Analytical Threads in AP World: Military Force vs. Cultural Power

Some of my favorite readings in graduate school were related to the broader field of comparative imperialism and explored the intricacies of cultural power. Warwick Anderson’s The Cultivation of Whiteness explored the role of race in colonial Australia. In another book, Colonial Pathologies, Anderson also explored the role of medicine and public hygiene in the Philippines, devoting an entire chapter to the public toilet and its power as a cultural symbol. Likewise, historians Paul Kramer and Laura Briggs wrote about the race, sex, science and other aspects of cultural power in the US Empire. These historians reinforce the main idea that empires cannot maintain and legitimize themselves through only the power of the gun. Cultural power becomes an entry point to understanding the more subtle methods of building and maintaining legitimacy and power, which are some of the most significant legacies of empire. These themes and topics deserve to be a central focus of any instruction of “new” Imperialism, especially within the AP World History course.

The interplay between military force and cultural power is one of the threads that runs through the AP World curriculum. Picking out these threads (or Key Concepts) and making them visible is one of the values teachers can add to the curriculum so that it does not become a death march through content. This takes a bit of planning, but pays tremendous dividends.

I introduce this particular thread in unit one when covering topic 1.2 on the Islamic World. I use an activity on Islamic art and architecture that came from an AP World teacher group. The original activity was focused on cultural characteristics of the Islamic world and the role of syncretism in its development. I have retooled it slightly over the years to emphasize the way art and architecture build legitimacy and show cultural power. The major adjustments come in the “lecture” part of the activity and how I wrap it up with a debrief and SAQ. It’s meant to be a taste for when the concepts become much more important.

As students sketch each example and annotate its significance I provide a few minutes of commentary that connects to cultural power and legitimacy. The debrief questions provide an opportunity for deeper analysis. For example, even though the Abbasid Empire falls, many of the cultural elements survive, and later, religious and cultural legitimacy is passed on to the Ottoman Empire. Establishing the key words and phrases around these course threads as they relate to content in early units is helpful in helping students access background knowledge as the course progresses.

The idea that culture can outlast political structures or military dynasties will connect to unit two when discussing the Mongol moment. In topic 2.2 I introduce the theory of asabiyyah from Islamic historian Ibn Khaldun. It’s also written about at length by historian Peter Turchin. In previous years this has been on my list of “guaranteed complexity points,” though now, with the rewritten rubrics for the DBQ and LEQ I will be revisiting this list. I’ve written in more detail about asabiyyah, known as social cohesion, in a previous post. Essentially, the concept reinforces the importance of military power in the creation of empire but then explores the need of more subtle exertions of cultural force in maintaining legitimacy until eventually the empire falls. The slides related to the Mongols are linked here. I highly recommend Peter Turchin’s book, War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires; the parts on the Russian Empire are great for use with students.

The thread of military force versus cultural power approaches its apex in units three and four as we explore sea-based and land-based empires. This leads to a Harkness discussions that is focused around the question “To what extent were sea-based and land-based empires maintained through force alone?” I like to supplement the textbook reading with excerpts from historians that cover these topics more in depth. The preparation allows students to discuss insights around how different strategies offer unique advantages and disadvantages depending on the context.

One of the strategies I use in these units is based on a modified Conrad-Demarest model of empire. As we progress through the readings and lessons I give students time to reflect on the model applied to specific empires. These notes are helpful for both review and preparing for Harkness discussions.

The same Harkness question works with minor modifications in unit six as students explore European Imperialism in the 19th century; the apogee of this particular course thread. Technology and new ideologies give colonial authorities both justification and ability to exert greater cultural power over their subjects. Harkness discussions based around selected readings help students understand and analyze different cultural strategies for imperial maintenance including education systems, religious proselytizing and missionary activity, development of legal systems around culture and race, language policies, etc. The discussion easily branches to the effectiveness of these strategies, their moral and ethical dimension, and connections to contemporary issues as students compare them to direct military force, the threat of force, or strategies of economic and diplomatic control.

Many of the primary sources, readings, and activities that teachers already use offer entry points for this course thread. All it takes is a little planning and adjustment to make the concept visible and begin integrating it into skills in order to deepen student thinking and historical analysis.

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