The John W. Kluge Center extends its congratulations to Kenneth Pomeranz for winning the 2021 Toynbee Prize. The Toynbee Prize is awarded biennially by the Toynbee Prize Foundation “for work that makes a significant contribution to the study of global history.” Pomeranz joins a distinguished recent Toynbee Prize recipients that include Lauren Benton, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Christopher Bayly, Michael Adas, and Jürgen Osterhammel.
Pomeranz is a University Professor of History at the University of Chicago. His work focuses on China, and on comparative and world history. He has researched and written about social, economic, and environmental history, as well as state formation, imperialism, religion, gender, and other topics. As the Kluge Chair in Countries and Cultures of the North, Dr. Pomeranz worked on a book titled “Why is China So Big?” earlier this year. He shared some of his expertise on the Kluge Center’s blog recently, in an interview on early economy of China.
Pomeranz shared his thoughts about winning the prize with the Kluge Center:
It’s a wonderful surprise – who wouldn’t be honored to join the names on the list of previous Toynbee Prize winners? And I’m very grateful.
I think historians always write as part of a conversation, or really a bunch of conversations: with the people who emerge, however imperfectly, from the sources we read; with earlier scholars, who answered some questions and left others unanswered, or even unasked, or who answered in ways that don’t convince us; and with all sorts of people in the world around us, whom we might think are taking X, Y, or Z as ‘natural,’ or ‘inevitable,’ when it isn’t, or who have questions about the present that you suspect would look different if you traced them back into the past.
Trying to write history on a large scale means engaging in a lot of those conversations at once, and connecting them to each other without drowning any of them out – which is a challenge I love.
Because the people in those different dialogues come in with different ideas, and different rules of engagement, we rarely get to a level of certainty that almost everyone accepts. But we often can get broad agreement that some answers are better than others – including some answers that we wouldn’t have suspected before.
Showing that research and reasoning will get us somewhere – that there are statements about big issues that may not be as certain as the Pythagorean theorem, but are a long, long way from “that’s just a matter of opinion” – seems to be something we have to prove to ourselves over and over, and being part of that effort is a privilege that I hope I’m putting to good use. It’s how I felt about my time as Kluge Chair as well – it’s the same project, and it’s a never-ending one. If people think I’ve been making some of these discussions better, that’s great.