that is constructed through a colonial self-serving myth, how could we redefine the past, and to what end?


Annotated by Sandeep Singh