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Τρίτη, 3 Οκτωβρίου, 2023
ΑρχικήEnglish EditionThe Great Divergence Debate

The Great Divergence Debate

By Terpsi Vasilopoulou,

For the past almost five decades, one of the greatest debates in Global History concerns the origins of the “Great Divergence”. The Great Divergence debate, also known as the European Miracle, refers to the study of the socioeconomic shift that led Western world economies to outcome pre-modern growth and emerge as the most powerful and thriving economies and civilizations, eclipsing previous comparable economies.  

Even though the phenomenon had already been discussed in historical literature since 1981, with Eric Jones’s book The European Miracle: Environment, Economies, and Geopolitics in the History of Europe and Asia, the term “Great Divergence” was first coined in 1996 by Samuel P. Huntington and was then established four years later by Kenneth Pomeranz and his research, presented through his book: The Great Divergence: China, Europe and the making of the modern world economy. Ever since then, historians have been researching this gap between West and East economies and their development as well as the factors and circumstances that could have contributed to it, and trying to understand and explain when, how, and why they occurred. As studies started in universities all around the globe, a great emphasis was given especially on the contradiction between China and the Western world both because Qing China was one of the greatest economies at the beginning of the 17th century and because modern China has been climbing up the economic ranks to being one of the most prominent economies of our days. Later on, some researchers also started publishing works on other states of Asia, specifically India and the southeast coast, as well as South America.  

The timing of the Great Divergence is in dispute among historians. Factors contributing to it, are found throughout history from the 15th up until the late 18th and early 19th century, when the most obvious emergence is claimed to have happened, dividing them into two different schools of thought, although there doesn’t seem to be a right or wrong answer. The traditional school of thought dates the divergence as early as the 16th and even the 15th century looking at a certain set of factors to support its argument. One of the most prominent is that of colonialism, rapidly developing during the Age of Discovery. Through the rise of European colonial empires and proto-globalism, Western traders had the chance to not only promote their products to different markets but also follow better routes, take advantage of new resources, and exploit more working hands. At the same time, the Renaissance and its ideas seem to have played an immensely crucial role. The commercial revolution, the development of mercantilism and capitalism (both its institutions and facilities) in Western societies as well as the scientific revolution, all led the Western world to develop its economy and economic practices in a faster and more efficient way.  

Image source: xb100 / Freepik

On the other hand, the Californian school led by Pomeranz, while acknowledging the importance of what was previously mentioned, approached the great divergence as an event of the late 18th and early 19th century, directly dependent on two major factors: the Industrial and Technological revolutions. Furthermore, in this case, the Californian school of thought focuses not only on the changes brought by these two defining factors on the living standards of the Western communities but also on the cultural changes brought, by the integration of women into the workforce and its huge effect on society (such as getting married later and therefore having less kids etc.).  

The Great Divergence debate is one of great relevance and importance when it comes to global history studies, and its findings have also captured the interest of political science and international relations scholars in the last few years. But why is that? The ulterior goal of such studies is to find the perfect balance of all these different circumstances and factors leading to economic development and then apply it to modern economies of the developing world. This would ultimately lead to their growth and besides improving the reality of all the people being part of these economies, would also create an economic balance with the western half of the globe, leading to a more inclusive and fair world.  

Although it might sound pretty utopian, researchers around the world, devoted to cracking the code of economic development in the global history field, can truly see even now the potential of such efforts to at least better the reality of citizens of the developing world and provide them with a chance to create a more just world based on equal chances, for the generations that are to come.  

  • Kenneth pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe and the Making of Modern
    World Economy
  • Robert C. Allen, Global Economic History: A Very Short Introduction
  • The Great Divergence Debate History Essay, ukessays.com. Available here
  • The Song Dynasty in China | Asia for Educators. Available here


Terpsi Vasilopoulou
She was born in Athens in 2002. She is a history student at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, while recently she also graduated from the parallel studies program of the American college of Greece with a minor in international relations. She has co-organized and participated in many seminars and conferences regarding gender equality, climate change, art and world affairs in different parts of Europe while also being an active volunteer in a variety of organizations. She is fluent in Greek, English and German. In her free time she enjoys reading literature, joining dance classes and travelling.