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Journal of World History 13.1 (2002) 225-228



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Book Review

The World and the West: The European Challenge and the Overseas Response in the Age of Empire


The World and the West: The European Challenge and the Overseas Response in the Age of Empire. PHILIP D. CURTIN. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000 . Pp. 308 . $27 .95 (cloth).

For global historians, anxious to create a world historical narrative that does more than merely stick non-Western stories onto the central theme of the rise of the West, conceptualizing world history in a European age is a problem. In The World and the West, Philip Curtin addresses this problem. Eschewing overriding theory in favor of what he calls "eclectic empiricism," Curtin provides fourteen wide-ranging case studies that he hopes will illuminate the "changing relations between the world and the West" and provide "a better understanding of how human societies change through time" (p. xi). Three thematic threads--the divide between intent and outcome, the influence of non-Europeans in building and running European empire, and the complexity of cultural borrowing--provide interpretive unity.

The World and the West is divided into four sections. Part one describes the diverse patterns of Western domination--territorial empire, settlement colony, plural society--and establishes the technological sources--military, medical, organizational--of European power. The rest of the essays focus on the culture change that occurred as non-European [End Page 225] peoples struggled to cope with European expansion. Such change came as the by-product of modernization, a term which Curtin uses in a limited way to mean "the aspiration to achieve, or the fact of achieving, some kind of society that is capable of the kind of high production and high consumption of goods per capita achieved by the most technologically advanced societies of the time" (p. xiii). Part two deals with culture change under European aegis in South Africa and Central Asia, Mexico, Bengal, Java, and Malaysia. Part three looks at culture change among people threatened by European encroachment but still free of European rule--the neo-Incan state in Vilcabamba, Peter the Great's Russia, nineteenth-century Hawai'i, Madagascar, East Africa, and Siam. Japan and the Ottoman Empire get more extended treatment. The final section deals primarily with the post-WWII period--again in a variety of places but focused on Indonesia and Ghana.

Throughout these essays, Curtin dispels whatever visions of simplistic, imitative Westernization still exist. Time and again, he complicates the conventional view of European/non-European interaction by injecting both imperial policy alternatives and local power, initiative, and choice. His myriad case studies from sixteenth-century Mexico to nineteenth-century Hawai'i to twentieth-century Ghana illustrate that culture change was a complicated mix of chance and choice, coercion, and coincidence. Everywhere, the response was neither a wholesale Westernization nor an unyielding continuation of earlier cultural norms, but a series of new solutions to changing conditions. Never clear cut, the results were often unintended, even unwanted by both European and non-European alike.

For specialists in the areas Curtin touches on, there is nothing very new or startling in his description of modernizing culture change. While we will all recognize our own areas, we also get glimpses of cultures and time periods with which we are less familiar. Comparisons of events in areas distant in time and space help dissolve the immediate setting, making it easier to see modernizing culture change not as a unique event, but as the contemporary manifestation of a long-run aspect of world history--the process of change resulting from increasing cross-cultural interaction and technological diffusion.

The World and the West is much like Curtin's earlier Cross-Cultural Trade in World History. Both are collections of case studies drawn from selected times and places, and embedded in a largely implicit comparative framework in which the accumulated details of parallel stories are expected to expose common principles and processes. In the Preface, Curtin recognizes the strengths and weaknesses of this...

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