Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Before European Hegemony

Janet Abu-Lughod’s Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350 provides a welcome, highly scholarly, adjustment to views that overstate Europe’s precocity and importance before 1500. However specific its institutional evolution, Europe was a peripheral backwater prior to its export of the Eurasian disease pool to the Americas. She examines each major area of the Eurasian trading network in term, bringing out how much events in one area were affected by changes elsewhere (in particular, how much Europeans were responding to such changes).

I also found Abu-Lughod’s scepticism about grand conceptual schemas and strong preference for considering the complex texture of reality engaging. She sets out a highly informative history of the creation of an interacting Eurasian economy under the period of Mongol domination and how changes among the various participating powers (particularly China) resulted in the interactions falling back to a lower level. She also argues a power vacuum was set up in the Indian Ocean that the Europeans (first the Portugese, then the Dutch and finally the British) were able to fill. In other words, that there was a "Fall of the East" prior to there being a "Rise of the West". She does a nice job of debunking “cultural” and “Confucian-isolationism” explanations for China’s shift, placing the public policy considerations the Ming court was dealing with in a more plausible context.

My first quibble is with the title. This is about the Eurasian system, not a global one, a point the author herself concedes (p.37). It is a “world” system only in terms of the Old World/New World usage and, to be fair, she is responding to Wallerstein’s coinage of the term. The second is she suffers from the modern academic fetish for shudder quotes, though at least she is often prepared to explain in more detail why concepts are problematic, rather than simply engaging in the tedious knowing-virtue wink. The worst bit of the book, as so often is the way, is when she attempts to look forward. The talking down of the stability of the current world-system, and the situation of the US in particular, reads rather poorly for a book published in 1989 with clearly no sense whatsoever of the impending collapse of the Soviet empire.

But the book is highly readable and extremely informative, the personality of the author engaging. An excellent way of coming to grips with how global history works.

Alas, Abu-Lughod does include some fashionably ambiguous nonsense in her introduction about science being “socially constructed” (if she means that science occurs within a social context, obviously true: if she means that whether E=mc2 is true depends on the social context, that is nonsense). This fortunately does not seem to be other than fashionable hand-waving. (Anyone who claims to believe the second claim is other than nonsense is invited to allow me to belt them in the jaw to see whether it is “socially constructed” how many times I have to hit them to break their jaw. Nobody really believes this nonsense, because no-one walks out in front of trucks to see if it is “socially constructed” whether the truck will (a) hit them and (b) kill them.) But this fashionable hand-waving does not detract significantly from the value of the book.


  1. If we're placing our modern science on the spectrum from objective truth to social construction, might the appropriate interpretation be found between these? If one stipulates the existence of observable phenomena and repeatable experiments, will you allow for some amount of subjectivity in the methods of experimentation, the variability of the senses, and the general direction of research? Throughout history (if our histories can be credited; to the extent they can't they must understate this phenomenon), men have been convinced of all manner of ridiculous things, and it seems likely that is still the case. At least, if we are no longer quite mistaken about a great many things, then our position in the world has changed in a remarkable and unremarked way, which would itself point to a gap in our understanding.

    I have no oracle, but I can point to several entire disciplines that are sure to be discredited by the end of this century. I'm probably wrong about the specific fields, but are you confident that I'm wrong in general? Humility may be good or bad in social endeavors, but it's an absolute requirement for mental and scientific achievement. Once we're convinced we've found the truth, we stop looking for it. It would be unwise to ignore that for the sake of bucking fashion. In the meantime, perhaps you should take up boxing or a martial art as a more appropriate outlet for your jaw-belting urges?

  2. Science is not about certain knowledge, it is about generally reliable knowledge. That is, there is no guarantee that it is true, but it is more likely to be true than any other approach.

    Yes, folk can make errors, including science, including within a discipline. These errors might very much have a thoroughly social component to them. Indeed, social pressures of various types may well encourage errors.

    But there is more to science than just social construction. There is a reality out there which we can learn about, it is not merely a shared fantasy, nor is it (some aspects of the social world aside) plastic to our fantasies.

    We need to distinguish questions of the sociology of science (what scientists do and why) from questions of epistemology (what do we know, how and why). Defining science as "what scientists do" encourages muddy thinking confusing the two.

    (I already do a martial art: SCA fighting--we are all carefully armoured and use rattan weapons.)