Economic change in global history


Date: 31 August 2017, 02:30–05:00

Venue: Corvinus University, Fővám tér 8, room 338



Since 2001, the "divergence debate" has led to path-breaking new research on Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and pushed the boundaries of comparative economic history much further back than the nineteenth century. It also fostered the adoption of new methodologies such as the use of reciprocal comparison and an engagement with new interpretive works on comparative politics and society. We see the positive effects of more detailed research on key questions on regions and localities where we once knew little, though the negative effects of a new fragmentation and retreat to internalist disputes are now equally evident.

The session considers the developments in global economic history over the past decade, the areas in which research should concentrate in the future, and the best ways in which historical research can inform current public debate.

A first paper by Stanziani on the limits of the divergence debate is followed by a discussion of connectivity (for instance in terms of global market formation) by Roy and Riello. This session would like to give more space to specific area studies as considered by Austin for the case of Africa. A final discussion led by Hudson will also consider issues of such ‘economic convergence’ and ‘economic sustainability’.


Giorgio Riello (University of Warwick)


Pat Hudson (University of Cardiff)


Alessandro Stanziani (School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences EHESS)

Giorgio Riello (University of Warwick)

Gareth Austin (University of Cambridge)

Peer Vries (International Institute of Social History)



Alessandro Stanziani: Beyond the great divergence

The debate on the great divergence brought new insights in global history, economic history and history more generally. Yet, after almost twenty years, this debate also presents some limits and “dead angles”. We will mention three of them: First, the origin and cumulativity of data and their relationship with sources: much of the debate focused on the “empirical proof” and data set. Debates focus on measurement and econometrics, not on the historical origin of data themselves. Second, the model itself responds to the “collapse of the wall” in 1989 and the transformation of development economics. Until that moment economic anthropology and economic rationality were debated; after 1989, optimizing actors went along with either institutional or factor constraints. The debate between neo-institutionnalist and supporters of the great divergence hides their common ground. Third, and starting from this, only the rate of growth, per capita and GDP matters; hence the debate on the great divergence and its data. Yet this angle completely neglects the problems of distribution.

Giorgio Riello: Trade and the emergence of a world economy

The relationship between trade and the emergence of a world economy has been the subject of a number of differing ideas and conceptualisations over the past two generations. Economic historians have chartered the intensification of long-distance – and especially transcontinental - trade over the course of the early modern period and in particular since the nineteenth century, but there is little consensus on the chronology and reasons for major shifts in this long period. The relative size of trade fluxes is a subject of debate especially for the pre-modern period as is a general definition of what the making of a global market might entail. Economic historians have provided rather different chronologies of the making of a global economic system of exchange. The same can be said of the relationship between trade and economic growth, a topic of disagreement especially for the period of the industrial revolution. This paper starts by chartering the scale and fluxes of world trade over the five centuries from the start of European direct trade with Asia and the Americas to the late twentieth century. It proceeds by considering a possible conceptualisation of trade according to phases and charters the relative historiography. It then moves to consider the complex relationship between trade and economic development. The paper thus enters into the analysis of the key actors that have shaped trade over the centuries providing a business and institutional perspective. It concludes with an analysis of the historiography of trade and empire in order to re-consider the relationship between global development and politics.

Gareth Austin: Africa: Economic change south of the Sahara since c. 1500

Over the last seventy years, specialists in African history have challenged the traditional perception that economic change in the Sub-Saharan subcontinent was largely absent or essentially exogenous. Yet the old view continues to frame the way in which many social scientists view African issues. This is partly because the revisionist research has tended to be local in focus, whereas the older views have been restated at a general level, in the categories of successive theories (dependency and world systems, rational-choice institutionalism) that have themselves been used to re-dress (rather than redress) the narrative of European exceptionalism: against which Sub-Saharan Africa continues to be used as a convenient ‘other’. This paper offers a broad analysis of economic change in the region, accepting the truism that environments and experiences have always varied greatly within it. In placing Sub-Saharan Africa within the global history of economic change, the paper will highlight the overlapping perspectives of both comparison and (entangled) connection: asking about the distinctiveness and otherwise of African economic history, and what that history reveals about the sources of economic change in human history generally; while noting that, over many centuries, the strategies of African decision-makers (from households to ruling elites) in response to the domestic constraints that they faced often involved exploiting resources derived from other world regions. Similarly, the paper distinguishes different timescales of change in African economic history (from the ‘conjunctures’ of colonization, decolonization and ‘Structural Adjustment’ to the very long-term, mostly cumulative struggle to overcome environmental obstacles to higher labour productivity, in pursuit of greater food security and prosperity), noting when the latter interact (as in the population take-off in the twentieth century, made possible by a very long-established set of cultural responses to age-old labour scarcity, but also by political and technological changes over a few decades).

Peer Vries: Labour-intensive industrialization: 'A concept too many'?

One of the major debates in global economic history over the last decade has been about the question whether there would exist an East Asian, labour-intensive route to industrialization. In my presentation I will test this claim for the case of Japan, focusing on the period from the beginning of the Meiji Restoration till the end of the 1930s. I will address the following questions 1) Did the (assumed) differences between an East-Asian and a Western route to industrialization indeed exist when we look at the case of Japan? 2) Did the (assumed) differences in factor endowments between Japan and industrialising Western countries indeed have the consequences that proponents of a specific East-Asian route to industrialization postulate? 3) How can one measure labour- and capital intensity in the case of Japan? 4) To what extent can Japan’s economic growth during the period under study be explained by labour and/or capital intensity? My conclusion will be that obviously Japan’s 'path to industrialization' had some interesting peculiarities but that the country’s route to high and sustained industrial growth basically was identical to that of all countries that ever achieved such growth. This means that in its case too the major driving forces behind it were increasing capital inputs and permanent innovation. In that respect labour-intensive industrialization can be regarded as ‘a concept too many’.

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