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An unlevel playing field: national income estimates and reciprocal comparison in global economic history


  • Jerven, Morten


If we take recent income per capita estimates at face value, they imply that the average medieval European was at least five times ‘better off’ than the average Congolese today. This raises important questions regarding the meaning and applicability of national income estimates throughout time and space, and their use in the analysis of global economic history over the long term. This article asks whether national income estimates have a historical and geographical specificity that renders the ‘data’ increasingly unsuitable and misleading when assessed outside a specific time and place. Taking the concept of ‘reciprocal comparison’ as a starting point, it further questions whether national income estimates make sense in pre-and post-industrial societies, in decentralized societies, and in polities outside the temperate zone. One of the major challenges in global history is Eurocentrism. Resisting the temptation to compare the world according to the most conventional development measure might be a recommended step in overcoming this bias.

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  • Jerven, Morten, 2012. "An unlevel playing field: national income estimates and reciprocal comparison in global economic history," Journal of Global History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 7(01), pages 107-128, March.
  • Handle: RePEc:cup:jglhis:v:7:y:2012:i:01:p:107-128_00

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    Cited by:

    1. Hills, Thomas & Proto, Eugenio & Sgroi, Daniel, 2015. "Historical Analysis of National Subjective Wellbeing Using Millions of Digitized Books," IZA Discussion Papers 9195, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
    2. Jerven, Morten & Austin, Gareth & Green, Erik & Uche, Chibuike & Frankema, Ewout & Fourie, Johan & Inikori, Joseph & Moradi, Alexander & Hillbom, Ellen, 2012. "Moving Forward in African Economic History. Bridging the Gap Between Methods and Sources," Lund Papers in Economic History 124, Lund University, Department of Economic History.
    3. Broadberry, Stephen & Gardner, Leigh, 2016. "Economic Development In Africa And Europe: Reciprocal Comparisons," Revista de Historia Económica, Cambridge University Press, vol. 34(01), pages 11-37, March.
    4. Leandro Prados de la Escosura, 2012. "Output Per Head In Pre-Independence Africa: Quantitative Conjectures," Economic History of Developing Regions, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 27(2), pages 1-36, December.
    5. Jerven, Morten, 2014. "African growth miracle or statistical tragedy? Interpreting trends in the data over the past two decades," WIDER Working Paper Series 114, World Institute for Development Economic Research (UNU-WIDER).
    6. Deng, Kent & O’Brien, Patrick Karl, 2016. "China’s GDP per capita from the Han Dynasty to communist times," Economic History Working Papers 64857, London School of Economics and Political Science, Department of Economic History.
    7. Kent Deng & Patrick Karl O’Brien, 2014. "Creative Destruction: Chinese GDP per capita from the Han Dynasty to Modern Times," Working Papers 0063, European Historical Economics Society (EHES).

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