Journal of World History 10.1 (1999) 211-213
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World history is a demanding field of investigation even for the most experienced of practitioners. It requires an unusual capacity to observe developmental patterns on a very large scale, to envision connections between apparently discrete phenomena across broad expanses of time and space, to let go of standard topics in favor of unconventional themes, to grasp which issues to emphasize and which to ignore, and, above all, to generate new concepts and interpretations. World historians, constantly seeking help and inspiration, will find a valuable set of resources in The Course of Human History by Johan Goudsblom, Eric Jones, and Stephen Mennell. In this compact volume two sociologists and an economic historian, who decry Eurocentric perspectives on the human experience and view with suspicion cultural explanations of complex problems, present seven brief essays dealing with "long-term social processes," which Goudsblom defines as "sequences of changes in the course of which something is transformed from one phase into the next" (p. 21).
Those who have read Goudsblom's book Fire and Civilization (London: Allen Lane, 1992) will anticipate his focus on three ecological transformations as major turning points in human history involving control over, and dependency on, first fire, then agriculture, and finally mechanical industry. Nor will they be surprised by his delineation of five dominant—and interrelated—historical trends: increasing numbers of people, increasing concentrations of people, increasing specialization of social functions, increasing social organization, and increasing social stratification. In Goudsblom's view, these trends have set the general direction of social evolution over the last 10,000 years and may help scholars delineate "a common theoretical perspective" (p. 30), uniting historians and sociologists. Goudsblom illustrates his approach with an essay on the appearance of separate priestly classes in early agrarian societies, which seemed to survive more readily whenserved by the rites performed in the name of organized religion. Goudsblom concludes his contribution to this volume with a description of the stratification that prevailed in many agrarian societies throughout the world until the advent of industrialism—a stratification that differentiated priests, warriors, craftsmen and traders, andpeasants on the basis of wealth, status, and power. Advanced agrarian societies, he points out, often supported a class of professional [End Page 211] warriors that dominated the priesthood and bonded with a producing peasantry.
Jones devotes his essay to an attack on the widely held idea that world economies remained essentially stagnant until the industrial revolution, an argument that he anticipated in The European Miracle: Environments, Economics, and Geopolitics in the History of Europe and Asia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981) and most especially in Growth Recurring: Economic Growth in World History (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988). On average, extensive growth did occur, he suggests, in large measure because of gradually rising populations, recurring improvements in agricultural techniques, and a periodic expansion of city dwellers, while hierarchical political structures and marked disparities of wealth remained the primary impediments to material progress—and intensive growth—in premodern times. Demonstrating how short-term or narrow perspectives create false impressions, Jones questions the uniqueness of circumstances in eighteenth-century Britain, as well as popular theories of an abrupt industrial "take-off," through a discussion of the intense growth in Song China that anticipated the European experience and economic advances in Tokugawa Japan that roughly coincided with what we have been calling the industrial revolution. He insists that propensities for growth have existed throughout human history, along with the desire to reduce material poverty, and that the key to intensive growth has always been the removal of political disincentives built into the elite-controlled premodern state.
Mennell, strongly influenced by the work of Norbert Elias, analyzes the structures of civilizing processes that have relentlessly enmeshed groups and individuals in ever more intricate patterns of interdependence. Over extended periods of time...