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Reviewed by:
  • Reconceptualizing the Industrial Revolution
  • Peter N. Stearns
Reconceptualizing the Industrial Revolution. Edited by Jeff Horn, Leonard N. Rosenband, and Merritt Roe Smith (Cambridge, Mass., The MIT Press, 2010) 362 pp. $24.00

Horn, Rosenband, and Smith have developed an impressive collection of essays on an important topic. Almost all of the individual contributions are rewarding; all of them reflect wide reading and, through the references alone, serve as a valuable resource. Yet, the book as a whole lacks the clear set of analytical threads that the title appears to promise. The volume revisits the Industrial Revolution in a number of ways, and the results for the most part are welcome. It does not, however, evince a general sense of reconceptualization.

Global scope is the closest candidate to a genuine reconceptualization. Chapters cover Britain and major European participants (with a particularly useful attention to Scandinavia). It becomes clear that Asian product models played a significant role even for Britain. Discussions of the Industrial Revolution in relation to the United States, Russia, and Japan are hardly unprecedented, but they manage to be worthwhile in this volume nonetheless. Two excellent chapters focus on China's and India's industrial limitations and decline during the nineteenth century, respectively, rather than on the countries' later participations in industrialization outright. Another chapter traces Brazil's evolution toward industrial leadership in Latin America. The volume treats its subject chronologically, between 1750 and the early twentieth century—arguably not with a fully global reach. But the movement away from West European constraints is highly desirable.

The volume also reconsiders the role of the state, though this topic is hardly novel either. Active comparison is limited, but treatment of various state policies in Germany prior to unification; the still-unrecognized significance of the state in American industrialization; and the relevance of state policy in Meiji Japan, in Russia (both before and after the revolution), and in Scandinavia all come into play.

Joel Mokyr's commanding essay emphasizes the Enlightenment as a vital factor in Britain, blurring British-European boundaries and thus helping to explain industrialization's rapid spread (a chapter on France, however, returning to the important theme of internal resistance and lag, qualifies this argument for rapid spread to some extent). Several essays, including Mokyr's, take up debates with sinologists about the role of culture or politics as opposed to more limited economic goals. The influence of advancing consumerism also receives coverage. Several comments by contributors touch on problems of measurement. Particularly for Britain, available quantitative data do not always adequately register magnitudes of change and growth. Other chapters—mainly the introduction but also a chapter on Spain and a singular piece about a Kentucky entrepreneur—address the desirability of paying more attention to industrialization from below—shop floors, craft operations, and the like. [End Page 442]

Reconcepualization aside, the material in the volume is uniformly solid, advancing a global framework and revisiting key issues across nations and within individual societies.

Peter N. Stearns
George Mason University


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pp. 442-443
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