Curtin organizes his book into four parts: the technological root of European imperialism and the patterns of European expansion; cultural change among peoples over whom Europeans had direct rule; cultural change among peoples under informal European control; and cultural change in the last twenty-five years, the time of the “liquidation” of European overseas empires (xiv). His focus is on cultural change since the middle of the 18th century, or more specifically how the European rise to dominance (including the United States) during the last two century has had an impact on the majority of the non-European world.
Curtin explains the process of cultural change through numerous case studies from different societies in the Americas, Africa, and Asia (including South and Southeast Asia, and the Middle East). He contends that “theory and broad generalizations often conceal so many exceptions that they are in danger of becoming only vague reflections of reality.” Moreover he suggests that case studies, “can only be partial reflection of the broader processes of history, but they make it possible to stay closer to the empirical data on which all good history must be based” (xi). By comparing specific factors contributing to the process of change in different areas, he illustrates emerging patterns and diverse variables that have produced either similar or differing results.
Other than the case studies themselves, Curtin constantly contrasts or relates different countries to any given process or development being discussed. For example in the first part he discusses the “legal sovereignty” practiced by colonial powers such as the French, British, and Portugal, all of which lacked the efficacy of actually administering power in the lands they claimed. Furthermore, the first part essentially is a background to the technological development, both militarily and administratively, of European countries in pursuing imperialistic interests.
He also introduces terms that pave the way for the rest of his arguments, such as “true colonialism,” “territorial empire,” and “plural societies” (1) His first case study emerges when he compares British policy in Burma and Malaya, and the concept of unintentional empire building (43-48). He goes on to discuss the frequent disagreement between those authorities in the “motherland” and those who are “on-the-spot” (50).
In his second part of The World and the West Curtin expands the geographic reach of compared societies when he tackles policy making, successes, and setbacks of Europeans in South Africa and the Soviets in Central Asia (both considered plural societies). He explains how “[i]n South Africa the policy of divide and rule failed, just as it partly succeeded in Central Asia” (71). In the following chapter of the second part he dismisses similarities in the histories of the Americas and suggests that the United States and Canada resemble more closely the history of Australia and New Zealand (73).
He contrasts the Yaqui in northern Mexico and the Maya, with focus on what Curtin calls the “second conquest” under Spanish rule. (75) In the succeeding chapter Curtin engages four areas in his case study of “the technology of management” (92), or more specifically the development of governmental administration. The first two areas, Bengal and Central Asia, he discusses land tenure policies issued by the British for the former and Russia for the latter. The second two areas, Java and Malaya, he explains the process of political administrative modernization. In both cases he contends that the result of European policies was “not the one the Europeans had intended or predicted” (107).
In the third part of his book Curtin looks at the intentional act to change the culture of an area by Europeans, otherwise called “conversion.” He argues that this intention to “change their way of life,” is a “two-sided process” and is not limited to religious conversion (109). He argues that the leaders who privileged modernization (high productivity and high per capita consumption) could choose from “a number of choices.” By this he intends to illustrate that the process of modernization in the West is not the essential model for modernization elsewhere. Thus in the following four chapters he discusses “instances where people overseas, threatened in one way or another by the rise of Western power, chose to borrow from the West voluntarily and selectively, with a variety of different outcomes” (110)
The people he talks about include Christian Missiopn in East Africa and the response of the Buganda people; different types of “defensive modernization” with examples from the sixteenth-century neo-Inca resistance to Spanish rule, which included adaptation and adoption of weapons technology and religious affiliation; another example of defensive modernization was Peter the Great’s move to modernize Russia borrowing elements of Western military models; he compares the modernizing monarchies of Hawaii, Imerina, and Siam; and finally he spends the last two chapters discussion Meiji Japan and the Ottoman response to the West. In the latter two, Curtin explains factors that led to Japan’s success in becoming a secular state, and the Ottoman’s difficulty in maintaining unity and secularity.
The final part of this book pays principle attention to the 1950s through the 1970s, although looking to some earlier years as well. The first chapter discusses primary and colonial resistance, protest, state building, and nativist reaction; cases studies include state building in western Algeria in the 1830s and 1840s and in the Rif mountains of Morocco in the 1920s. The following chapter describes various kinds of millennialism such as the Xhosa cattle killing in South Africa and from the Ghost Dance religion among North American Indians. It also discusses the Africanized version of the Watchtower movement Jehovah’s Witnesses and cargo cults in Melanesia.
He concludes this chapter by emphasizing that “such movements are significant to the understanding of change in human societies” (230). He spends the last two chapters paralleling the peoples search for identity in Indonesia and Ghana. Comparing the two, Curtin contends that “what happened within the framework of the colonial state was not entirely, or even mostly, what the European directed.” Conversely, “much of the initiative belonged to the local people” (273).
As Curtin points out, no doubt these numerous case studies “appear idiosyncratic,” but he goes on to say “they were not random. They were chosen in an effort to look at a wide a variety of responses within a brief scope of time [200 years]” (275). His intentional comparison of seemingly two completely different peoples often opposite to one another geographically was to show the variety of responses that actually took place. In his final analysis he suggests that comparative history is valuable in understanding processes, whether the result of the compared processes produce similar or distant results. In retrospect, common themes do emerge.
These include “the gap between the intentions of the major actors and the actual outcomes,” “the degree to which the European empires were actually run by non-Europeans,” and finally “the borrowing of Western culture was fitted into an existing cultural matrix. Nor was the globalization of world cultures a one-way street…” (276) His comparison of case studies lends itself to flexibility, since he does not intend to cover all important cultural events or processes, but rather he focuses on two things: a selected period of time, and general social processes (cultural change by interaction).
I also found that by illustrating case studies beyond a mere two, or even three, he allows the reader an opportunity to include other areas. However, by providing as many as he did made it difficult to retain the information, thus categorizing this book as a “must study” rather than a “must read.” Overall the themes of the sections, the theoretical material, and the case studies were accessible and not beyond the scope of a reader not specialized in any of the given areas.