James Scott on the earliest states

In 2011 James Scott gave a pair of Tanner Lectures at Harvard. He had chosen a topic for which he felt he had a fairly good understanding, having taught on early agrarian societies throughout much of his career. The topic was the origins of the earliest states in human history. But as he explains in …

Small farmers in Indian agriculture

  Agriculture remains the primary source of income for India's population, and the majority of India's farmers subsist on small farms, less than two hectares (five acres). It is all but self evident that these facts imply continuing poverty and low quality of life for rural Indians. And yet the basic facts and economics of …

Change in peasant China

Image: Shanxi countryside In 1978 China's government initiated a major change in the agricultural economy. It began a rapid transition from communal agriculture to the household responsibility system, which returned the responsibilities and incentives associated with farming to the farmer rather than the commune. This was the beginning of the market-friendly reforms that led to …

Historical GDP estimates for early modern China

  Li Bozhong is one of China's most influential economic historians, and he is undoubtedly the most internationally connected.  Much of his work in the past several decades has been devoted to constructing a detailed economic history of the lower Yangzi Delta (for example, Agricultural Development in Jiangnan, 1620-1850).  His findings have been crucial empirical contributions …

Varieties of economic progress

The study of economic history reveals a number of different patterns when it comes to agricultural production and the standard of living of a given population in a region.  Let's think about the issue in very simple terms.  Imagine that the standard of living for a population in a region is determined by the amount …

High modernism and expert knowledge

James Scott is one of the really exceptional social scientists of his generation.  His contributions to peasant studies have been transformative -- his ideas of the "moral economy of the peasant" and "weapons of the weak" are now part of the tool set that we all use in trying to make sense of agrarian societies …

Alleviating rural poverty

What theories and values ought to underlie our best thinking about global economic development?  Along with Amartya Sen (Development as Freedom), I believe that the best answer to the ethical question involves giving top priority to the goal of increasing the realization of human capabilities across the whole of society (The Paradox of Wealth and …

Food security

Food security is a crucial aspect of life, both for a population and a household. By "food security" specialists often mean two different things: the capacity of a typical poor household to secure sufficient food over a twelve-month period (through farm work, day labor, government entitlements, etc.); and the capacity of a poor country to …

Technology innovation in Chinese agriculture

It is a commonplace in world history to observe that China had achieved a high level of sophistication in science, medicine, and astronomy by the Middle Ages, but that some unknown feature of social organization or culture blocked the further development of this science into the expansion of technology in the early modern period. Chinese …

Agrarian history — the Weber edition

One of Max Weber's early areas of research was what might be called "macro agrarian history". This was a field of research that Weber himself largely invented. He undertook to document and explain the large patterns of economic development in the ancient world, including especially the social systems surrounding farming and animal husbandry. Weber's cases …

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