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The Cambridge Economic History of the Modern World: Volume II, 1870 to the Present

Editor(s):Broadberry, Stephen
Fukao, Kyoji
Reviewer(s):Carreras, Albert

Published by EH.Net (February 2022).

Stephen Broadberry and Kyoji Fukao, eds. The Cambridge Economic History of the Modern World: Volume II, 1870 to the Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021. xv + 566 pp. £120 (hardcover), ISBN 978-1-107-15948-8.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Albert Carreras, Full Professor, Department of Economics and Business, Pompeu Fabra University.


The book edited by Stephen Broadberry and Kyoji Fukao is the second volume of The Cambridge Economic History of the Modern World (CEHMW).  It covers 1870 to the present. In title and format this two-volume set bears a strong similarity to 2010’s Cambridge Economic History of Modern Europe (CEHME), also co-edited by Stephen Broadberry and in two volumes divided between 1700-1870 and 1870-present. In both cases, there is an explicit desire to cover all countries, not just the major ones, and double or triple authorship is used to ensure familiarity with geographically or thematically very broad literatures.  Unlike the second volume of the CEHME, the CEHMW volume itself is not organized into major subperiods (1870-1914, 1914-1945, 1945-2000). It is divided into two parts, the first with eleven chapters and the second with eight. The first part covers “regional developments,” and the second covers “factors governing performance differentials in the global economy.” The effort to treat Europe as a single unit of analysis has had to give way to the recognition of the deep regional diversity of the world. The major historical stages are treated in each and every chapter, both regional and thematic.

The quest for universal coverage is the first and perhaps the main success of the work. A group of top-level contributors cover, in a well-integrated and cohesive manner, eleven major regions: “North America: The Rise of US to Technological and Economic Leadership” (Paul Rhode); “Western Europe: Convergence and Divergence” (Paul Sharp); “The Socialist Experiment and Beyond: The Economic Development of Eastern Europe” (Tracy Dennison and Alexander Klein); “Japan: Modern Economic Growth in Asia” (Kyoji Fukao and Tokihiko Settsu); “Economic Change in China: The Role of Institutions and Ideology” (Debin Ma); “From Free Trade to Regulation: The Political Economy of India’s Development” (Bishnupriya Gupta);  “Growth and Globalization Phases in South East Asian Development” (Gregg Huff); “The Middle East: Decline and Resurgence in West Asia” (Mohamed Saleh); “Latin America: Stalled Catching Up” (Pablo Astorga and Alfonso Herranz-Loncán);  “African Economic Development: Growth, Reversals, and Deep Transitions” (Ewout Frankema), and “Australia: Prosperity, Relative Decline and Reorientation” (Gary B. Magee). North Africa is in the Middle East one. Coverage is systematic, and where the text does not go, tables and graphs provide missing information. As an indication of the radical nature of the experiment and the absence of bias (as seen from peripheral Europe), I can attest that the only large and wealthy country not specifically covered is Canada, although it appears on several occasions in the second part. All the world’s economies of large and medium demographic and economic size – and many small – are covered, and all with comparable indicators and issues.  The volume and the first part are not organized around distances from the initial leader, the United Kingdom, but from the leader for most of the period – the United States. This approach provides a consistent and compact view of a wide array of different experiences. Of course, the better known the region in economic historiography, the fewer the surprises in the chapter, regardless of the quality – always very high – of the authors. But there is no doubt that there are chapters that represent a more innovative or inspiring approach, such as those on China, India, Southeast Asia, the Near East and North Africa, and Africa. Less prior knowledge or fewer previous syntheses or less well fit regions into world economic historiography provide opportunities for their authors to shine.

While the first part is built on firm foundations –as firm as the available statistical data can be- and on previous historiographies almost as diverse in degrees of development as the experiences of the regions themselves, the second part is different. It deals with immense topics, which have been studied in a regionally irregular way, but for which there are, in all cases, brilliant overall approaches.  The editors have forced pairs or trios of authors to fit together vast and diverse literatures. In the first part, there are more individual authorships (eight out of eleven) and there are fourteen authors in total. In the second part, there are no individual authorships, and for good reasons. With only eight chapters there are eighteen different authors. Thus we have two chapters on the proximate sources of growth: “Healthy, Literate and Smart: The Global Increase of Human Capital” (Latika Chaudhary and Peter Lindert) –a whole world of hot academic issues- and “Proximate Sources of Growth: Capital and Technology” (Rajabrata Banerjee, Robert Inklaar, and Herman de Jong). There are two more on the ultimate sources of growth: “Underlying Sources of Growth: First and Second Nature Geography” (Paul Caruana-Galizia, Toshihiro Okubo, and Nikolaus Wolf) and “Underlying Sources of Growth: Institutions and the State” (James Foreman-Peck and Leslie Hannah), both as fashionable as durable. There is one special chapter bringing together the economic history answers to all those critical of the very concept of growth: “Living Standards, Inequality, and Human Development” (Leandro Prados de la Escosura and Myung Soo Cha). The last three chapters are devoted to the global economy: “Trade and Immigration” (David S. Jacks and John P. Tang); “International Finance” (Barry Eichengreen and Rui Pedro Esteves) and “War and Empire” (Jari Eloranta and Leigh Gardner). Perhaps the one that seems more conventional in title is “International Finance”, but it is a masterful innovative view of the whole period. Most of the others have had to build their arguments and fit together their parts, often from scratch.  No major issues are absent. The territorial coverage is always broad. The major historical stages are well covered. Where possible, temporally continuous visions are provided that help the readers form chronological interpretations. Each chapter puts together quite different strands of literature in a suggestive manner. The result is a series of chapters that contain, each of them, the full potential of a book – or an entire library.

The work is always well interwoven. The cohesive action of the editors is visible. The “Introduction” is a proper one, displaying the main argument.  The volume is a breakthrough that could have seemed impossible to achieve ex ante.  The second volume of the CEHMW is a set of masterful, synthetic and inspiring texts.  But this reviewer feels a sense of longing for a more explicit chronological organization of the evolution of economic history. Can we think of the world economy without breaking down the last century and a half into periods that are intensely marked by truly global historical episodes, such as World War I, World War II and the collapse of the Soviet bloc?  I miss it and I encourage new attempts to reconstruct this historical approach, which could have taken the form of a distinct part and four more chapters or of a conclusive chapter or of a longer introduction or, now that the project is finished and published, a new, short book –a nice challenge for the editors. In the meantime, I encourage all economic historians and social scientists at large to enjoy the well-researched and intelligent feats of synthesis in the second volume of the CEHMW, which offer us a front row view of the best that the economic historiography of the modern world has to offer.


Albert Carreras is Full Professor in the Department of Economics and Business at Pompeu Fabra University in Spain. With Xavier Tafunell, he is the author of Between Empire and Globalization: An Economic History of Modern Spain (Palgrave Studies in Economic History, 2021) and editor of Estadísticas Históricas de España, Siglos XIX-XX, 3 vols. (2005).

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Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Historical Geography
History of Technology, including Technological Change
Military and War
International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII