Looking for evidence in all the wrong places

A- A A+

In today’s working group meeting on the politics of cultural exchange, Luca Mola discussed a 2004 piece by Maxime Berg about the role of trade in European industrialization. Berg’s broad intention can be understood as a matter of contextualizing British industrial innovation within its trade relationships with the Orient.

Stripped down to its skeleton, his argument is that imports from Asia, especially luxury imports, helped shape a British “consumer culture,” which drove innovation in British production methods, within a form of “import substitution industrialization” that pulled in all of Britain’s trans-global empire within a sphere of “indigenous” production.

In developing the first of these claims, Berg sets herself against literature produced by economic historians that denies the relevance of trade to the development of English economic change. What is interesting is the evidence they use: because growth in trade itself was a small quantitative component of economic growth in the eighteenth century, such authors conclude that trade didn’t matter, period.

The easiest critique to be made of such a claim is its fallacious dependence on a linear relationship between trade and economic growth: concluding, because trade only increased by 10%, and the economy grew by 100%, that one is “obviously” not responsible for the other.

Yet looked at more carefully, Berg’s resistance to the trade-irrelevance thesis depends on openness to the possibility that quantitative, material changes may be connected by qualitative, cultural changes. Her article lays out a economic process by which small change in the import of certain idiosyncratic goods drives a change in the cultural structure of demand, which drives curiosity and innovation among producers, which then drives growth.

This isn’t just about quantitative or qualitative factors, however; many of the intermediating factors and processes she points to could, in the abstract, be measured, quantified and the statistical linkages more mathematically tested. Rather, what her argument usefully demonstrates is how easy it is, when using an inappropriate model for processes of social change, to find evidence proving how relevant or irrelevant certain factors ostensibly are.