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How Did the West Usurp the Rest? Origins of the Great Divergence over the Longue Durée

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 January 2017

Alexander Anievas*
Political Science, University of Connecticut
Kerem Nişancioğlu
SOAS, University of London


Traditional explanations of the “rise of the West” have located the sources of Western supremacy in structural or long-term developmental factors internal to Europe. By contrast, revisionist accounts have emphasized the conjunctural and contingent aspects of Europe's ascendancy, while highlighting intersocietal conditions that shaped this trajectory to global dominance. While sharing the revisionist focus on the non-Western sources of European development, we challenge their conjunctural explanation, which denies differences between “West” and “East” and within Europe. We do so by deploying the idea of uneven and combined development (UCD), which redresses the shortcomings found on both sides of the debate: the traditional Eurocentric focus on the structural and immanent characteristics of European development and the revisionists’ emphasis on contingency and the homogeneity of Eurasian societies. UCD resolves these problems by integrating structural and contingent factors into a unified explanation: unevenness makes sense of the sociological differences that revisionists miss, while combination captures the aleatory processes of interactive and multilinear development overlooked by Eurocentric approaches. From this perspective, the article examines the sociologically generative interactions between European and Asian societies’ development over the longue durée and traces how the breakdown of feudalism and the rise of capitalism in Europe were fundamentally rooted in and conditioned by extra-European structures and agents. This then sets up our conjunctural analysis of a central yet underappreciated factor explaining Europe rise to global dominance: the disintegration of the Mughal Empire and Britain's colonization of India.

Research Article
Copyright © Society for the Comparative Study of Society and History 2017 

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27 Trotsky, History, 5.

28 Rosenberg, “Uneven and Combined Development,” 576.

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30 Ibid., 316.

31 Cooper, “Can Contingency be ‘Internalised’?” 592.

32 Ibid.

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47 Hobson, Eastern Origins, 112.

48 See Greengrass, Christendom Destroyed; Anievas and Nişancioğlu, How the West Came to Rule.

49 The “Eastern” origins of European feudalism are examined in Hobson, Eastern Origins, 99–115.

50 To clarify, we are not claiming that feudalism was inherently stagnant or that agents operating under feudal rules of reproduction were incapable of introducing labor-saving technologies and developing the productive forces more generally. Indeed, they often did in significant ways (see Chris Wickham, “Productive Forces and the Economic Logic of the Feudal Mode of Production,” Historical Materialism 16, 2 [2008]: 3–22). However, despite such technological innovations, feudal rules of reproduction still set clear limits to the nature and extent of such developments and these limits compelled lords to find other means of expanding their incomes, particularly through “geopolitical accumulation.” We thank one of the CSSH reviewers for pushing us to clarify this point.

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169 Bayly, Indian Society, 51.

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