History as a Process: Great Divergence Debate

.............History is more than just what is read in textbooks. One could say that textbook reading is the end result of the debates that go on concerning history. Take, for instance, the writing of The Great Divergence by Kenneth Pomeranz in 2000. For its time, the book was groundbreaking and did much to move debate forwards. Many historians criticized Pomeranz’s methodology and metrics in the ten years since the book release, while lauding his contributions to the debate. Many viewpoints, both for and against Pomeranz’s work, were presented in the forum on The Great Divergence, including a response to the other’s comments by Pomeranz himself.

.............Among the participants in this debate is Peter Coclanis, a professor of economic and business history at UNC Chapel Hill. While he discusses Pomeranz’s contributions to the debate at length, he takes issue with several of Pomeranz’s methods. He states that Pomeranz does not pay enough attention to the “institutional, political-governmental, military, technological, and cultural developments” that distinguished England from the Yangzi Delta. He also notes that the lack of significant state rivalries, along with the “culture of innovation” that existed in England are evidence for China’s lagging industrialism.

.............Among the more vocal of Pomeranz’s detractors is Jan de Vries, a professor of history and economics at Berkley. He disagrees with one of the main points of Pomeranz’s argument. He holds that the divergence between Europe and Asia did not start with the first Industrial Revolution. Additionally, he takes issue with Pomeranz’s comparisons, stating that they are too informal. In particular, he makes note of a comparison between British steam engines and the efficiency of Chinese stoves. He sees that as somewhat akin to comparing apples and oranges. In his mind, they do not achieve the same economic end. Furthermore, he looks at the urbanization rates for the Yangzi (7.4%) and England (30-40%) as evidence for England’s more prosperous economy. Finally, he notes that Pomeranz has largely ignored the requisite prehistory behind the Industrial Revolution, stating that the Industrial Revolution did not launch British industrial development, but rather allowed it to continue.

.............Phillip Hoffman, a professor of Economics and history at California Institute of Technology also presents some ideas concerning The Great Divergence. He states that research of the last decade points to the gap between Europe and Asia opening up earlier than 1800, stating that Chinese wages were lower than wages in England, placing China on par with the more backwards area of Europe. He also notes that China lacked both a large textile industry and the endemic warfare of Europe, both of which helped pave the way for industrialization.

.............UCLA history professor and Director of the UCLA Asia Institute R. Bin Wong also presented an interesting viewpoint on the Great Divergence. Like Coclanis, he notes that Pomeranz did not incorporate science and technology into his analysis. He also takes issue with Pomeranz’s “coal and colonies” theory, stating that the location of resources only becomes important after the ability to exploit the resource exists. The presence of a resource is not in itself an impetus for the exploitation of said resource. In his book Before and Beyond Divergence, Wong attempted to apply the same economic model to China and Britan. In doing so, it was discovered that financial institutions and demographics are not major causes for divergence. He tried to create a more general model by ignoring colonies and not specifically addressing coal.

.............In the end, what truly marks a debate is the emergence of a dialogue between those who partake in it. The final essay in the forum was a reactionary piece written by none other than Kenneth Pomeranz. He notes that, while fiscal-military states (as Coclanis mentioned) were important in driving European industrialization, but also that there were factors that prevented Chinese imperialism from manifesting itself through colonization, such as the lack of any significant technological or biological advantages (like the Spanish had in the Americas with steel, guns, and smallpox.) Furthermore, he explains his lacking attention to science and technology by saying that he was not trying to ultimately resolve the debate, but rather puch it forwards. Additionally, since the cost of transporting coal was so high, it is easy to see why the position of coal is so important. While he defends his argument, he does concede that he may have overstated the lateness of the divergence, mentioning that he felt that his ideas still likely held until the 1750s at the latest.

.............It is this emergence of a dialogue among historians that define what history is; a series of debates, as opposed to endless textbook reading. The fact that a work of historical analysis can spark a debate even a decade after its publication is a testament to the nature of history as a process.

-Ryan Muther

Coclanis, Peter (Ten Years After: Reflections on Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence) Historically Speaking, September 2011 p10-12
De Vries, Jan (The Great Divergence After Ten Years: Justly Celebrated Yet Hard to Believe) Historically Speaking, September 2011 p13-15
Hoffman, Phillip (Comment of Ken Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence) Historically Speaking, September 2011 p16-17
Wong, R. Bin (Economic History in the Decade after the Great Divergence) Historically Speaking, September 2011 p17-19
Pomeranz, Kenneth (Ten Years After: Responses and Reconsiderations) Historically Speaking, September 2011 p20-24