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What is World History?

What is World History?

When starting a World History course, you might be wondering, “How can I cover the history of the entire world in one school year?” Well, that’s a very good question! Learning the history of everything would take quite a while—certainly more than one school year. Luckily, that’s not your task, because world history is not the history of everything that has ever happened in the world. Phew!
So what is the objective of a world history class? Well, it does include history from all over the world. It also spans across vast expanses of time--from the origins of homo sapiens roughly 250,000 years ago, to the rise of civilizations, all the way to more recent events like the rise of the Ottoman Empire, World War II, and social justice movements.
World map from 16th century.
Map of the globe with a focus on trade and expansion, c. 1565, based on an earlier map by Giacomo Gastaldi. Image credit: Library of Congress.
But how does it all fit together? World history ties all this information together by asking certain kinds of historical and thematic questions. In a world history course you look at big patterns, similarities, differences, continuities, changes, and broad movements.
But that doesn’t mean that details don’t matter! World historians focus on specific events and details in order to better understand the patterns and connections that create a big, fascinating picture.
This big picture is defined by the kind of questions that world historians ask. To get a better sense of what proper world historical questions look like—and how world historians go about answering them—let’s think about scale, themes, and details. This helps us get a clearer picture of how we can ask—and answer—world historical questions.


All historians look at details from the past. What makes something world history is the scale of analysis. World history is mostly interested in large-scale things that have effects on large numbers of people or influence multiple regions of the world. World historians also tend to look at events that occur over long periods of time.
For example, a world historian would probably not devote extended time to studying the specific details in the diary of Christopher Columbus to learn about his life or the intricate details of his voyages. However, a world historian would study the several centuries of interactions between Europe, the Americas, and Africa that resulted from Columbus’s voyages.
Portrait of Christopher Columbus, 1519 and map depicting the exchange of goods that followed Columbus’ voyages, called the Columbian Exchange.
A historian of the U.S. or Europe would be more likely to spend more time on the life and actions of Christopher Columbus (left) than a world historian, who would spend more time on the big-picture effects of the Columbian Exchange (right).
Image credits: Portrait of Christopher Columbus, 1519: Wikimedia; Map depicting the exchange of goods that followed Columbus’ voyages, called the Columbian Exchange: Flickr


Of course, understanding complex world historical processes can be complicated. How do world historians organize events that occur across the globe? There are certain themes that world historians often use to guide their analysis.
Think of themes as categories, ideas, or concepts that organize how someone thinks about a subject. World historical themes are focused on comparison and connection, broad systems, and global interactions.
In AP World History, which is a specific world history course, there are some particular themes we use to find patterns, trace processes, and make comparisons. They are:
  1. Interaction between humans and the environment: To understand this theme, historians might look at things like the rise of agriculture, the spread of disease, changing climates, or demographic changes.
  1. Development and interaction of cultures: To understand this theme, historians might look at things like the emergence and spread of new religions, influence of different religions or cultural traditions on one another, and the spread of new ideas like humanism or human rights.
  1. State building, expansion, and conflict: To understand this theme, historians might look at things like how different empires have risen and fallen, in which ways rulers have increased their legitimacy, and different kinds of conflicts between societies.
  1. Creation, expansion, and interaction of economic systems: To understand this theme, historians might look at things like the Silk road, the emergence of global trade, the emergence of banking and systems of credit, and the rise of capitalism, communism, and globalization.
  1. Development and transformation of social structures: To understand this theme, historians might look at things like the effects of specialization of labor, or how ideas about race, gender, and class have shaped social hierarchies.


Themes cover some pretty big ideas--and pretty big movements across space and time! But these big ideas are all made up of details from smaller case studies, and understanding these specific historical events and processes in a bigger context is the engine that drives world historical thinking. This specific historical knowledge gives you the raw material to build understanding of bigger processes, systems, and themes.
For example, the Silk Road is a subject of world historical interest because it provides many instances of economic, cultural, and environmental interactions. By zooming in on some specific examples of these interactions, you can start to develop a wider understanding of how trade patterns developed and changed, how cultures interacted and adapted, or how diseases spread. Studying the Silk Road can reveal connections between things as diverse as the Chinese silk industry, Buddhism, and plagues!
Map of the Silk Road trade routes during the period of the Han Dynasty and Roman Empire.
For over 1,000 years, the Silk Road—or, more accurately, roads—connected much of the Eastern Hemisphere through trade. Not just goods, but also ideas and diseases accompanied traders, missionaries, and armies as they travelled these routes. Image credit: Flickr
A look at the Silk Road might take you to a specific caravan in Central Asia, where you might look at how Buddhist religious beliefs traveled, changed, and spread. But you don’t need to pause and linger at every stop along the road. World history involves thinking on different scales--zooming in and zooming out--and shifting focus. This movement isn’t random--it’s done with the intent of answering specific questions.

The questions of World History

Historians try to understand what happened in the past by asking questions. More specifically, historians ask particular kinds of questions:
Type of historical questionExample
ContextualizationWhat was the historical context for a specific historical development or process? How might the content of a historical document or artifact be affected by the circumstances in which it was created?
ComparisonHow similiar were certain things? What differences existed between certain things?
CausationWhy did something happen? What were the effects of something?
Continuity and changeWhat has stayed the same over time? How did something change over time?
World historians ask these same kinds of questions—usually just on a broader scale!
To show how the historical question you want to answer will help you determine what details you should include and what scale your analysis will be at, let’s consider two historians—a historian of England and a world historian. Let’s assume that both are interested in the Industrial Revolution. However, the different focus of each historian will lead them to ask questions about the Industrial Revolution on different scales.
The historian of England might zoom in and ask, “How did industrialization disrupt wool production in central England in the 1790s?”
The world historian, by contrast, might zoom out to ask, “How did industrialization lead to new patterns in world trade during the nineteenth century?”
Data from Paul Bairoch (1982) "International industrialization levels from 1750 to 1980." Graph from Wikicommons
An example of data cross countries and time periods to inform a world history question about industrialization. Data from Paul Bairoch (1982) "International industrialization levels from 1750 to 1980." Graph from Wikicommons
Both are perfectly good historical questions. The answers to these questions might even influence one another. But, only the latter question is world historical because it focuses on how the Industrial Revolution affected multiple regions over an extended period of time.

Studying the past in the present

Whatever type of historical study we are doing, it is important to remember that people who lived in the past faced different circumstances and had different values than you do.
Historical questions are not about determining whether we today are better or worse than people who lived in the past. However, differences in values or behaviors between the past and present can spark historical inquiries. For example, you might look at an event that seems surprising or controversial from our contemporary perspective. With the tools of world history, we look at those events and consider questions like, "What factors motivated different people to participate in these events?"
As the famous historian David Lowenthal once wrote, "The past is a foreign country." Studying world history is like taking a trip across the world and through time. You can't go everywhere, but if you visit enough places, you can start to see the global connections that have shaped the world we live in today!

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  • blobby green style avatar for user dboyle
    yeah I was looking for a quiz over the material, I don't know if one exists or not, but could you make it easier to find.
    (22 votes)
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  • female robot amelia style avatar for user Fatima Saleh
    I have been starting going through this course (specifically Periods 1 and 2) to help me study for an upcoming test. So far, the information given (specifically regarding Homo Sapiens and such) has never not mentioned in an AP textbook we have. Should I be concerned that the information from Khan Academy does not (at least yet) match up with what a textbook says? Also, is this course adjusted to match the new changes made to the AP World History exam or is the information essentially still the same? Thank you for your time!
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    • leaf yellow style avatar for user Anne K
      I can at least answer your first question. Yes, some of Khan Academy's material may not align with the information in your AP textbook. An anatomy and physiology professor I knew advised me that some of Khan Academy's information on some particular functions of organs and whatnot were not necessarily accurate, so one may likely utilize this site with caution when using it for serious study purposes. Those planning to use Khan Academy as part of a course should ask any teachers if the website's information aligns with what they are learning and if it is up to date in any way.
      I hope you've had an answer to your second question! It might be a good idea to ask Khan Academy directly concerning that second inquiry.
      (14 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Camille Guillemin
    I am teaching myself the World History lessons. Really internesting and well done, thanks. But I wonder if there is an overview timeline? Like all the timeline that appeared in the videos but put together in one single document. Will be realy helpful for me!
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  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Rhea :D
    Is this study course updated to prepare us for the modified 2020 AP exam?
    (8 votes)
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  • aqualine seed style avatar for user crice8727
    how can i help teacher a high school student that hate history and make easy and fun to learn in one week with out anything being hard for them not to understand or learn in the class room or outside of class and to use it in the real world
    (6 votes)
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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user julissrobinson
    Why is Japan at the bottom of the manufacturing scale?
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  • purple pi purple style avatar for user Joannawolf
    What grade do students start learning World history/AP World History?
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Olivia
    Are the units in this course updated to the 2020 AP World test requirements?
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Jasmine Vadgama
    The schools are updating their curriculum to AP modern world in that situation how relevant is this course and and is there a way for us to know where the new course begins?
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  • leafers seedling style avatar for user Olga Arrambide
    For what grade levels is this for?
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