Divergence – Concepts, Challenges, Explanations


Concepts of divergence, that is, the long-term variations in societal development be-tween different world regions, have stimulated recent scholarly debates in both economic and political history, particularly with respect to the relationship between culture and po-litical institutions (cf. Huntington 1993, Jones 2006, Rubin 2013), the causes of econom-ic growth and the emergence of relative economic backwardness (cf. Jones 2003, Landes 1999, Morris 2010, North and Thomas 1995), as well as the significance of social institu-tions such as kinship and family structures (cf. Galor 2006). In economic history, the study of cross-continental divergence is a methodological extension of research on the causes of early industrialisation (cf. Cipolla 1993, Crafts 1977, 1992, Luiten van Zanden 2009) and thus an example of how a comparative approach can help identify growth-inducing factors. From a Euro-Chinese comparative perspective, attention has been paid to technological advancements in book printing and the production of cotton textiles (cf. Baten and Luiten van Zanden 2008, Broadberry and Gupta 2005, 2009, Zurndorfer 2011).
Even though inquiries into the causes of economic divergence and related cri-tiques (cf. Bryant 2008, Duchesne 2004, Roy 2012, Vries 2001) have dominated the di-vergence debate since the publication of Kenneth Pomeranz’ seminal book The Great Di-vergence: China, Europe and the Making of the Modern World Economy (2000; also cf. Dudley 2005, O’Brien 2010, Vries 2010), a wider conceptual focus that also includes in-stances of legal and political divergence has become visible (cf. Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson 2005, Kuran 2011). This broadening of perspectives is also leading to a closer examination of the methodological implications of developmental comparisons.



This session focuses the roles of elite circles, large-scale structures of governance, and legal regimes in determining overall frameworks of societal development, thus shifting the discussion beyond economic development. Moore’s article provides a useful overview of the convergent processes of urbanisation and social stratification across the Eurasian landmass in the early medieval period and the subsequent changes in elite structure and the dissemination of technology that triggered divergent long-term developmental tra-jectories between Western Europe, the Islamic East, and China. Wong and Rosenthal’s book chapters discuss the important roles of territorial consolidation and fragmentation in the Chinese and European Middle Ages and the related implications for the develop-ment of political and economic institutions, which are shown to be crucial with respect to the divergent growth paths in the early modern period. Ma’s essay complements this perspective by underlining the significance of legal institutions in shaping long-term growth paths in China and Europe, thus demonstrating how a comparative analysis of legal traditions can contribute to explaining the Euro-Chinese developmental divergence.
Against this background, we specifically want to consider the following aspects:

1. Political divergence: in addition to religious and economic divergences, has there been a divergence in the shape of political institutions and, if so, when did it oc-cur (cf. Mann 1986)?
2. Typology: can different types of divergence (economic, legal, religious, political) occur simultaneously (cf. Davids 2013)? Is there a path-dependence between them?
3. Comparative history: are prior instances of convergence a necessary requirement for divergent developmental trajectories to occur? Could divergence be a perma-nent condition rather than a reversible process?
4. Methodological spillovers: to what extent does the study of political and economic divergence yield insights into related historical fields of inquiry such as state for-mation and the emergence of markets (cf. Hui 2005, Pamuk 2007)?
5. Institutions and social structure: what is the role of informational networks in maintaining political institutions (also cf. Ma 2011)?
6. Epistemological limitations: has the divergence debate succeeded in overcoming centrist perspectives (cf. Blaut 2000, Goody 2006, Hobson 2004, 2006, McNeill 1991, Wong 1997)?


More generally, we are interested in the wider epistemological implications of the di-vergence debate, specifically with respect to theoretical concepts and explanatory frameworks. Hence this session is also intended as a platform to discuss the usefulness of current theories, methods and terminologies.


Core reading:

Ma, Debin: "Law and Economy in Traditional China: A "Legal Origin" Perspective on the Great Divergence", in: idem, Luiten van Zanden, Jan (eds.), Law and Long-term Eco-nomic Change - A Eurasian Perspective, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011, pp. 46-67.

Moore, R. I.: "The Eleventh Century in Eurasian History: A Comparative Approach to the Convergence and Divergence of Medieval Civilizations", in: Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 33 (Winter 2003), No. 1, pp. 1-21.

Wong, R. Bin, Rosenthal, Jean-Laurent: Before and Beyond Divergence - The Politics of Economic Change in China and Europe, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011.
 Chapter 1: Space and politics + Chapter 7: Political Economies of Growth, 1500-1950


Recommended further reading:

Acemoglu, Daron, Johnson, Simon, Robinson, James: "The Rise of Europe: Atlantic Trade, Institutional Change, and Economic Growth", in: American Economic Review 95 (June 2005), No. 3, pp. 546-579.

Baten, Jörg, Luiten van Zanden, Jan: "Book production and the onset of modern eco-nomic growth", in: Journal of Economic Growth 13 (September 2008), No. 3, pp. 217-235.

Blaut, James M.: Eight Eurocentric Historians, New York: The Guilford Press, 2000.

Broadberry, Stephen, Gupta, Bishnupriya: "Cotton Textiles and the Great Divergence: Lancashire, India and Shifting Competitive Advantage, 1600-1850", in: CEPR Discussion Paper, August 2005, No. 5183.

Broadberry, Stephen, Gupta, Bishnupriya: "Lancashire, India, and shifting competitive advantage in cotton textiles, 1700–1850: the neglected role of factor prices", in: The Economic History Review 62 (May 2009), No. 2, pp. 279–305.

Bryant, Joseph M.: "A New Sociology for a New History? Further Critical Thoughts on the Eurasian Similarity and Great Divergence Theses", in: Canadian Journal of Sociology 33 (2008), No. 1, pp. 149-167.

Cipolla, Carlo M.: Before the industrial revolution: European society and economy, 1000-1700, London: Routledge, 1993.

Crafts, Nicholas F. R.: "Industrial Revolution in England and France: Some Thoughts on the Question, “Why was England First?”", in: The Economic History Review 30 (August 1977), No. 3, pp. 429-441.

Crafts, Nicholas F. R., Harley, Charles K.: "Output growth and the British industrial revo-lution: a restatement of the Crafts-Harley view", in: The Economic History Review 45 (1992), pp. 703-730.

Davids, Karel: Religion, Technology, and the Great and Little Divergences - China and Europe Compared, c. 700-1800, Leiden: Brill, 2013.

Duchesne, Ricardo: "On the Rise of the West: Researching Kenneth Pomeranz’s Great Divergence", in: Review of Radical Political Economics 36 (March 2004), No. 1, pp. 52-81.

Dudley, Leonard: "Explaining the Great Divergence: Medium and Message on the Eura-sian Land Mass, 1700-1850", in: Marciano, Alain, Josselin, Jean-Michel (eds.), Law And The State - A Political Economy Approach, Cheltenham and Northampton: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2005, pp. 100-120.

Findlay, Ronald: "The Roots of Divergence: Western Economic History in Comparative Perspective", in: The American Economic Review 82 (May, 1992), No. 2, pp. 158-161.

Galor, Oded, Mountford, Andrew: "Trade and the Great Divergence: The Family Connec-tion", in: The American Economic Review 96 (May, 2006), No. 2, pp. 299-303.

Goody, Jack: The Theft of History, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Hobson, John: "East and West in Global History", in: Theory, Culture & Society 23 (2006), No. 2-3, pp. 408-410.

Hobson, John M.: The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation, Cambridge etc.: Cam-bridge University Press, 2004.

Hui, Victoria Tin-bor: War and state formation in ancient China and early modern Eu-rope, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Huntington, Samuel P.: "The Clash of Civilizations?”, in: Foreign Affairs 72 (Summer, 1993), No. 3, pp. 22-49.

Jones, Eric: Cultures Merging - A Historical and Economic Critique of Culture, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.

Jones, Eric: The European miracle: environments, economies and geopolitics in the his-tory of Europe and Asia, Cambridge etc.: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Kuran, Timur: The Long Divergence - How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East, Princeton and Woodstock: Princeton University Press, 2011.

Landes, David S.: The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor, London: Abacus, 1999.

Luiten van Zanden, Jan: The Long Road to the Industrial Revolution - The European Economy in a Global Perspective, 1000-1800, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2009.

Ma, Debin: "Rock, Scissors, Paper: the Problem of Incentives and Information in Tradi-tional Chinese State and the Origin of Great Divergence", in: LSE Working Papers in Eco-nomic History, July 2011, No. 152/11.

Mann, Michael: The Sources of Social Power - Volume 1: A History of Power from the Beginning to A.D. 1760, Cambridge etc.: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

McNeill, William H.: The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community - With a Retrospective Essay, London: The University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Morris, Ian: Why the West Rules - for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Re-veal About the Future, London: Profile Books, 2010.

North, Douglass C., Thomas, Robert Paul: The Rise of the Western World: a New Eco-nomic History, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

O'Brien, Patrick: "Ten Years of Debate on the Origins of the Great Divergence", in: Re-views in History, November 2010, No. 1008.

Pamuk, Şevket: "The Black Death and the origins of the ‘Great Divergence’ across Eu-rope, 1300–1600", in: European Review of Economic History 11 (2007), No. 3, pp. 289-317.

Pomeranz, Kenneth: The Great Divergence: China, Europe and the Making of the Modern World Economy, Princeton (N.J.): Princeton University Press, 2000.

Roy, Tirthankar: "Beyond Divergence: Rethinking the Economic History of India", in: Economic History of Developing Regions 27 (April 2012), No. 1, pp. 57-65.

Rubin, Jared: "Bills of Exchange, Financial Networks, and Quasi-Impersonal Exchange in Western Europe and the Middle East", in: Christ, Georg, Burkhardt, Stefan, Zaugg, Rob-erto, Beihammer, Alexander Daniel, Morche, Franz-Julius (eds.), Union in Separation - Diasporic Groups and Identities in the Eastern Mediterranean (1100-1800), Heidelberg: Springer, forthcoming 2013.

Vries, Peer: "Are Coal and Colonies Really Crucial? Kenneth Pomeranz and the Great Di-vergence", in: Journal of World History 12 (2001), No. 1, pp. 407-446.

Vries, Peer: "The California School and Beyond: How to Study the Great Divergence?", in: History Compass 8 (July 2010), No. 7, pp. 730-751.

Wong, R. Bin: China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experi-ence, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997.

Zurndorfer, Harriet T.: "Cotton Textile Manufacture and Marketing in Late Imperial China and the Great Divergence", in: Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 54 (2011), No. 5, pp. 701-738.

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