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Maxine Berg and Global History

Published: 27 May 2020

On 21 February 2020, GHCC hosted a workshop to celebrate the career of Professor Maxine Berg. Focusing on the question "Why Does Economic History Matter?", the event marked Berg's manifold contributions to the field of global economic history in the forty-two years she's been at Warwick, first in the Economics Department and since 1993 in the Department of History. Leading several major projects in collaboration with partners in the museum and heritage sector, Berg also founded the Eighteenth-Century Centre and, in 2007, the Global History and Culture Centre. Attended by life-long friends and colleagues, former students, and family, the festive event concluded with the presentation of a volume of essays written and edited by several of Maxine's colleagues and friends, titled Reinventing the Economic History of Industrialisation (McGill-Queen's University Press: 2020). In this guest blog, Professor Tirthankar Roy (LSE) responds to the book and the central place of Berg's scholarship in shaping the field of global economic history.

Maxine Berg and Global History

Economic historians have absorbed Maxine Berg’s writings on industrialization too well to notice how original these are against the conventional scholarship on the subject. Re-inventing the Economic History of Industrialisation reminds them of that fact. With 21 top scholars contributing 17 chapters, and worldwide coverage, the book is a fitting tribute.

The editors mark four themes that emerge from Berg’s work taken together, which stimulate new ways of thinking about British industrialization in the nineteenth century. First, Britain’s global connections are relevant to any account of the industrialization. Second, industrialization was a gradual process, a ‘longer flatter hill’ than imagined, in the words of some contributors to the subject, an idea that Berg’s writings on the preindustrial times illustrates well. Third, industrialization was about how societies managed new ways of working. It was about the family, women, children, and homes, as much as machinery and the factory. And fourth, the early-modern world economy stimulated consumption, and in turn, the search for ways of making things at home that originally came from abroad.

Historians who see the novelty of these claims would give the project a name – global history – to underline that novelty. Several of Berg’s books and articles flow naturally into a global history course readings list. But a global historian needs to be anchored in a region. Berg is firmly an economic historian of modern Britain, and most essays in the book show her effect upon changing the discourse on Britain.

Several of these engage with Berg’s insistence that craft skills shaped the industrialization process. These skills stimulated innovation and exchange of knowledge, changed the meaning of work, and enabled women and children to join paid work. An older understanding of industrialization as the growing use of factories and machinery is discarded. Several chapters illustrate, as Berg’s scholarship does, the challenge of building an understanding of transition that can accommodate the simultaneous existence of the crafts and machines. A third big theme the essays tackle is consumption. That the desire for things could remake societies, and that world trade began to have that effect from before the invention of new textile technologies, have entered the global history toolbox for some time. Berg shaped the discourse.

My anchor is in India. With that standpoint, I sometimes read Maxine Berg to see how some of her claims help make claims about India. To be relevant across borders is the mark of a real global historian.

My doctoral thesis and first book were on the Indian textile artisans in the nineteenth century. Usually seen as victims of Britain’s Industrial Revolution, in my thesis many of them appeared as survivors, thanks to their ability to make creative use of craft skills. This is largely a story about women and consumption because the biggest field of application of design skills was the saree.

In a reincarnation of the book (Crafts and Capitalism: Handloom Weaving Industry in Colonial India, Routledge 2020), I write the following. Whereas economists think that work creates the capacity to consume, historians of Britain reverse the link between consumption and work. They show how, in the eighteenth cen­tury, ‘the desire, most graphically expressed by women, for special items of personal or household adornment in distinctive materials and styles which would give them individuality,’ influenced systems of production and work (Berg, Journal of Social History, 1996). The modern history of the saree fits that statement.

Tirthankar Roy, London School of Economics and Political Science

Reinventing the Economic History of Industrialisation (McGill-Queen's University Press: 2020) is edited by Kristine Bruland, Anne Gerritsen, Pat Hudson and Giorgio Riello.

Contributors include Helen Clifford (University of Warwick), Sarah Easterby-Smith (St Andrew's University), Margot Finn (University College London), Liliane Hilaire-Pérez (Université Paris VII), Morgan Kelly (University College Dublin), Beverly Lemire (University of Alberta), Joel Mokyr (Northwestern University), Patrick O'Brien (London School of Economics), Cormac Ó Gráda (University College Dublin), Johan Poukens (Louvain University), Osamu Saito (University of Tokyo), Kate Smith (University of Birmingham), Keith Smith (Imperial College London), Herman Van der Wee (Louvain University), Jan de Vries (University of California, Berkeley), David Washbrook (Cambridge University), and Natalie Zemon Davis (University of Toronto).

Reinventing the Economic History of Industrialisation, eds. Kristine Bruland, Anne Gerritsen, Pat Hudson and Giorgio Riello (McGill-Queen's University Press: 2020)