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BC Historian Wins 2012 WHA Book Prize

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. (June 2012)—Boston College Professor of History Prasannan Parthasarathi has won the World History Association Book Prize for his 2011 work, Why Europe Grew Rich and Asia Did Not: Global Economic Divergence, 1600-1850 (Cambridge University Press).

The WHA, founded in 1982, is the “foremost organization” for the promotion of world history through the encouragement of teaching, research, and publication. Since 1999, the association has awarded a book prize to recognize outstanding contributions to world history.

Prasannan Parthasarathi
Prasannan Parthasarathi

“I am very pleased to be given such recognition by my colleagues,” said Parthasarathi, a Boston College faculty member since 1998. “This book was more than a decade in the making, so an honor like this is particularly satisfying.”

Parthasarathi pursues research related to modern South Asian history, global history, labor history and economic history. In Why Europe Grew Rich and Asia Did Not, he explores the long-debated question of why the path of economic development diverged between Europe and Asia in the 18th and 19th centuries.

In contrast to other research claiming Europe possessed superior markets, rationality, science or institutions, the book attributes the divergence to different competitive and ecological pressures that in turn produced varied state policies and economic outcomes.

Parthasarathi gives a different perspective on global economic development ranging from India, Japan and China to Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire, and textile and coal industries to the roles of science, technology and the state.

Although Parthasarathi started work on the book before the world financial crisis, he feels his area of research “has achieved a new saliency” given the events of the past few years.

“The problem of the European-Asian economic divergence is one people have been thinking about for many years,” he said. “But it is interesting to see the questions this recent crisis has raised about, for example, banking regulations, fiscal stimulus, and the role of the state in the economy, and look back at how some of those same issues played out centuries ago.”

Given the fragile economic situation in Europe — with the potential for Greece and others in the Eurozone to default on their debts — and the rise of countries like China and India during the past decade or so, Parthasarathi says it is tempting to think the pendulum has now swung to Asia, thus reversing the divergence.

“There will definitely be some convergence, and the per capita incomes in Asia and Europe will get closer,” he explained. “But all these theories about Europe’s demise are a little premature — there are indications it will be able to weather this storm.

“More to the point, the gap between Europe and Asia is still so wide, despite Europe’s difficulties and the growth in India and China — China has a big economy, but it is distributed over a very large population.”

Still, Parthasarathi can point to his own personal observations as evidence of the dramatic economic-driven changes in his native India.

“Around Chennai, in the south, one of the major trends of the past 10 years or so is the extent of urbanization. Through the 1980s, the portion of the population living in rural areas was greater, around 80 percent, and had been stable for a long time. But in just the past two decades, the urban population has risen above 50 percent; Chennai has become more crowded, and there has been an explosion of goods, although these are mainly concentrated in the middle and upper classes.

“Obviously, growth brings a whole other set of challenges and problems. But, for some anyway, things have changed significantly in a relatively short time.”

—Sean Smith is editor of the Boston College Chronicle;