Raman on Bruland and Gerritsen and Hudson and Riello, 'Reinventing the Economic History of Industrialisation'

Kristine Bruland, Anne Gerritsen, Pat Hudson, Giorgio Riello, eds. Reinventing the Economic History of Industrialisation. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2020. Illustrations, tables. 344 pp. $140.00 CAD (cloth), ISBN 978-0-228-00090-7; $40.95 CAD (paper), ISBN 978-0-228-00091-4.

Reviewed by Alka Raman (London School of Economics and Political Science)
Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (March, 2023)
Commissioned by Penelope K. Hardy (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58222

Maxine Berg occupies a prominent position among historians working on the first Industrial Revolution in global history. Challenging mainstream Britain-focused and wage-centered narratives on industrialization, her numerous contributions have stood out for presenting robust alternative evidence related to the growth of the phenomenon we now understand as industrialization. Berg’s work has successfully extended our knowledge of the first Industrial Revolution by demonstrating its trans-European connections with Asia, especially India and China, placing it at the heart of the global history discourse. Her unraveling of the role of artisans and consumer goods in shaping premodern global economies acted as veritable seeds for new investigations on the role that knowledge, skill, machinery, materials, consumption, trade, and small-scale production played in shaping the Industrial Revolution.

Reinventing the Economic History of Industrialisation successfully locates Berg’s vital work within the discourse on industrialization and the crucial debates connected to the theme, such as the great divergence, European exceptionalism, and the role of consumption in the industrialization process. As an edited compilation of essays, the volume succeeds in highlighting Berg’s contribution to economic history while simultaneously demonstrating how it has stimulated new perspectives leading to original and varied scholarship.

The book is divided into four parts, delineated as "ages," as a candid recognition of the four key aspects through which Berg approached industrialization: manufactures, machinery, luxury goods, and global trade. This structure allows the editors to set chapters within neat thematic groups enabling mutual dialogue between close-enough concepts. The introduction does an impressively thoughtful job of setting out Berg’s vast scholarship over the decades on the theme of industrialization. Individual chapters take off where Berg’s writings have led to new questions and insights, offering novel perspectives and explorations of key concepts related to Berg’s work. Seventeen in all, these chapters focus on a variety of topics and, on the whole, are a useful compilation of new ideas and old arguments presented anew.

While the paucity of space does not allow me to go into detail about each chapter, several stand out both for the new pieces of evidence offered and for their examination. Most chapters are descriptive in character, and they bring forth substantial historical evidence to make their arguments. Some exceptionally remarkable pieces include Osamu Saito's on machinery and shifts in occupational structure, Liliane Hilaire-Pérez's on the significance of the older meaning of technology as useful knowledge and efficient action, David Washbrook's on the challenge from Indian evidence to the idea of small-scale manufacturing, and Patrick Karl O’Brien's on his call for a fuller understanding of the "macro" inventions of the cotton textile industry. Equally strong cases are made by Anne Gerritsen on the existence of knowledge related to knowing and making in premodern China, Giorgio Riello on the context of procurement of cotton goods in Madras by the English East India Company, Beverly Lemire on the distinctiveness offered by indigenous goods within the metropole, and the engaging narrative on French collection of botanical data by Sarah Easterby-Smith, uniting economic history with the history of science via useful natural knowledge accumulation.

The collection effectively takes the narrative of global history beyond an opaque economic divergence or generalized exceptionalism, toward a human instinct for knowledge and wealth acquisition and the myriad ways this instinct presents itself, whether through the withholding of trade secrets within a factory or through the slow adaptation of a self-acting spinning machine or the logical persistence of small-scale manufacturing. It highlights not only the global connections on which industrialization was based but also the specific local contexts within which actors as individuals and groups operated, ultimately shaping their economic realities and our collective global history.

In the spirit of a good homage, the book offers a solid nod to Berg’s exceptional contribution to the field of economic history and furthers her perspective by building on it and through rigorous engagement with the themes she developed. To that end, it constitutes a useful volume for those interested in understanding how knowledge traveled and evolved in the premodern world leading up to industrialization, whether academics, students, or curious nonacademics. Given the nature of this volume, the best reviewer would have been the inimitable Berg herself. Based on the breadth and quality of scholarship on display here, I would imagine she is more than contented with the outcome.

Citation: Alka Raman. Review of Bruland, Kristine; Gerritsen, Anne; Hudson, Pat; Riello, Giorgio, eds., Reinventing the Economic History of Industrialisation. H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews. March, 2023.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58222

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.