Francesco Boldizzoni and Pat Hudson, editors, Routledge Handbook of Global Economic History. New York: Routledge, 2016. xv + 471 pp. $240 (cloth), ISBN: ).
Reviewed for EH.Net by David Mitch, Department of Economics, University of Maryland, Baltimore County
Francesco Boldizzoni (University of Turin) and Pat Hudson (Professor Emeritus, Cardiff University) have compiled a fascinating collection of 24 historiographical surveys on the economic history of countries and regions from six out of seven continents of the world bookended by their introductory essay (“Global Economic History: Toward an Interpretive Turn”) and their concluding essay (“Culture, Power, and Contestation: Multiple Roads from the Past to the Present”). Antarctica is presumably excluded due both to the absence of indigenous economic historians and the paucity of scholarly literature on the region. (See however, Bjorn L. Basberg, “Perspectives on the Economic History of the Antarctic Region,” International Journal of Maritime History (December 2006): 285-304.) The focus of each of these essays is on the historiography or alternatively history of economic history including the institutional setting for the practice of economic history for the geographical area under consideration rather than a survey of economic history as such. For twenty of the essays, the geographical entity considered is the nation state. The other four essays include Huri Islamoglu’s survey of what she calls “Middle Eurasia,” Luis Bertola and Javier Rodriguez Weber’s survey of Latin America, Ayedoji Olukoju’s survey of West Africa and Patrick Manning’s survey of Africa as a whole
A central defining feature of the volume is that in selecting authors for these pieces, the editors are explicit about their preference for indigenous economic historians. Boldizzoni and Hudson offer the following definition of an indigenous economic historian (p. 9): “Whenever possible historians who were trained and/or had based their career within their indigenous culture were favoured.” They offer the following justification for this principle of selection: “A distinctive contribution of the chapters therefore comes from their privileged access to sources. This is an aspect overlooked by global historians who have got accustomed to interpretations based upon cherry-picked secondary materials and upon inadequate, partial and delayed translations. We are not suggesting that indigenous scholars are inevitably more qualified than others to interpret their native cultures although we do accept, other things equal, that they have the opportunity to be better informed and that indigenous and external perspectives are likely to differ.” By my rough and ready reckoning, only two of the contributors clearly do not meet the indigenous criteria, Patrick Manning, the author of the Africa survey mentioned already, and Prasannan Parthasarathi who completed his Ph.D. at Harvard and has been in the History Department at Boston College since 1998. At any rate, the overwhelming majority of the authors in the volume would seem to meet the indigenous criteria as just described.
An important consequence of this for the surveys is that less attention than might otherwise occur is accorded to work by foreign scholars on the relevant territorial unit and, it would appear as a consequence, by cliometricians. The extent of inclusion of foreign and/or cliometric scholarship actually varies considerably across these pieces. Some chapters give no mention whatever to work by cliometricians or foreign scholars while others do so quite extensively. Thus both Naomi Lamoreaux’s chapter on the U.S. and that of Inaki Iriarte-Goni on Spain do give extensive coverage to cliometric work.
At first blush, it struck me that many of the chapters were thus wildly imbalanced by their lack of coverage of recent cliometric contributions or of major works by non-indigenous non-cliometric historians. Having heard, this past April, Bishnu Gupta deliver what I considered a tour de force Tawney Lecture featuring recent cliometric contributions to the economic history of India at the annual Economic History Society conference and having recently read Richard von Glahn’s magisterial The Economic History of China as well as having a sense of the considerable impact of Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence, I found it quite jarring to read the chapters on India and China and to find minimal mention of cliometric or foreign scholarship in either — including no mention of the contributions of Gupta, Pomeranz, or von Glahn. The chapter by Parthasrathi on India does mention the scholarship of Eric Stokes and Indian expat Amartya Sen, and Li Bozhong’s chapter on China does cite John Fairbanks and Angus Maddison. I do not find it obvious that any advantage associated with better access to primary sources or superior language skills should so fully outweigh other advantages associated with historical, social science and quantitative training in leading global academic centers as to either fully exclude or at least minimize the contributions of such perspectives.
It was only after I read Li Bozhong’s chapter on China that the case for economic history as done by indigenous scholars became compelling to me, although Boldizzoni and Hudson in their introduction indeed refer to an “interpretive turn” in history in which the perspective of the participant becomes central. Li makes the case that there is a 2000-year tradition of a genre that has been termed Shi Huo studies or food and money/commerce studies (p. 293-94). While not organized in terms of more modern concepts of economic history, these treatises did provide records and descriptions of “economic activities, events, and institutions” (p. 295). While this literature established a long tradition of Chinese antecedents for economic history, Li acknowledges that economic history in China was not indigenous but was introduced from the modern West in the first half of the twentieth century. However, he argues that the field developed in China in response to the distinctively Chinese self doubts of the time and an indigenous Chinese desire “to understand what was wrong with traditional Chinese society and economy and their failure to make China a ‘modern nation’” (p. 296). Similar arguments arise for the emergence of economic history in the Soviet Union and in Latin America in the early twentieth century and in South Africa in the mid-twentieth century. Indeed some of the most poignant passages in the volume are those by Leonid Borodkin and Li relating how Soviet and Chinese economic historians lost their lives — not to mention their career positions — for advocating approaches to economic history that were viewed by those in authority as not adhering to an orthodox line. Kaoru Sugihara in his chapter on Japan similarly relates how scholarly participants in debates in 1930s were subject to arrest and torture by the Special Thought Police (p. 316). The influence of political economy concerns broadly defined is also emphasized in Bill Freund’s chapter on South Africa.
Rather than seeing economic history as a field involving standard practices that have simply diffused from more advanced to less advanced societies of the world, the alternative view is that even if influenced by what at the time seem more advanced societies, the particular mix of issues and approaches to addressing them by economic historians develop indigenously. Thus the case for economic history in a given geographic area being practiced by indigenous scholars seems to me more one of awareness and responsiveness to distinctively local issues rather than readier access to primary sources. And the issue is less whether indigenous is intellectually superior to foreign but that in developing an intellectual history of the field, greater awareness of indigenous influences and driving factors gives an important advantage over either foreigner or practitioner of universal cliometric methods in providing an account of indigenous developments. Furthermore, it is useful to have accounts of how economic history has emerged in indigenous circumstances over and above whatever contributions to the economic history of a given geographical area have been made by foreigners. It is precisely in providing a compilation of such accounts that the contribution of this volume lies.
And despite my initial reservations, I do find this a quite worthwhile and successful volume. The scholarship in each of the chapters is excellent and the editors are to be saluted for their efforts in recruiting such strong scholars from all corners of the globe. Those with serious interests in economic history will want to consult this volume and at a minimum request it for their library’s reference collection.
However, some further limitations of the volume do warrant comment. First, the nation state emphasis at points becomes awkward insofar as relevant geographic units for coverage do not fall into current nation state categories and this may explain some of the exceptions to it. Thus, it seems odd that the chapters on the Czech Republic by Antonie Dolezalova, Slovakia by Roman Holec, and Hungary by Gyorgy Kover make only minimal reference to the extensive literature on the economic history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and indeed no chapter is included on Austria. The compelling chapter on Middle Eurasia by Huri Islamoglu seems to acknowledge that much is lost by an exclusive focus either on nation states such as Turkey or Iran or empires such as the Ottoman. She alludes to the value of a civilizational perspective in doing economic history in mentioning the neglect of the work of Marshall Hodgson as a scholar of Islamicate civilization as a whole. And the Latin American and African chapters alternate between country foci and continent wide or regional foci presumably reflecting the larger vistas one can obtain from a more regional or continental perspective than just considering an individual nation state.
Second, an apparent follow-on consequence of the nation state focus is a focus on the modern period since roughly the onset of the British industrial revolution from the mid-eighteenth century. So no coverage is given the literature on pre-eighteenth century economic history. This makes sense if the emphasis is on indigenous present-centered issues. But one misses the issue of how awareness of ancient, medieval and early modern roots can inform more contemporary historical analysis.
Third, while overtly aiming at overcoming disciplinary boundaries, the emphasis is on the economic history tradition. Karl Marx figures prominently and to a lesser extent Max Weber. Many of the chapters refer to the work of Fernand Braudel and the Annales School as well as the work of Immanuel Wallerstein. However, associated traditions in other social sciences seeking to integrate the economic with more general dimensions, including political science and sociology, are given minimal attention. For example, the major intellectual tradition of historical sociology reflected in the work of such prominent scholars as Charles Tilly and Michael Mann is hardly integrated into the accounts at all. No consideration is given to larger social science influences through organizations such as the Social Science History Association in the U.S. or the European Social Science History Conference. However, informative coverage is provided in the Dutch chapter by Ulbe Bosma on the origins and influence of the International Institute of Social History, based in Amsterdam and a key sponsor of the ESSHC.
Returning to the greater sensitivity of indigenous scholars to local issues raises the question of the general versus the particular in economic history. As both social science and history, there is presumably a case to be made for the presence of both. One place where this tension arises but is not considered as fully as it could have been in this volume concerns the extent to which economic historians should take up issues which have significance for the present within which they are working. This is what Claudia Goldin has called “Exploring the Present through the Past.” (See Claudia Goldin, “Exploring the Present through the Past: Career and Family across the Last Century,” American Economic Review 87, no. 2 (1997): 396-399.)
And this is a factor has had an influence on cliometric work in U.S. economic history. Thus one factor contributing to the intensity of the debate over slavery among U.S. economic historians in the late 1960s and early 1970s was concerns about racial unrest in American cities at this time. Major strands of research have developed since on issues concerning black economic progress in the advent of the Civil Rights movement and Great Society programs and on the impact of urban renewal and housing policies in the U.S. Similarly, another major strand of research focusing on the role of gender in the economy can be seen as reflecting increasing contemporary concerns with this issue. Yet the concern can arise that this infuses a presentism and whigishness into economic history with a neglect of perspectives of historical actors or longer-term general issues.
Given their preference for indigenous scholarship and a desire to avoid privileging occidental, metropole approaches, Boldizzoni and Hudson appear to have hoisted themselves by their own petard with regard to the organization of chapters in the volume. The area coverage essays is grouped into four parts. It starts with a lead section on “Anglo-American Traditions,” which includes chapters on Britain, the U.S., Canada, and Australia. Then it proceeds to “West European Roots and Responses” (which includes chapters on Germany, France, Italy, Sweden, Spain, and the Low Countries). Part III is a “Turning to the East,” which is actually the second world of former Soviet Bloc countries including not only the Russian Federation but also Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary. Finally, Part IV ends with “The Wider World,” which consists of an undifferentiated set of ten chapters but proceeding from Asia to Latin America and ending with three chapters on African regions. No explanation is provided for this sequencing but what is conveyed — even if unintentionally through this grouping and ordering — is a sense of hierarchy and diffusion from more enlightened Anglo-American regions down to more backward eastern European and then Asian and Latin American regions with African regions at the very bottom. However, many of the indigenous issues regarding national identity in economic history come through especially forcefully in the African and Latin American cases as well as those in Asia. Given the indigenous theme of the volume, highlighting more fully these latter cases at the outset would seem to be warranted.
Finally, it should be noted that an important contribution of the volume’s chapters is to consider the infrastructure supporting research and teaching in economic history — including not just the academic location of faculty and research positions in economic history but also the presence of government statistical agencies in collecting the data that can be seen as foundational for economic history research. In their concluding assessment, Boldizzoni and Hudson do make useful observations on the mix of demand- and supply-side factors including the role of government and foundation support for economic history. While there is much more that could be done in generalizing these findings, the material assembled in these essays provide an important foundation for considering the role of infrastructure in supporting the development of economic history research.
I hope these comments convey some of the respects in which this volume is both stimulating and provocative. I have not attempted to convey the full richness of its various essays. While not systematically a handbook in the sense of comprehensively surveying a gamut of methodological issues, the variety of levels of analysis and approaches taken by contributors does provide a quite valuable overview of the approaches that can be taken to the history of economic history. Not many readers perhaps will end up reading the volume cover to cover. Nevertheless, the contrasting assessments even within given geographic areas make browsing through the volume intriguing. For example, Inaki Iriarte-Goni’s and Sandra Kuntz Ficker’s upbeat assessments for Spain and Mexico respectively regarding the vibrant blending of various historical methodologies for the economic historiography of their countries present striking contrasts with Boldizzoni’s depiction of a field in decline for the case of Italy or Luiz Felipe de Alencastro’s portrait of involuted tendencies in the case of Brazilian economic history. Even cliometrically inclined scholars could potentially benefit from reading about the perspectives of those who remain resistant to their methodologies.
David Mitch is Professor of Economics at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He is the author of “Economic History in Departments of Economics: The Case of the University of Chicago 1892 to the Present,” Social Science History (2011) and “A Year of Transition: Faculty Recruiting at Chicago in 1946,” Journal of Political Economy ,December (2016)
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