A New Sociology for a New History? Further Critical Thoughts on the Eurasian Similarity and Great Divergence Theses

By Bryant, Joseph M. | Canadian Journal of Sociology, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

A New Sociology for a New History? Further Critical Thoughts on the Eurasian Similarity and Great Divergence Theses


Bryant, Joseph M., Canadian Journal of Sociology


In "The West and the Rest Revisited" (2006), I offered a critical assessment--theoretical as well as substantive--of recent revisionist scholarship that rejects standard explanatory accounts of the rise of the European powers to global dominance in the early modern period. (2) While differing on select points of interpretation, revisionists are in broad agreement on two fundamental claims: (a) the "advanced organic societies" across Eurasia were following comparable developmental paths, and (b) the European breakthrough to hegemonic ascendancy was both late and fortuitous, decisively facilitated by energy and resource contingencies rather than endogenous developments. Neither postulate is compelling, either as sociology or as history. To subscribe to the revisionist narrative requires the unwarranted relegation of two securely established analytical principles: that social formations are pervasively integrated and interdependent structures of institutional and cultural configuration; and that the historical processes variably reproducing and transforming those structures are not random or irregular, but unfold in path-dependent sequences that give rise to catenated trajectories of varying temporal duration. A viable historical social science is one that attends, connectively, to the dynamically coinciding "dual logics" of the sociological and the historical--a slighting of either, or both, will invariably skew or subvert the proffered analysis.

According to proponents of the "Eurasian Similarity thesis," the leading powers of the early modern period--Ming and Manchu China, Tokugawa Japan, Mughal India, the Ottomans and Safavids, and the western Europeans--were all functioning on the basis of fundamental comparabilities in productivity, living standards, commercial vitality, urban dynamism, and knowledge systems. But even on the intensely contested assumption that these novel empirical claims of equivalencies are plausible, the revisionist optic fatally marginalizes all the many institutional and cultural differences--in political structures, modes of war-making, legal juridical arrangements, educational systems, kinship patterns, rural-urban interdependencies, class and status hierarchies, regnant worldviews, technological skill-levels, scientific comprehension of natural processes, etc. - that bore directly and indirectly upon the growing capacity of the European powers to establish coercive relations of dominance over much of the globe, beginning with limited ventures in mercantile brigandage at the end of the 15th century and continuing on to full-blown imperialism and colonization in centuries thereafter. As a comparative strategy for world history, a removal or displacement of the most centrally constitutive variables of social life not only injudiciously narrows and tilts our explanatory focus, it issues in highly misleading assimilations of societies that were keyed to profoundly differing institutional and cultural specifications.

Revisionists accomplish this conflation by shifting their focus to a level of abstraction that is higher-order, yet more restricted in content In preference to the established multi-dimensional classifications (feudal, patrimonial, tributary, bureaucratic prebendalism, bourgeois-capitalist, proto-industrial, etc.), revisionists subsume all the major Eurasian powers under the arching rubric of "advanced organic societies," a one-dimensional categorization that indexes a common reliance on biomass resources and animal muscle-power that prevailed prior to any significant exploitation of fossil fuels. The energy factor, indisputably important, is thereby incautiously inflated to yield a new, coal-based binary of the "before" and "after" kind, which yields a reductive comparative sociology lacking in institutional and cultural concreteness. (3)

On the premise that purported East-West differences in social organization have been overdrawn, and that "surprising similarities" were holding across Eurasia up to c. …

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