Review of Cross-Cultural History and the Domestication of Otherness Edited by Michal Jan Rozbicki and George O. Ndege Palgrave Macmillan

Cross-Cultural History and the Domestication of Otherness. Edited by Michal Jan Rozbicki and George O. Ndege. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. ISBN: 9780230339972

Historians have labored to define systems of culture and their shifting meanings when those cultures are exposed to foreign concepts.  Michal Jan Rozbicki and George O. Ndege have edited a collected volume of essays that work to aide in the understanding of cross-cultural history and how it has changed the course of study for historians.  The book has an extensive chronology with the earliest essay covering fifteenth-century Spain, and the latest chronological essay which discusses Jesuits in the United States in the twentieth-century.  Geography is also expansive within the essays because they discuss cultures and the development of otherness across the globe, which includes countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, North America, and South America.  Aside from the chronological and geographic definitions, there is an extensive array of the types of cultural otherness created in the different circumstances demonstrated in the essays here, which is quite an accomplishment for a book of little more than two-hundred pages.  The essays are divided into five parts, and each part focuses on a particular facet of culture, which conceives a cultural ‘otherness’ in distinct ways. With such a variety of cultures and societies within the book, it serves as an introduction to cross-cultural history, and each of the essays has an ‘otherness’ which was clearly defined by the dominate culture being imposed on a subordinate culture, depending on the way in which each cultural definition.

The editors, Rozbicki and Ndege, crafted a fascinating introduction to the essays in which they define the concept of ‘otherness’, and also provide the three attributes of culture.  Most important, they extrapolate the relationship between the concepts of ‘other’ and culture and how these terms have begun to take on greater significance in the modern world and its increasing focus on global history.  The introduction is followed by part one, containing three chapters, which focus on identities in sixteenth-century Spain. Each chapter delves into the problems of Spanish society in relation to “Old” and “New” Christians and how they perceive individuals, mainly Jews and Muslims, who converted to Christianity.  Chapter one specifically addresses Spanish identity of Jews who were called conversos.  The essay examines how converted Jews were viewed by the Old Spanish Christians. Chapter two looks at the Spanish Inquisitors in the sixteenth century, and how they perceive Jews within Spanish society due to conflicting religious backgrounds of the converts.  The inquisitors were charged with finding Jews who falsely converted to Christianity in the years around 1492, when Jews were forced out of Spain.  Yet, the chapter demonstrates how identities among the Spanish, in all levels of society, were not as clearly defined as the inquisitors tried to suggest for the Jewish converts.  The final chapter explores Moriscos, or Muslim converts, in fifteenth-century Spain.  Again, the author works to shape the identity of Moriscos within the society of Old and New Christians during the time period.

Part two examines the role of missionaries within specific societies.  The author argues that missionaries were the ‘cultural brokers’ of the time period because they are the agents who transferred cultures within the respective communities.  Chapter four is an intriguing study which examines the use of language by the Jesuit missionaries and their translations of biblical texts for converts in Japan and China. The author focuses on biblical translations because, in certain situations, they lost their original connotations during the process of translation from the original language, and thus, the translated passages had altered meanings for the Japanese and Chinese cultures. Chapter five analyzes Jesuit missionaries again, but in the context of the Southwest territories of United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  The author’s primary concern involves the historical writings of the missionaries during the time period because they provide a fascinating perspective of their viewpoint of the cultures they encountered.  Concluding part two is chapter six, which examines Protestant missionaries who labored to convert women in Argentina by focusing on appropriate gendered activities as defined by Protestantism.  This chapter establishes the missionaries and their conceptions of appropriate Protestant behaviors, which are then imposed on Argentinian women. Their behavior is seen as being less than acceptable because they did not behave in the appropriate manners designated by the “civilized” societies.

Part three has two chapters which address cultural influences on the continent of Africa.  Chapter seven discusses cross-cultural history and its development of historical methodology by examining missionaries and their practices of converting the native populations. Chapter eight considers the introduction of western medicines to Kenya, and it examines the dynamics of medical practice from the colonial powers through the use of physicians, which was in opposition to African society’s dependence on divine healers and herbal remedies. Part four begins with chapter nine, which is an investigation of Hawai’i and its national identity during several moments of crisis during colonization by the United States.  Chapter ten examines German Immigrants and their position within American society, which was rigidly defined by a racial hierarchy during the nineteenth century. The chapter explores how Germans viewed their identity as immigrants within a society and that they did not willingly access the system of slavery, which had negative consequences for their position within society in the slave-state of Missouri in the mid-nineteenth century.  Chapter eleven discusses the influences of Italian culture within French culture in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  The author traces Jesuit cultures and other religious influences within Italian society, and how they transfer to French society due to cross-cultural influences in religious texts, art, and architecture.

Finally, part five is the last chapter, and is written by the editor Rozbicki. In it Rozbicki suggests a theoretical framing for cross-cultural studies and how it fits into the existing historical discipline.  He concludes the book with a discussion of the “domestication of otherness,” and he states that normalcy is the obvious resolution to the discrepancies existing within two separate cultures.  Once a culture achieves a state of normal recognized by its members, then it has domesticated the imposing cultural structures, and thus has become something of a cross-culture.  Rozbicki gives a vivid description of the exact process of the exchange that occurs when two distinct cultures meet, and thus, what results from those interactions.  He also offers the notion that cross-cultural history is the way in which the historical discipline is shifting, towards the more appropriate category of “global history” because it is the constant series of connections and interactions of culture that have occurred throughout history, which allow historians to view and understand other societies.  The essays in this book allow scholars to get a brief view of variety of cultures through very broad, and at times, seemingly undefined parameters.  Yet, it brings new ways for historians to approach cultures with which they may not necessarily be familiar.  This book implores scholars to view their own work on cultural history from another vantage point, and it suggests for historians to consider reframing their work from the standard dominate cultures, and consequently, consider what other influences have affected cultural definitions. This is a fascinating work, which will no doubt cause historians to rethink their notions of “otherness” as a way to reconsider what cultures previously, and currently, define global history.

Reviewed by MaryAnn Suhl, Texas Tech University
Edited by Martin Pflug

(c) 2013 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 7, Fall, 2013. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]