There is an old-fashioned and discredited theory that holds that there are only a small number of development trajectories. Crudely, Western Europe’s experience — agricultural modernization, handicraft manufacture, population growth, urbanization, and large-scale mass manufacturing — is the paradigm and “normal” case, and different processes in other countries are deviations or abnormalities. This is the approach economic historians once took towards Asian economic development; it is substantially refuted by Bin Wong (China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience) and Ken Pomeranz (The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy.).
A somewhat better approach postulates that there are alternative pathways of development, and that English, Italian, Indian, Chinese, and Brazilian historical experiences of development all illustrate different trajectories. Charles Sabel and Jonathan Zeitlin explore this idea (World of Possibilities: Flexibility and Mass Production in Western Industrialization). This approach emphasizes path dependence and the salience of institutions in economic development. Thus Robert Brenner maintains that it was differences in the particulars of the social-property relations governing farming that explained English transformation and French stagnation (The Brenner Debate: Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-industrial Europe; see also a short descriptive essay, The Brenner Debate).
But other historians have pushed contingency and variation even deeper. So Pomeranz argues against a nation-based model of development. He argues that China’s processes of development were very different in different regions, north and south, east and west. So instead of analyzing “China,” he picks out one large macro-region, the lower Yangzi region, as the unit possessing enough integration to possess a distinctive pattern of development. Essentially, this is to say that the complex of institutions, crops, population dynamics, and urban patterns are unified but distinct in north China and southeast China, and that each constitutes a system of production with its own dynamics. So this serves to disaggregate China into several important and different regions.
So, with all this disaggregation and differentiation of economic development, let’s ask the question again: are there patterns of economic development? Or is every region, city, or state sui generis?
Here is what seems plausible to me. The best hope we have for generalizations about economic development is not at the level of wholes — regions or nations. Rather, what we can hope to do is to discover a number of recurring processes and mechanisms — political, demographic, technology, institutional, and economic — that can be identified and studied in multiple historical cases. In this category of recurring processes and mechanisms, I would include “proto-industrialization,” “scissors crisis,” “high level equilibrium trap,” “state fiscal crisis,” and “rapid urban growth” — along with dozens of other comparable social and economic processes. These are mid-level social processes and mechanisms that correspond to specific opportunities or situations of persons and groups in a developing society, and they can arguably occur in historically separate cases. And actors will adjust their behavior in relation to these processes in their particular settings, to pursue their goals. Finally, some of these processes will aggregate in particular historical settings — often in novel ways — to give rise to a particular historical trajectory. (Notice that this is methodologically very similar to the picture that McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly paint about the possibility of generalizations about contentious politics; Dynamics of Contention.)