Are there patterns of economic development?

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.)

4 responses

  1. Hi Daniel,I find the social mechanisms approach you’ve been outlining on this blog to be really interesting and useful, and I’m very open to the idea of theorizing social processes in that way. But a question I’ve come up against in my own work is that, considering mechanisms are a reaction against overly general, structural theories, what makes us stop solely at the mid-level processes? Why not go further and focus on even smaller level mechanisms?My sense is that the mid-level theorizing tries to retain the best of both worlds (generality and explanatory force from the large-scale, and specificity and dynamism from the small-scale).There’s also an interesting suggestion in Dynamics of Contention that mechanisms could be conceived as being composed of smaller mechanisms, which would also seem to get at a possible solution.But I’d be interested to hear what you have to say on it!Cheers,-Nick

  2. Hello Daniel,Thank you for your thoughtful post. One question: what are the differences between what you´re describing and the “Varieties of Capitalism” literature (especially the focus on mechanisms and “institutional complementarities”)?Best,BB

  3. Nick,This is a great question. I consider something like this point in an earlier posting: I make the case for going down considerably deeper. What is challenging about that idea, though, is that it seems to threaten to dissolve the concept of a causal mechanism altogether. So I’m thinking that perhaps it is possible to arrive at a mid- to low-level of description of causal mechanisms like free-rider problems, and then examine the workings of these mechanisms across contexts.Thanks for responding!Dan

  4. BB –Thanks for your comment. You’re right that there’s a strong connection between this line of thought and “Varieties of Capitalism” (Peter Hall and David Soskice). Both maintain that the specific institutional makeup of an economic system — even with variants that look fairly similar — can give rise to distinctive economic characteristics. I think the Hall-Soskice approach is more specifically focused on a relatively small number of institutional variants. And Sabel and Zeitlin focus more on the organization of work, skill, and technology as a source of variation across economic systems.The 1/8/08 posting on this blog is relevant (“Is there such a thing as capitalism?”):

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