“Big books” are tricky things in social sciences. Everyone wants to write one, about some major issue of history, society, polity or the economy. Few try. And fewer yet actually succeed. Those who do succeed end up not only changing the research programmes of major universities, but also shaping how the educated layperson thinks about the subject.
Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies was perhapsthe big book of the 1990s, at least in the liberal humanities disciplines I was shuffling in and out of as an undergrad. That explained why geography played a huge role in determining the course of history.
Now, no social scientist anywhere ever would claim that any single book explains everything — that’s the stuff of religion. Diamond’s thesis didn’t seem particularly convincing about the relative performance of Western Europe and other regions of Eurasia (West Asia, India, China) over the past 500 years.
In the past decade, there has been a number of attempts at explaining this West vs the Rest puzzle. Within that literature, Timur Kuran of Duke University has explored the difference between Europe and the Middle East. His The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East is the big book on the subject. (more…)