It is considered bad form to criticize others, esp on a site like goodreads, so I will do so without mentioning any names. An earlier reviewer of this book began by complaining about how "this book stinks of post-modernism. It's an odor that the author could have done without--references to chaos theory, anti-Kuhnian analysis and an attack on euro-centrism so strident that it borders on apoplexy, are, I think, undue".
Though the reviewer went on to give this book five-stars, these comments almost dissuaded me from reading it. And yet, these comments are so preposterous and outlandish, so utterly unjustified by the text, that I cannot pass them in silence.
This is a brilliant book and an achievement -- and I'm quite surprised that I not only never read it, but never even heard of it.
This book takes a sustained, critical, synthetic look at world economic history during the 13th and 14th centuries, when a full world system, according to A.-L., took shape, flourished, and collapsed under the pressure of the Plague and other deep local disturbances. As such, it served as the ground for the emergent European "moment" of the 16th cen. It consisted of six complex overlapping 'cores', moving from Europe to China, and covering the global trade routes -- the overland silk route from China through Central Asia, the egress from Mesopotamia/Baghdad through the Persian Gulf and the route from Egypt through the Red Sea... both into the Indian Ocean littoral.... offering an historical compliment to Kaplan's marvelous 'periplous' of the Indian Ocean... Her conclusion is that this vast, proto-industrial, multi-polar global equilibrium fell through a series of largely local declensions (including, but not restricted to the Plague of the 14th cen.) that unwound the synergies that had produced the world system in the first place. The rise of Europe, therefore, was not due to any particular "virtue" on Europe's part - any specially technological genius or breakthrough in values (Weber) or because of the situation of local coal mines (Pomeranz) -- but because the decline of the East had created a power-vacuum that Europe, with its brutal methods, capitalized on in the 16th century (and which, then, flourished - though this topic goes beyond the scope of her book and is only touched upon -- because Europe had, with its exploitation of the New World, acess to "free resources".)
This is a novel thesis (novel to me, anyway) - and is presented with such sobriety and focus and intelligence, that it is utterly captiavting. Is it true...? I have no idea? Is it plausible and persuasive --? in Abu-Lughod's hand, most definitely!
The book is synthetic, as I have said, and her scholarship is second-hand -- based merely on a wide reading of the secondary literature. This is a flaw. But it is thoroughly inductive and empirical in the extreme, and has not ONE of the flaws that the earlier reviewer complains of (the reference to chaos theory is a throw-away line in the introduction -- yes, one line, in a FOOTNOTE!, no less [p. 40, n. 16], to the introductory chapter). And yet, from these critical foundations, the book builds to a set of inferences of enormous import.
I like to tell people that bad books start with big ideas, while good books end with them. This is a good book. A VERY good book.