economic history, eurasian history, history, history of asia, history of capitalism, history of europe, history of the united states, History of the US, Uncategorized, world history

Book Review: Kenneth Pomeranz,The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton University Press, 2001), Pp. 392.


book.jpgHistorian Kenneth Pomeranz sets out to argue a counterargument to the old linear narrative of history and especially European “excellence.” Pomeranz offers a revisionist history in his book entitled, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy. Pomeranz’s thesis states, “This book…acknowledges the vital role of internally driven European growth but emphasizes how similar those processes were to processes at work elsewhere, especially in east Asia, until almost 1800 ” (3). Pomeranz finds comparative methodology more productive than delineated differences in the historical record. Taking major themes of difference and finding counter comparisons is ultimately how Pomeranz discuses in this truly world historical narratives.

The first concepts that Pomeranz discusses, and pushes back on, is this idea of perception in terms of European excellence and the reality of Asia’s equality of excellence. For example perceptions about life expectancy, birthrate/death rates, markets, and technology all become sites of similarity rather than differences in the history of both these regions (32-68). Pomeranz reviews the technology arguments of European “excellence” stating, “In many areas, various non-European societies remained ahead. Irrigation which we have already mentioned, was perhaps the most obvious; and in many other agricultural technologies, too, Europe lagged behind China, India, Japan, and parts of Southeast Asia” (45).  Ultimately, Pomeranz goes about his findings by debunking narratives of European “excellence” into a narrative of European and Asian connection.

The second argument, Pomeranz debates is the idea of  notions of Europe having “special” institutions. Pomeranz states, “Far from being unique, then, the most developed parts of western Europe seem to have shared crucial economic features—commercialization, commodification of goods, land and labor, market-driven growth and adjustment by households of both fertility and labor allocation to economic trends—with other densely populated core areas in Eurasia” (107).  Again there are more comparable historical realities than difference in the narrative of world history. Pomeranz also discusses this in comparing economic realities stating, “Europe did not stand out form China and Japan…Thus, at least so far, we would seem to have similar conditions in these three societies for the emergence of the new kinds of firms that we generally think of as ‘capitalist’” (165). Again, Pomeranz draws upon the similarities of capitalism between countries rather than the played out Eurocentric narratives of capitalism being a distinct feature or derivative of Europe.

The last unit of analysis for Pomeraz is the ecological and industrial side of the historical narratives. Pomeranz states, “It was through creating the preconditions for those flows [‘New World resources’] that European capitalism and military fiscalism—as par of a larger global conjuncture—really mattered” (207).  This stream of resource accumulation is discussed in terms of “shared constraints” by both Asia and Europe (211).  An example of one of these shared constraints is deforestation. Pomeranz discusses the similarities in the ecological arguments of difference; stating, “China’s problems with forest cover and fuel supply were more serious, but probably not as bad as we often think, and—surprisingly—not clearly worse than those of western Europe”(227). This narrative debunks old notions of unique attributes given to Europe.

One critique that I did have was in the limited regions Pomeranz focuses on in the historical narrative he offers. Although Pomeranz does try to discuss different regions of Asia and Europe, he is still stuck in the Europe vs Asia binary of world history story.  Overall, positives out weigh the negatives in this historical offering.  Pomeranz drives home his main point in the end of his monograph asserting, “History is never as neat as the chimpanzee/human case…Instead, we have statements of rough similarity, or of advantages that seem closely tied to some off-setting disadvantage” (280). Moreover, I would suggest this more exhaustive and inclusive historical narrative to historians and anyone who is tired of the same old Eurocentric narratives.