The ‘Great Divergence’ in Focus – An Interview with Kaveh Yazdani

Kaveh Yazdani is a social scientist working in a historical perspective on the Great Divergence, i.e. the differences in the emergence of ‚Modernity‘ between the ‚West and the rest‘. We interviewed him and talked about his recent publication.

How would you describe the ‘Great Divergence’ in a few sentences? What were the crucial differences between the emergence of modernity in the West and the rest of the world in the 19th century?

The ‘Great Divergence’ debate is concerned with the historical reasons behind the rise of the West and modern economic growth from a global perspective. The term the ‘Great Divergence’ was coined by Kenneth Pomeranz. In his homonymous book he tried to explain why the Industrial Revolution took off in England and not in advanced parts of China, most notably the Yangtze Delta. With respect to the differences between the emergence of modernity in the ‘West and the rest’, there has been a considerable degree of controversy, especially since the late 1990s onwards. The debate continues with great fervor and no consensus is in

The book cover of the aforementioned publication „India, Modernity and the Great Divergence“

sight. Needless to say, I do not claim to have identified the ingredients that are crucial in explaining the different historical trajectories between Western Europe and advanced parts of India, let alone between East and West. For those interested in the concrete set of factors that, according to my narrative, made the difference, I would like to refer to my book India, Modernity and the Great Divergence: Mysore and Gujarat (17th to 19th C.), published by Brill (2017), as the limited space of this interview does not allow me to go into more detail. That being said, I would nonetheless like to stress the following: I find it important to take notice of the fact that traditional Eurocentric accounts overstretch the differences between East and West, whereas the non-Eurocentric or revisionist historiographical schools overvalue the similarities. In some fields, swaths of India were more advanced. In others, they were on a par and in some areas Western Europe had a significant edge. The particular nature of arguments often depends on the eye of the beholder. Historians, geographers, sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists, etc. may come up with explanations that are in tune with their own training and field of expertise but sound curious or unconvincing to those of other disciplines. Furthermore, scholars often try to foreground a few pivotal factors at the expense of others. I am convinced, however, that, methodologically, this approach is highly problematic. I argue that it is not just a few aspects but rather a dialectical combination of an array of different and sometimes contradictory aspects and processes that permit us to comprehend the global conjuncture that created the modern world.

You are using the concept of a so called “middle modernity”. Why did you choose to differentiate between different phases of modernity and what do you understand by “middle modernity”? What importance does historical periodization in general play in your research?

There are good reasons for questioning the supposed advent of the early modern period by around 1500. It is even more problematic that in mainstream historiography, early modernity generally begins in Europe and suddenly jumps from the early modern to the modern period, without any intermediary transition between early modernity and modernity. The partition of developments and processes into three parts – an early, middle and late phase – is a useful method to decode historical watersheds and contrast them with historical continuities. But as far as I am aware of, no historian has made any serious attempts to divide the history of modernity into three distinct periods. Most scholars stick to the classical division between early modernity and modernity. However, especially since the 18th century, it is not uncommon to make use of the method of tripartition in explaining modern phenomena. In his Über das Studium der griechischen Poesie (1797), the German scholar Friedrich Schlegel, for instance, divided modern poetry into three phases. The first phase was thought to be the age of crusades with Dante as the earliest representative of an early modern style of poetry. The second phase was identified as the period of the Reformation and ‘’discovery’’ of the Americas. And the third phase, he believed, had dawned in the 18th century. Indeed, it is remarkable that similar kinds of trisections have not been ventured in the periodization of modernity at large. Interestingly enough, in recent years, scholars such as Sanjay Subrahmanyam, David Washbrook and Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi made important interventions through raising the awareness to the necessity of expanding the concept of early modernity in space. Their emphasis on parallel and connected modernities has been a great inspiration to me. At the same time, I think that their contributions did not go far enough when it comes to the temporal dimensions of modernity. Therefore, I have taken the liberty to humbly present a new periodization of world historical processes that, at least in my view, is less Eurocentric and abrupt and also gives more serious consideration to the longue durée in the making of modernity. In fact, I am convinced that offering a new periodization of world historical times is at the heart of deconstructing some dominant Eurocentric biases in academia and popular culture.

In the introduction of my book, I argue that ‘early modernity’ did not begin in the 16th but in the 10th century. The most dynamic centers of the world in terms of socio-economic, techno-scientific and intellectual developments at that time were Song China and Abbasid West Asia. It was only in the 13th century that advanced parts of Europe entered the ‘early modern’ period. What I have termed middle modernity is basically the same period as the epoch traditionally known as early modernity (16th to 19th century). I do not put into question the qualitative changes that took place at that time and agree with the way historians such as John F. Richards and Jerry H. Bentley have characterized this period. The main reason for calling this epoch middle modernity instead of early modernity is to argue that the ‘early modern’ period started 500 years earlier than generally assumed and that modernity, from the 16th century onwards, is not predominantly ‘early’ anymore but already in a more advanced stadium, hence the term middle modernity. Concurrently processes of uneven development and the ‘simultaneity of the non-simultaneous’ also need to be taken into consideration as, in every epoch, multiple time layers overlap and the remnants of earlier periods survive despite the gradual prevalence of the capitalist mode of production in the transition from the middle to the late modern period (c. 1830–1960s).

In your case studies you compared (among other factors) the transport and infrastructure situations for Gujarat and Mysore, two regions in India. Based on your findings, could you tell us what role transregional mobility played for the modernization of North-West and South India respectively?

In contrast to what has been suggested by a number of scholars, from both the liberal and Marxist tradition, the economically advanced regions of pre-colonial India did not predominantly consist of isolated and self-sufficient village communities. Commodities from distant parts of the subcontinent were transported throughout South Asia and to some extent also penetrated the countryside. There is some evidence for a two-way-flow of commodity circulation between urban and rural areas of economically advanced Indian provinces and their differences, economically speaking, with Western Europe did not seem to have been as striking as has been suggested by a number of historians. The vibrant exchange and circulation of goods also brought in new ideas but transregional mobility could equally lead to negative effects and inhibit processes of capital accumulation. The weavers of 18th century South India, for instance, often fled their towns and villages if they were dissatisfied with their contracts, as has been pointed out by Prasannan Parthasarathi and others. This increased their bargaining power but also acted as a brake on the penetration of merchant capital. Indian merchants between the 17th and 19th centuries such as the Gujarati Banias and Parsis were running commercial enterprises from South, South-East, West and East Asia up to Eastern Africa. Maritime trade was the lifeline of these merchants and the Parsis in particular, built ships that incorporated European techniques and often even outstripped the best European models of the late 18th and early 19th century. Transregional mobility was crucial for the commercial transaction of the mercantile strata of society, but also for purposes of warfare. Merchants were dependent on safe roads as well as couriers who could deliver bills of exchange from one part of the subcontinent to the other in due time. Concurrently, it is a well-known fact that in pre-industrial times, punctuality very much depended on contingent climatic circumstances as well as the security of the journey that could be interrupted by robbery and warfare. But even regarding the latter, in order to transport military hardware, animals of burden and an appropriate infrastructure were of great help. After the decline of the Mughal Empire, most independent land powers in India seem to have failed in keeping up with the reparation and building of new roads, etc. except for the Sultanate of Mysore which even made some progress with regard to the construction of infrastructure.

Given that you worked on two regions in India, would you describe your approach as a global or transregional one? Where do you see the benefits and shortcomings of such labels?

I generally intend to use multiple approaches. In the introduction of my recent publication, I emphasize the importance of the contributions of different core areas of the world in the emergence of modernity. These include Chinese technologies, West Asian scientific developments, political progress in Western Europe, African slave labor and American resources. Furthermore, the introduction and epilogue are both global in outlook as I compare developments in the two case studies with processes that took place in other economically advanced parts of the world. Chapter two and three are micro-historical studies of Mysore and Gujarat. At the same time, transregional and transcontinental encounters and entanglements have been traced and its importance is being emphasized throughout the survey. Moreover, I also try to put India’s socio-economic, techno-scientific, political, military and intellectual developments in global perspective through comparing processes in say, Mysore and England with each other. In short, the combination of both comparisons and entanglements and the conduction of two micro-studies in macro-historical perspective were employed in the course of research. These seemingly contradictory approaches complement each other and can be conducive in better understanding the causes of Western Europe’s path towards global supremacy and the simultaneous socio-economic falling behind of the rest of the world.


Kaveh Yazdani. Picture: Private.

Kaveh Yazdani received his PhD degree in social sciences (Sozialwissenschaften) at the University of Osnabrück in 2014 (‘’summa cum laude’’). He was granted the Prince Dr Sabbar Farman-Farmaian fellowship at the International Institute of Social History (IISH) in Amsterdam in 2015 and is currently a Mellon Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa. His publications and forthcoming projects have in common that they enquire into questions of modernity, capitalist development, the reasons behind the rise of the West in global comparative perspective as well as the socio-economic and intellectual history of South and West Asia between the 17th and 19th centuries.


TIPP: If you are interested in questions of periodization, save the date of our annual conference entitled „Chronologics: Periodisation in a Global Context“, taking place December 7th-9th, 2017 at the Maison de France, Berlin.


Citation: The ‚Great Divergence‘ in Focus – An Interview with Kaveh Yazdani, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 06.07.2017,

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