restricted access World of Possibilities: Flexibility and Mass Production in Western Industrialization (review)
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World of Possibilities: Flexibility and Mass Production in Western Industrialization. Edited by Charles F. Sabel and Jonathan Zeitlin (New York, Cambridge University Press, 1997) 465 pp. $79.95

This suggestive and important book has two parts, an excellent introductory survey of the field by Sabel and Zeitlin, and ten essays of varying interest about different industries (mostly textiles and metallurgy) in (mostly) Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Scandinavia.

The most curious and innovative of these “applied” pages is Carlo Poni’s wise and engaging piece about fashion and silk merchants in eighteenth-century Lyons. He concludes that in this city, even before 1800, “the strategy of annual programmed fashions” created “opportunities of product and process differentiation and flexibility” (68).

More representative of these applied essays, however, is Rudolf Boch’s “The Rise and Decline of Flexible Production: The Cutlery Industry of Solingen since the Eighteenth Century.” Boch’s narrative analysis begins when region-based artisanal industries began to feel the pull of larger and more distant world-trade circuits. Socially, the distinctive characteristic of Solingen in these early days was that both entrepreneurs and grinders were bound by a fraternal “social contract” that, in effect, limited competition and protected quality.

But not for long. When the dictates of nineteenth-century world trade became ever more imperious, linear-minded, Landesian technocrat/technologists, Smithian bureaucrats, and intelligent but ethically and historically obtuse unionists and Marxists nearly killed Solingen’s early patterns of flexible production. 1

Miraculously, however, in the late nineteenth century, all concerned parties did manage to adapt older social arrangements to new and reconceived “flexible specialized” industrial modes of making things. Rejuvenated and strengthened, the German city now rivalled, and even overtook, England’s Sheffield-ware—thanks to its (flexible) ability to produce a “Babylonic variety” of types and models of cutlery (157). But not for long. After World War I, the city went into “linear” decline once again. [End Page 308]

Boch’s overall conclusion is that the history of this industry conclusively demonstrates the non-existence of an “immanent logic” of technological change (154). To the reverse, he argues, what really mattered at Solingen were “external” forces, such as the ideological preference of unionists and government officials, war, the perceived needs of workers and their ability to secure their goals, or happenstance.

In one way or another, all of the other essays function likewise. Philip Scranton’s essay, for example, the one piece that deals with American industry, aims to formulate a “textile paradigm that could replace the Whig practice of regarding industry as the template of American industrial development.” “Such a motif,” he adds, “would invite us to discard any notion of an immanent logic to industrial change, to seek out the situational particularities of work place social and technical relations, market and financial practice, together with their cultural and political components, so as to assemble a contextualized and inclusive portrait of temporal and spatial developments, rather than letting a fragment of an industry stand for the whole (as was so long the case with staple cottons in textiles)” (342).

Many of these ten essays are quite useful. Some, however, are both dull and poorly conceived, since their authors take postmodern complexity as license to ramble self-indulgently through material that is not per se too exciting.

But Sabel and Zeitlin’s introductory essay is of a wholly different order. Elegantly written and stylishly conceived, it is the best exposition of “flexibility” that I know. Imaginatively phrased, their admirable pages are a brilliant résumé of the problématique at hand. Flexible producers, they explain, must be taken figuratively as “worthy interlocutors, not, at best, as bright natives who have anticipated one or another result of modern economics and organizational theory” (1). Economic historians of the past, they argue, have misread the actions of the industrial factors that they studied: “Economic agents, we found again and again, in the course of the seminar’s work, do not maximize so much as they strategize. By this cryptic locution, we mean that they are at least as much concerned with determining, in all senses, the context they are in as they are in pursuing what...