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Reconceptualizing the Industrial Revolution

Author(s):Horn, Jeff
Rosenband, Leonard N.
Smith, Merritt Roe
Reviewer(s):Jones, Eric

Published by EH.NET (July 2011)

Jeff Horn, Leonard N. Rosenband and Merritt Roe Smith, editors, Reconceptualizing the Industrial Revolution.? Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010.? ix + 366 pp. $24 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-262-51562-7.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Eric Jones, La Trobe University (emeritus).

This book reminds me of old introductory Great Powers courses that, week by week, discussed the early stages of industrialization in one large economy after another.? Here the scope is expanded for modern times by covering not only the former suspects, Britain, France, Germany, the United States, Russia, and Japan, but Scandinavia, Spain, Brazil, India and China in addition.? Several of the chapters offer notably coherent interpretations of the process of industrialization in addition to supplying descriptive material; most are informative.? The chief unexpected inclusion is Brazil, which de Gaulle ill-advisedly said was the country of the future ?and always will be.?? The most unexpected exclusions are surely Italy and Australia.? It is not clear what the decision rule was.? The whole is edited by Jeff Horn (Manhattan College), Leonard Rosenband (Utah State University) and Merritt Roe Smith (MIT), who each contribute a chapter besides jointly providing an introduction.

Reviewers who criticize the titles of books take them too literally and seldom have much else to say, as well as failing to understand that publishers often foist nicely searchable titles on reluctant authors.? Nevertheless I feel obliged to point out that the element of reconceptualization here is limited and far from systematic.? Insofar as a non-traditional vision of the industrial revolution does emerge, it heightens the roles of Chandler?s visible hand and continental European dirigisme.? Although these are already familiar parts of the story in several countries they are dwelt on here more than they used to be, as is the related role of armaments production and even geopolitics.? Two themes brought to the fore by Joel Mokyr (Northwestern), ?useful knowledge? and the Enlightenment, are also given good runs by several other contributors.?

Nevertheless the suggestions as to what was the key explanation of industrialization, or in certain cases delayed industrialization, diverge widely.? They include: for Brazil (which proves an interesting example) a lack of capital market institutions; for China, spending too much on defending the land empire; for India, the absence of autonomous economic policy; for Japan, more positively, cultural engineering by the state.? Perhaps these apparent inconsistencies mirror historical reality but the profession still seems to make heavy weather when constructing hierarchies of explanation, as opposed to listing sequences of factors.? An interesting exercise might be to tabulate the crucial factors proposed in the different chapters, and to investigate explicitly the status of each in all the other countries where it is scarcely mentioned.

One unfortunate feature that surfaces too often is a determined and occasionally intemperate assault on the British or sometimes entire (Western) European template for growth.? This is a straw man if ever there was one.? Trying to demote Britain?s primacy is a tired game, the statist nature of development elsewhere is perfectly well known, and the contribution to British industry of French science and a smattering of artisans from other countries has long been acknowledged.? It is high time to exclude the politics of resentment from economic history.

The situation is not helped by the casualness, endemic in the profession, about British geography.? We should be clearer where we are talking about.? The prime confusion arises from using Britain or British loosely, not acknowledging that these are not the same labels as England or English.? The chapter on China uses British, England and the British in three successive sentences, though strictly speaking they are not interchangeable.? It probably does not matter much in this instance but for a subject generally, indeed typically, concerned with quantities to take the risk of summing incommensurable columns is rather odd.? Thus Berg (Warwick University) stretches ?Britishness? to cover commerce and commodities produced in the entire British Isles whereas all six of her eighteenth century ?international brands? derived from purely English towns or counties.

Confronted with fifteen chapters by diverse hands I can only play favorites.? Mokyr?s chapter on the English Enlightenment and the origins of modern economic growth spreads its influence elsewhere in the book, as already noted.? His is a tightly argued piece that shows the merits of long professional experience, since it surveys all the familiar aspects but adds to them from his own emerging thought and the tenor of recent literature.? Inkster (Wenzao Ursuline College, Taiwan), who takes up some of Mokyr?s themes, similarly benefits from his long career in Japanese studies.? Bruland (Oslo and Geneva) provides detailed tables of Scandinavia?s imports of technology and the countries they came from, as early as the seventeenth century.? Her chapter is therefore more systematic than most and makes a genuinely novel contribution.? Perdue (Yale) develops a strong argument to the effect that the Qing in China suffered from Imperial overstretch through trying to defend a swollen land empire.? This is not to denigrate the remainder of the contributions but merely to pick out some especially interesting items in a collection which, while not precisely reconceptualizing the industrial revolution, does helpfully bring our understanding of it up to date.

Eric Jones, Emeritus Professor, La Trobe University, and former Professor, Melbourne Business School, is the author of Cultures Merging: A Historical and Economic Critique of Culture (Princeton University Press, 2006), and Locating the Industrial Revolution: Inducement and Response (World Scientific, 2010).

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Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII