Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Niall Ferguson: Drive-By History

I watched the first installment of Niall Ferguson's TV series, "Civilization: The West and the Rest,"tonight. Much of it was entertaining, and there were many insights. But overall I found it a superficial and simplistic triumphal history. How did the West come to dominate the East? Ferguson attributes the West's victory to six factors (he calls them "killer applications;" it's not clear why he uses a software metaphor): competition, science, property rights, medicine, the consumer society, and the work ethic. Well, this certainly is not a rigorous comparative study. Where did these factors come from? What theoretical model generated this set of six?

David Bronwich published an eloquent, understated, and highly critical review of Ferguson's book of the same name in the New York Review of Books (December 8, 2011) On the six factors, he states, "These make an absurd catalog. It is like saying that the ingedients of a statesman are an Oxford degree, principles, a beard, sociability, and ownership of a sports car."

I have to admit that my attention started to wane after an hour. I was getting tired of hearing how backward the Ottomans were in compared with the Europeans. I picked up my phone and started playing a game, but then my ears pricked up when Ferguson started comparing Spanish and British colonization of the New World. He claims at the outset that "Britain won" this competition. Well, Spain got far richer off its colonies than Britain ever did, and Spain held onto its colonies longer than Britain. So just how did Britain win? What Ferguson meant was that the United States would later develop into a much better society than modern Latin America. I don't think he used the word "better," but that is the clear message of this segment.

Ferguson focused on an important comparison--that colonial development in North America involved many small property owners, whereas Latin America had far fewer, larger, landowners. OK, that is certainly a major difference between the two areas. But how and why did these to different property systems get started? We are told the systems originated because the two sets of European colonists simply made different decisions in the two areas. The British decided to have a small property system, and the Spaniards decided to have big estates. What is completely lacking is the context of this distinction. Key factors that are ignored include demography (the very different size and density of native societies in the two areas; the numbers of natives who survived vs. the.numbers of colonists), the indigenous political structure at time of conquest (states and empires in Latin America, vs. tribal societies in North America), and the nature of the resources in the two areas (mining vs. agriculture, and their labor and organizational requirements).

Thus Ferguson did identify a crucial distinction between two areas, but by completely ignoring the context, he fails to show how and why that distinction originated and developed. His explanation is superficial and misleading.

Ferguson is a respected historian with a number of solid empirical studies to his name. Why did he step down from scholarship to produce a popular book and TV show based on some rather silly ideas? Could publicity and royalties have anything to do with this? Is the image of a nineteenth century capitalist on the cover significant? People may gripe about Jared Diamond's works, but they are based on solid scholarship that relies on work by experts, interpreted in a new fashion. If the TV show is indicative of the book (and the reviews suggest that it is), then Ferguson is not anywhere near Diamond's level of scholarship.

This is drive-by history, a quick and superficial look at the issues. If you want to find about about how and why China and Europe diverged, try reading Ian Morris's far superior book, Why the West Rules (for Now).


dogscratcher said...

"Thus Ferguson did identify a crucial distinction between two areas, but by completely ignoring the context, he fails to show how and why that distinction originated and developed."

Is this context of which you speak an analysis through the lens of cultural materialism? I ask only because I am unclear as to how cultural materialism relates to cultural ecology.

Michael E. Smith said...

My reaction is based partly on my materialist outlook, but more relevant is the question of how historians and social scientists construct explanations of processes in the past. I think there are quite a few factors relevant to an explanation of how modern social and political institutions developed differently in North America vs. Latin America. A rigorous analysis should extend beyond these two cases. One could identify a number of cases around the world of how society developed after European colonization, looking at India, Africa, different parts of the New World (e.g., Argentina doesn't fit Ferguson's Latin American model very well) etc. Perhaps ten or fifteen examples could be identified. These settings can then be compared on a number of dimensions (colonizing country, date of colonization, # of immigrants, indigenous demography and political organization, resources, role in the world system, etc. etc.). The results will then illuminate which variables were most important in accounting for difference among cases.

Contrast that procedure with the method of singling out two factors that are claimed to explain all the differences between Latin America and North America -- a greedy parasite class of landowners in one region vs. private property and small landholdings in the other. These are both relevant to a proper explanation, but I don't think any serious comparative historian would find Ferguson's explanation valid on its own.

Michael E. Smith said...

And as for cultural materialism vs. cultural ecology, both labels have had a variety of meanings over the years, and neither is popular today as a label for current theoretical camps. So it depends on how one defines the terms. I am a materialist, but I generally avoid the phrase "cultural materialism," for two reasons: (1) Its most explicit form, the theoretical approach of Marvin Harris, seems narrow and limited today; and (2) I have seen "cultural materialism" used as a concept in the field of cultural studies to refer to something that doesn't seem attractive to me.

dogscratcher said...

Thank you for the further explanation.

dogscratcher said...

Sorry to keep bothering (pestering?)you, but to what unattractive aspect of cultural studies do you refer?

Michael E. Smith said...

While admitting that I know relatively little about cultural studies, here are a few things about that approach that turn me off:

(1) It is heavily postmodern, meaning that it is anti-scientific.

(2) It has re-invented concepts (e.g., "culture") that have a long history in anthropology, but without taking advantage of anthropological concepts and research.

dogscratcher said...

We are definitely on the same page regarding cultural studies, but I think postmodernism entails "re-invention" generally as that promotes their seeming objective of obfuscation. But maybe I'm just cynical.

Marcus said...

It's not so much drive-by history as sucking up to what his intended audience wants to hear. He did a major book on the British empire, which argued that it was a real force of good in the world. Just forget about the famines which happened on its watch (includimg in its own homeland!).

He did one book on banking that was based on original research. Then he decided to become an ideological hack.