The Great Divergence. Fifteen Years Later. New Positions and Debates Surrounding a Controversial Concept



Over the last 15 years, there have been at least 3 “Great Divergence” debates. One, primarily but not exclusively statistical, has been about the timing of divergence as measured by living standards, wages, and so on across sectors and societies. While considerable disagreement remains, some points of consensus have also emerged. A second debate has been about institutions – political arrangements, property rights, contract enforcement, fiscal and financial systems, institutions for encouraging and/or protecting inventions, overseas trade and expansion, and so on. This discussion has been much broader than the first, but participants have often talked past each other: not only because they have focused on many different sub-topics, but because it has often been unclear how to move from describing differences to assessing their significance – and over what timescale. These uncertainties about what to make of various differences has helped feed a third debate, which is about the considerable but incomplete economic convergence between East Asia and the West in recent decades: is this adequately understood as Asians “catching up” by approximating Western institutions , or are there also regionally specific legacies that play important roles, such that we should speak of multiple capitalisms and/or multiple paths to economic modernity?
Despite the difficulties of treating even one of these debates thoroughly, I will argue that they need to be juxtaposed if we are to assess where any one of them now stands, and why our students should care, Even if our interests are strictly historical, the role of contemporary phenomena – especially the “East Asian miracles” on one hand, and concerns about sustainability on the other – in energizing these debates means that contemporary concerns are necessarily involved in assessing what we have learned, and where our discussions might go next.