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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


The Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History, 5 Volume Set edited by Joel Mokyr (Oxford University Press) (Vol. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5) This accessible thorough reference work offers a good survey of the history of human material culture, especially as organized labor and industry. The reference is primarily oriented toward world history of economic activities. It does not offer a history of economics as such nor does it encroach upon social and natural history. For instance the impact of natural environments is recognized but not from a ecological view of interdependence and change. What were the economic roots of modern industrialism? Were labor unions ever effective in raising workers' living standards? Did high levels of taxation in the past normally lead to economic decline? These and similar questions profoundly inform a wide range of intertwined social issues whose complexity, scope, and depth become fully evident in the Encyclopedia. Due to the interdisciplinary nature of the field, the Encyclopedia is divided not only by chronological and geographic boundaries, but also by related subfields such as agricultural history, demographic history, business history, and the histories of technology, migration, and transportation. The articles, all written and signed by international contributors, include scholars from Europe , Latin America , Africa , and Asia . Covering economic history in all areas of the world and segments of economies from prehistoric times to the present, The Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History is the ideal resource for students, economists, and general readers, offering a unique glimpse into this integral part of world history.

It is difficult to understand history or the conditions of modern society without a strong grasp of the economic past. Time and again, historic change is wrought by an underlying economic dynamic. For instance: what were the economic roots of modern industrialism?; were resource scarcities a positive element in stimulating technological change through the ages?; why were the Malthusian predictions of overpopulation and starvation in the early 19th century confounded?; were labour unions ever effective in raising workers' living standards?; did high levels of taxation in the past normally lead to economic decline?; what were the roots of economic imperialism and what effect did it have on today's underdeveloped world?; and what were the effects of the poor law reforms in Britain in the 1830s? These and similar questions profoundly inform a wide range of intertwined social issues whose complexity, scope, and depth should become fully evident in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History.  

Unprecedented worldwide coverage and more than 875 authoritative articles written by the world’s most influential economic historians make The Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History a truly remarkable work of scholarship—unparalleled in its discipline in scope and depth. Arranged in alphabetical order letter by letter, there are also composite entries gathering together discussions of similar or related topics under one headword. For example, under the entry "Radio and Television Industry" the reader will find three subentries: "Historical Overview," "Technological Change," and "Industrial Organi­zation and Regulation." A headnote listing the various subentries introduces each composite entry. Five volumes feature articles on concepts and definitions, countries and regions, institutions, historical events and processes, and people. From Genoa to France , feudalism to the New Deal, Adam Smith to the Guggenheims, the Encyclopedia captures the true interdisciplinary nature of economics.

The contributors and editors for the most part write in clear language with a minimum of tech­nical vocabulary. The articles give important terms and titles in their original lan­guages, with English translations when needed. A selective bibliography at the end of each article directs the reader who wishes to pursue a topic in greater detail to primary sources, the most useful works in English, and the most important scholar­ly works in any language.

Entries are authoritative and accessible, designed for use by both specialists and general readers. No other reference work covers economic history across the globe—from prehistoric times to the present—in such depth.

To guide readers from one article to related discussions elsewhere in the Ency­clopedia, end-references appear at the end of many articles. Blind entries direct the user from an alternate form of an entry term to the entry itself. For example, the blind entry for "Coinage" tells the reader to look under "Money and Coinage." The Encyclopedia includes approximately 425 photographs and seventeen maps.

Volume 5 contains the topical outline of articles, a listing of Internet sites related to economic history, the directory of contributors, and the index. Readers interested in finding all the articles on a particular subject (e.g., natural resources and the environment or labor) may consult the topical outline, which shows how articles relate to one another and to the overall design of the Encyclopedia; the outline also appears at the beginning of volume 1. The list of Internet sites directs the reader to sites where more information on selected articles in the Encyclopedia can be found. The comprehensive index lists all the topics covered in the Encyclopedia, including those that are not headwords themselves.

An essential addition to all collections, the Encyclopedia features:

  • 875+ signed articles by 800+ renowned international experts
  • 500 b/w illustrations that reinforce article concepts
  • Bibliographies for each article and extensive cross-references
  • A directory of contributors, topical outline of contents. includes bibliographical references and index.

Excerpt: Economic history is much like a sparsely populated country: its inhabitants are small in number compared to its much larger neighbors in adjoining and related fields. The cultivators of its rocky soil are few and the area is vast: economic history encompasses all the material aspects of human existence through and before writ­ten history, describing a myriad of diverse forms of economic activity and organization. The "mainstream" fields of economics such as theory and applied microeco­nomics and the many fields and subfields of the history profession attract far more scholars than economic history. But as is true for many a small country, there are some of us who have elected to dwell there and love it dearly, and they would never live anywhere else. They feel its intellectual excitement, its many challenges, its sense of community, and its ability to attract young scholars despite the often hard and frustrating research involved.

To pursue the metaphor a bit further, this country could be likened to what econ­omists like to call a "small open economy." Economic history has never been and should never be anything like a closed field in which practitioners converse mostly with one another. Instead, it stands at a busy intersection of history and the social sciences, where economists, political scientists, sociologists, anthropologists, de­mographers, and historians come and go. While the field has had its strongest intellectual and institutional roots in history and economics, it has always blithely ignored the artificial boundaries between academic disciplines. Economic histori­ans, by the very nature of their field, ask questions that require a bewildering array of diverse specialists. The power and the glory of the discipline has always been its willingness to venture out far afield, to bring to the worlds of the economist and the historian insights and information originating in the netherworlds of engineers, physicians, agronomists, biologists, and geographers, as well as from the more lofty spheres of political philosophy, social thought, and game theory. If ever there was a bunch of eclectic intellectuals who will go almost anywhere to find their models, their evidence, and their inspiration, economic historians are it.

The need for such an interdisciplinary approach is related to the large size of the territory covered by this small field. Economic history has at least three dimensions it needs to span. First, it covers all of history, from the very first days of written records and before, using archaeological and even paleontological evidence, to re­cent statistical data and modern time series. Second, its ambitions have always been explicitly global and international. While the evidence that economic histori­ans use is not spread evenly and uniformly over the planet, there has always been a tacit assumption that every economy and every society has an interesting story to tell. If this story can be illustrated in detail with statistical data and firsthand illus­trations, all the better. If not, however, economic historians will work with whatever evidence can be found, reconstructing the past from the shards and debris that time has forgotten to sweep away. The more sparse the evidence, the more tantalizing of synthesis, there is no room for such teleological approaches, and we have made an effort to avoid such pitfalls. All the same, this is not to deny the economic achievements that the industrialized West has made in the past two centuries in terms of affecting the standard of living in a considerable (and expanding) part of humankind. Without confusing material well-being and comforts with "happi­ness," "social harmony," "economic freedom," or any other encompassing measure of well-being, no serious work in economics can deny that the achievements of the past two centuries are as real and as momentous as they are incomplete and costly. In emphasizing the real accomplishments in material economic welfare, from reduced infant mortality and increased stature to an ever-expanding access to leisure, arts, and high-quality food and clothing, any work in economic history must acknowledge the irreversible impact that modern economic growth has had on the nature of the human condition-even if we confine it largely to the material side. Perhaps it is too simple and too confining to speak of economic Progress with a capital P, as if we could really assess the trend in economic change as a favorable development, the many horrors of the twentieth century notwithstanding. Yet surely we can, to cite the historian Robert Darnton in a famous essay, speak of "progress" with a small p, material and commercial. It consisted of small, incre­mental, local but real victories in the eternal struggle of humanity against disease, starvation, discomfort, infant mortality, malnutrition, bad housing, premature ag­ing, and mind-numbing, backbreaking, and dangerous work that machines even­tually took over in large part. The processes we may call-in the absence of a better term---"economic modernization" can be measured in part as rising productivity. Better economic organization and improved technology led to growing economic capabilities, teasing out more product per unit of input. It led to the gradual disap­pearance of the boredom and stupefying monotonousness of work and production in earlier times. It is the function of economic history to reveal the truth about the so-called good old times before the Industrial Revolution, just as it is its duty to ful­ly display the costs of urbanization, the frustrations of commercialization and mass consumption, the horrors that modern technology and mass production can inflict during times of war, and the ambivalent impact that technological change has had on the majority of humanity who happened to live outside the industrialized world. Economic historians need to show the full effect of the many fluctuations and cycles in economic activity, the setbacks during wars and depressions, and the disruptions caused by inflation, unemployment, ill-conceived or evil economic policies, and the often ghastly social and economic experiments that all mark the modern era.

Economic history, in any event, deals with much more than just "how rich" a society was and how its riches were distributed. A great deal of research has been carried out on how the economic matrix of production and exchange functioned in the human past. What kind of contracts existed and how were property rights de­fined and enforced, how did society provide for public goods, how did it take care of its poor and unfortunate? Economic history needs to show how people allocated their time between work and leisure, their resources between consumption and in­vestment, how they transferred assets between generations through inheritance practices. Every economy, moreover, rested its production system on certain bodies of skills and knowledge, yet because these skills resided primarily in the perishable human mind, mechanisms needed to be found to educate the young and, if possi­ble, to expand the knowledge base. Similarly, in each society that ever was, there is an ever-present tension between those who tried to make their living by producing goods and services, either by the patient toil of farmers or the more entrepreneurial activities of merchants and bankers, and those who sought their riches through re­distribution from one group to another, whether through violence, taxes, forced exclusions, or fraud. The prevalence of such opportunistic or "rent-seeking" behavior depended on the cultural beliefs and norms of each society, but also on the kind of incentive structures and distribution of political power prevailing in the institu­tions of each economy. Much of the material in this Encyclopedia surveys, in one form or another, these essential details from a historical perspective.

One institution to which economic historians have paid much attention in recent years is the family. It is now well understood that research in the economic history of the family is a legitimate field, and that the economics of population change can­not be understood without describing the details of the dynamics of the family: at what age did people get married, what kind of resources were exchanged and pledged before and during the marriage, how did the family allocate resources between man, woman, children, and other members, and how were demographic decisions made? In view of the enormous amount of evidence accumulated by demo­graphic historians, we are much better informed about these pivotal developments in human history. A set of very different institutions, but equally central to the un­derstanding of our past, are those that made accumulation and exchange possible: money, credit, contracts, insurance, law enforcement, and institutions that engen­dered trust and reciprocity and made local and long-distance trade possible. These institutions include those that lubricated the process of exchange: the emergence of coins and other means of exchange, the use of letters of credit, bills of exchange, and the emergence of financial institutions. We cover the full range of these institu­tions, from medieval contracts to modern exchange rates, from bimetalism to the working of the gold standard and post-1945 international monetary system. These topics have been given considerable space because they are of interest to students and scholars, and because they have been the subjects of a great deal of research. In the end economic history is largely what economic historians do.

Outside the social interactions in markets and other institutions, there are the in­teractions between people and their environment-though a precise boundary is, of course, hard to draw. Yet we have included a great deal of information on the physical environment and human biology, since economic activity and well-being by def­inition depends on the number of people around, as well as on their health and longevity. To understand that, economic historians have looked in the past at the causes and severity of diseases, the tendency of women to nurse their babies, the connection between nutrition and health, changes in climate and rainfall, pest and flood control, and many similar variables. Finally, we have a substantial number of entries about individuals, men and women, who for one reason or another are of importance as economic historians, entrepreneurs, inventors, financiers, and scholars. The entries are followed by brief bibliographies and listings of Internet sites that will allow interested readers to explore the topics further. The Encyclopedia in its entirety will be made available electronically online in 2004 through insti­tutional subscriptions to its online site.


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