Friday, September 15, 2006

Small divergences, then larger ones, then the "great divergence"

If in history the body of the dog is the facts and the tail is the generalization we reach from them, then should the tail be wagging the dog as it often does when historians jump straight into and devote inordinate amounts of time to artificially constructed "great debates".

I would argue that in a history course, and more specifically in an economic history course, large unresolved questions or issues around which debates still swirl should be avoided in favor of detailed case studies from which limited, humble yet powerful generalisations can be made. In other words, teach students the limits of analysis. How to formulate and test small hypotheses and how to, step by step, move from these to larger more inclusive hypotheses.

What I am thinking about here, is life outside of academia. Contrast, for instance, Wolfowitz's promise of quick success in the Iraq War, avoiding Colin Powell with his more experienced Edmund Burke-like "break it you buy it" pottery barn rule, and war correspondent, historian, and British conservative Sir Max Hasting's take on the Iraq war:
The madness of Bush's policy is that he has made a wilful choice to amalgamate the grossly irrational, totalitarian and homicidal objectives of al-Qaida with the just claims of Palestinians and grievances of Iraqis. His remarks on Saturday invite Muslims who sympathise with Hamas or reject Iraq's occupation or merely aspire to grow opium in Afghanistan to make common cause with Bin Laden.

If the United States insists upon regarding all Muslim opponents of its foreign policies as a homogeneous enemy then that is what they become. The Muslim radicals' "single narrative" portrays the entire course of history as a Christian and Jewish plot against Islam.

It is widely agreed among western governments and intelligence agencies that, in order to defeat the pernicious spread of such nonsense, a convincing counter-narrative is needed. Yet it becomes a trifle difficult to compose this when the US president promulgates his own single narrative, almost as ridiculous as that of al-Qaida. (Source: Brad DeLong's Blog)
What I would not teach is the "great divergence" even though it seems to be mandatory now, namely why did the west have the "industrial revolution" while the non-western world was left to play a game of economic catch up? Comments in a Perdue paper provide a little support for this view.
"Writing and teaching world history is not easy. Unavoidably, we must simplify the story by knitting together a few strands of the voluminous historical record. Anyone who tries to draw such a grand picture deserves respect. There is nothing wrong per se with thinking big. But large-scale explanatory schemes are fraught with dangers. Too often the big thinkers merely repeat old stereotypes held by eighteenth and nineteenth century Europeans about classical Asian civilizations. Tired cliches are dressed up as new theories, ignoring recent research."

"A central question for European historians is the origin of the Industrial Revolution. For China, the inverse question is often raised: why did imperial China 'stagnate', or fail to break through to sustained industrial growth by 1800, when it had led the world in economic dynamism and technological innovation at least up to 1200 CE? Both of these questions have generated a great deal
of discussion. We are plagued, however, by 'fast-food' explanations which attempt to take a shortcut through complex empirical and theoretical issues." (Source: China in the Early Modern World: Shortcuts, Myths and Realities Education About Asia, Summer, 1999. Peter C. Perdue)
How could a short survey course provide more than a 'fast food explanation' without almost exlcusively focusing on the problem to the exclusion of everything else, like the western media often does in so-called Media Circuses when it latches on to one story to the exclusion of all else. This mentality does seem to affect academia sometimes. For instance, the Anthropology of War course at MIT, instead of poking around and searching under less visited rocks to expand our corpus of historical knowledge (e.g. the Maori Musket Wars, technological transfer fuelling expansionary warfare), the course chooses to focus exclusively on the Iraq War, as if the rest of the world will not be equally as relevant one day in the future.

Perdue's paper warns us not to enter historical texts with preconceived conclusions. The late nineteenth century sugar industry is used as an example:
"Thus the technological changes in the sugar industry had little or nothing to do with the relative price of labor, but a lot to do with the action of the two states. The colonial Japanese state could enforce social changes that supported a total system of industrial production, from the field to the factory to the ports, but the weakened Qing empire, despite its efforts at self-strengthening, had the will but not the strength to direct change."
Severely dichotomized debates like the "great divergence debate" if they soak too much in the way of pedagogical and research resources can be counterproductive.