Rethinking the Industrial Revolution

Industrial Evolution, not Revolution?

De-centering the European Model

What does this imply for our teaching? It seems to me that it offers us a number of opportunities. In an Asia-specific course, it allows us to talk quite openly about the fact that there are dynamics of change, such as commercial expansion, that took place in different parts of Asia as well as in Europe. And several centuries passed before Europeans began to develop the scales of commerce found in China beginning in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Looking at Asian cases of commercial development allows us to place European phenomena in a broader global context, to see which European phenomena are similar to those that we find in other parts of the world.

Precursors of Change [VIDEO]

TRANSCRIPT: From about eighty years ago to thirty years ago, about a half century, the Industrial Revolution loomed large as a breaking point in the economic history of the West. What the last thirty years of scholarship has largely done, in many ways, is to argue, there wasn't really a revolution after all. The changes were all very gradual.

And indeed there was a set of preceding changes that prepared the way for the Industrial Revolution. So whether we're looking at England's commercial revolution, the agricultural revolution, to the development of types of banking and finance, to different ways in which farmers started planting commercial crops in different parts of France, there are all kinds of local examples (local to European cases). The argument then goes that all of these things helped prepare the way, through their dynamism, for what became the Industrial Revolution.

And by implication, all of those changes which were important to the development of industrial capitalism in Europe would not have existed in other parts of the world, because if they did, then the European explanation immediately runs into an uncomfortable phenomenon, namely if these are what's necessary in Europe, why don't they perform a similar role in other parts of the world? And it's the posing of that question more precisely, I suggest, that we've reached at this point.

These comparisons de-center the supposed uniqueness of European activities. As we move from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, we can share with students the economic parallels of the period as a major theme in world history. One of the effects of such a presentation is to set up the need to explain the subsequent economic divergence in the nineteenth century.

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