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Reviewed by:
  • Company of Kinsmen: Enterprise and Community in South Asian History 1700-1940
  • Sumit Guha
Company of Kinsmen: Enterprise and Community in South Asian History 1700-1940. By Tirthankar Roy (New York, Oxford University Press, 2010) 264 pp. $99.00

This book, by a leading economic historian of South Asia, addresses a long-standing problem that has dogged economics, history, and sociology since the emergence of these disciplines in the later nineteenth [End Page 499] century—that of the dependent or independent role of social organization in the working of an economy. Roy attacks this problem by an analysis of South Asia, one of the world's larger economies in 1700. He boldly attempts to integrate the endogamous caste—usually the subject of social anthropology—to the economic institutions that have been analyzed by the New Institutional Economics popularized by North and recently deepened by Greif.1 At another level, Roy includes elements of the study of business organization found in Chandler and given new micro-economic foundations in Williamson and Aoki.2 But though he draws on these diverse intellectual traditions, Roy's own focus is firmly on one region. He aims to write "an economic history of institutional change in South Asia" (xi).

He begins by pointing out that before the rise of the modern corporation, a range of activities needed for the successful working of complex, specialized economies was managed by "cooperative bodies" held together by the "cultural-political blood" that flowed though them (2), thereby obviating the "free-rider" problem that collective or public provision would otherwise face. Roy sees such organizations as widespread, citing the European and Chinese guild, but he adds that India was unique in the strong association of marriage and profession and the use of marriage strategies for corporate ends. He also makes the important point that such organizations were also found among the subcontinent's large Muslim and Christian populations. They were not, however, purely community organizations; their working would have been impossible without the overt and passive support of the various states that ruled the region through the centuries (Chapter 2). Roy's framework thus endogenizes practices that are usually studied in isolation by distinct disciplines. He also traces the fate of these caste collectives through the end of the colonial period in the 1940s, and develops a narrative of how the new global economy and colonial law gradually disorganized these bodies without substituting a wholly "modern" or elective, professional corporate structure.

Roy sets various sections of Indian socioeconomic life into this explanatory frame. Four successive chapters consider merchants, artisans, less-skilled workers, and agricultural producers. He follows each of these classes through the centuries that saw the textile, steel, and electrical phases of the Industrial Revolution and the rise and fall of Western empire in Asia—all compressed into 220-plus pages. Each disciplinary specialist will find something unsatisfactory in this survey. Economists will find narration substituted for rigorous argument; anthropologists will [End Page 500] find the analysis reductionist; and historians will cavil at the flattening out of regional and temporal variation and the thin empirical foundation of certain arguments. Such is the cross that interdisciplinary enterprises sometimes must bear. That said, the strongest chapters are those in which Roy draws on his own important earlier studies of craft production and mercantile organization. The least persuasive chapter is the one in which he attempts to fit an enormously diverse agrarian landscape into his model. Especially unconvincing is the concluding effort to link the massive fabrication of bogus revenue revealed in 2008 by the Indian infotech giant Satyam with his thesis (223). As the comparable cases of Parmalat and Enron made amply clear, there are more parsimonious explanations of such phenomena.

Overall however, this book represents an important effort at reintegrating a range of phenomena that Roy convincingly shows to be interlinked. Debates around it should stimulate more research that advances our understanding of an important economic region in both the past and the present. [End Page 501]

Sumit Guha
Rutgers University

Footnotes

1. Douglas C. North, Structure and Change in Economic History (New York, 1981); Avner Greif, Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy: Lessons from Medieval...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1530-9169
Print ISSN
0022-1953
Pages
pp. 499-501
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-29
Open Access
No
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