Kenneth Pomeranz Biography

By Kate Merkel-Hess, Penn State University
From the Presidential Address Booklet, 2014 AHA Annual Meeting

Whether for a scholarly argument or, particularly in recent years, the discipline of history, Kenneth Pomeranz believes in making the case. Pomeranz’s tight arguments are sustained by evidence chosen to turn abstraction into concrete example. This process of sifting and synthesizing imperfect bits of information is what, he argues, history brings to the table. His reliance on that process grounds not only his scholarship but also his day-to-day life. Those who know him well emphasize again and again that he is, to put it simply, a good, decent person, someone whose self-conscious intellectualism informs his commitment to being an ethical and compassionate citizen of the world.

Pomeranz’s work has received far more attention than is usual for historians of China. This is in large part because Pomeranz has persistently placed China’s historical questions at the heart of stories of how the modern world came to be. His first book, The Making of a Hinterland, published in 1993, examined the economy and ecology of a rural area in northern China in the 19th and 20th centuries. Awarded the John K. Fairbank Prize in East Asian History, the book took seriously the effects of global markets and military competition on the Chinese hinterland, but it stayed largely within national boundaries.

Not so his second book, The Great Divergence, which when it appeared in 2000 propelled Pomeranz to the front edge of a new approach to world history. Pomeranz spent the first 24 years of his career at the University of California, Irvine (before moving in 2012 to the University of Chicago). Working amidst a cohort of transnationally minded colleagues at UCI, a story that decentered European triumph took shape. The Great Divergence undertook “reciprocal comparisons” in order to ask not only “Why did Europe have an Industrial Revolution?” and “Why didn’t China?” but to pose these relatively familiar questions in less common terms: “Why didn’t England wind up more like one of the several other early modern regions with sophisticated agriculture, commerce, and handicrafts, such as the Yangzi Delta or Japan’s Kinai region?”1 In making its central argument—that there was no “divergence” between the most affluent parts of China and Europe until 1750 or even 1800—the book exhibited all the hallmarks of Pomeranz’s scholarly style: empirical depth, regional breadth, and a careful walking of the reader through surprises in reasoning and logic.

The Great Divergence was also awarded the Fairbank Prize (Pomeranz is the only scholar in the prize’s 44-year history to win the award twice), as well as the World History Association’s annual book prize (shared that year with John McNeill’s Something New Under the Sun) and sparked widespread debates. Pomeranz’s robust defense of the book was widely seen as bolstering his arguments and further established his reputation as a careful scholar who fully grasped the extent (and the limits) of his evidence and arguments.

The acclaim awarded his scholarship has not diminished Pomeranz’s willingness to labor on behalf of the institutions and organizations to which he belongs. As with so many historians, the greatest effects of this have been quietly felt in his workaday academic obligations of committee work and advising, work he does with unmitigated thoroughness and often with an eye to the justice (or injustice) of related issues like unionization, graduate funding, and the status and treatment of adjuncts and untenured faculty. Most notable, but least visible, are the extensive comments on manuscripts, dissertation chapters, and paper drafts for which he is well known among colleagues and students. In an era of cost-cutting and talk of running universities like businesses, Pomeranz’s daily efforts also make the case—this time almost always out of public view—for historical rigor and accuracy, for a just academy, and for the contribution history makes to the intellectual project and to a broad liberal arts education.

Discovering China

Nothing in Pomeranz’s background pointed toward Asia nor, at least up to his teenage years, toward an academic career. Pomeranz’s parents had each fled Hitler’s Germany—in his mother’s case, without her parents being able to leave. Raised in a mixed working- and middle-class neighborhood of Queens in the post-Sputnik era, as a child Pomeranz was directed toward science more than the humanities, and certainly not towards Asia. His attentions turned during the summer before his senior year of high school when he attended a Telluride Association Summer Program (TASP) at Cornell University.

The program plucked a group of high school students, identified initially based on PSAT scores, from across the country, introduced them to university-level liberal arts coursework, and let the excitement of living in a house of intellectual peers take hold. The experience was thrilling and not only raised Pomeranz’s aspirations for college but showed him that study of the humanities could be rigorous, challenging, and full of puzzles that needed sorting out. Offered a scholarship to attend Cornell and continue the experiment by living in the Telluride House, he did so.

The Telluride House became the core of Pomeranz’s social and intellectual life for the years to come—not just in college but beyond too. He met his wife, Maureen Graves, and many of his closest friends in the house. Another resident was Pomeranz’s intellectual sounding board and occasional collaborator Daniel A. Segal (now a professor of history and anthropology at Pitzer College)—the two had been friends since attending the same TASP in high school. The house was run based on principles of shared governance and intellectual intensity. The result was a community in which nothing—from the menu planning to after-dinner chats—was conducted unselfconsciously.

Life in the house compounded Pomeranz’s earnest intellectualism, but it also forged his political outlook and his patience for committee work and institutional management. Telluride in the late 1970s and early 1980s encompassed a heavy contingent of neo-conservatives and it was in debates with them—like Telluride alum Paul Wolfowitz, who returned to Ithaca to run a short seminar at the house during Pomeranz’s time there—that Pomeranz developed a measured, empirical style for defending his own viewpoints. Pomeranz remained involved in the association’s management until 1992, attending regular meetings in order to help sustain the programs that he had benefitted from. (It was also while serving on Telluride’s investment board that Pomeranz decided he needed to learn more economics, an education that served as a good base when his historical interests turned in that direction as well.)

Beyond the stimulation of the Telluride House, it was in college that his attentions narrowed, rather slowly, on history. Pomeranz’s early coursework was in American and European history, and Walter LaFeber was a particularly influential mentor. It wasn’t until his senior year, already having applied to graduate school to study European history and at work on a senior honors essay on American policy in Vietnam and modernization theory, that Pomeranz took a course on China. The seminar was taught by Sherman Cochran, then a young scholar just at the beginning of a career writing about the history of Chinese business networks, advertising, and urbanization.

The course introduced Pomeranz to a world that was radically different from the European historical cases that had been his focus in earlier history classes, but recognizable enough—China had cities, a central state, social classes—that he could see possibilities for comparisons between the two. It became clear to him that there were deep contestations over how Chinese history should be remembered and understood, particularly between official Chinese interpretations of its modern history (a few accounts of which Cochran assigned to the class) and Western ones. The tensions and possibilities were appealing.

Pomeranz had initially applied to graduate school thinking he would focus on German history. But a life studying modern Germany was a heavy undertaking, one fraught with constant confrontation with his family’s history. In contrast, at the end of the 1970s, China was a field that seemed wide open; over and over again, Pomeranz had heard Cochran say, in response to queries from students, “We just don’t know that yet.” It was a period when it finally seemed possible to start to locate the answers, as an emerging group of young historians committed to doing Chinese history from the ground up made their way into the recently opened (to Americans, that is) Chinese archives and libraries. Arriving on Yale’s campus in the fall of 1980 to begin graduate studies in history, Pomeranz called on Jonathan Spence and inquired if there were any courses that a graduate student who lacked even beginning Chinese could take. Pomeranz survived his initial bouts of Chinese language study, was named the top first-year history graduate student, and by the second year had made a definite decision. He would switch his focus from western Europe to China.2

Spence did not advise with a heavy hand, allowing his students to follow their own intellectual path. He did insist, however, on an expansive Chinese “modern,” beginning with the 17th-century establishment of the Qing Dynasty. The fall of the Qing in 1911 was not a clear dividing line; instead, Spence encouraged his students to see the 19th and 20th centuries as parts of an unbroken story. This dovetailed with Pomeranz’s interest in investigating the roots of state formation and encouraged him to look further back than the founding of the Republic of China. In order to conduct necessary research, Pomeranz spent the 1985–86 school year in China, half of it in Ji’nan, the capital of Shandong Province. China had only been open to American scholars for six years at that point and living there, particularly in a provincial city, was an immersive experience, permeated by the optimism of post-reform (and pre-1989 protest) China.

In 1988 Pomeranz was offered a position in UCI’s history department. The Making of a Hinterland was published in 1993. The book, and the dissertation on which it was based, examined a region in northern China that had once been a crucial heartland but that was sidelined in the 19th century as the Chinese economy shifted toward the foreign-dominated port cities. Stability and prosperity in the region had once been critical to Beijing, since the capital’s food supply passed through as it made its way along the Grand Canal from the wealthy rice-producing areas in the south. The presence of European imperial powers on China’s coast altered this pattern of trade as government subsidies that had helped make the region rich and stable were diverted to the new cores—the coastal cities.

Pomeranz’s main challenge was to the notion that the 19th-century Chinese state was in disarray, and that the Qing’s 1911 fall was evidence of how little it had been able to respond to the new realities it faced in its final decades. Instead, Pomeranz demonstrated that the Qing responded vigorously to foreign threats. So did their successors, even during the “warlord” period of the 1920s. However, they did so through a reallocation of resources that increased political instability, neglecting significant regions of the country where the state had once played a major financial and social role. It was not inactivity but instead the unprecedented challenge of European imperialism that ultimately destabilized a regime that was also managing, simultaneously, serious internal challenges.

Pomeranz used the new economic and environmental realities to demonstrate that political choices shaped the landscape. Diminishing subsidies for public works in the area meant that water control tapered off, helping set the stage for a series of devastating floods. The introduction of export-friendly crops, such as new cotton varieties, meant increased financial success for the villages that made the choice to open up to the new markets created by unequal treaties, but this also altered village ecologies and challenged the positions of entrenched local elites.

The book made concrete a set of ideas on state-building and the unexpected local effects of the 19th-century global economy that had interested Pomeranz since his days at Cornell. While this first book landed soundly in the China history field, Pomeranz’s conversations and collaborations with colleagues at UCI were giving him space to finally explore his long-standing interest in comparative history. He had begun work on a next project on religion and state-making in imperial China, but a series of personal events would make it seem to him that the best way forward was in world history.

Incubating World History

UCI had a small history department, relative to the university’s size, and, perhaps as a result, housed a coterie of historians willing to be in conversation across national boundaries. R. Bin Wong, the senior Chinese historian at UCI, encouraged Pomeranz’s comparative tendencies. Beyond a lively exchange of ideas (its influence on the work of both scholars was profound), the two worked together on initiatives like developing a world history curriculum at UCI and building a University of California-wide multi-campus research unit on world history. Pomeranz served as founding director of the latter group for 10 years.

Other colleagues at Irvine shared a cosmopolitan approach, and over the years Pomeranz worked with many of them on books and readers. The longest-running of these collaborations was with Latin Americanist Steven Topik, with whom Pomeranz alternated authorship throughout the 1990s of a monthly column in a journal called World Trade. After six years of writing, Topik and Pomeranz gathered together the short pieces, on subjects ranging from coffee to opium, in The World That Trade Created, published in 1999. The book, now in its third edition, has become a staple for Advanced Placement and college world history courses.

The global focus became the norm at Irvine, particularly under Pomeranz’s tenure as department chair from 1999 to 2004. During that time, the department consolidated its world history reputation by hiring a series of scholars who did transnational research. Pomeranz served as an important mentor to these younger scholars, drawing them into the intellectual networks he was busy constructing. The new hires buttressed Irvine’s world history field, which became the most popular secondary field in its graduate program. While world history had, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, attracted growing disciplinary attention as a teaching field, few programs were investing resources in explicitly training students to work and teach in it as a distinct field. Irvine was at the forefront of pioneering a graduate curriculum.3

The bolstering of world history at Irvine coincided with Pomeranz’s prominent role in the late 1990s’ fresh discussions of global history. Pomeranz’s early work had been broad, and college and early graduate school had provided him with grounding in European history. Nevertheless, stumbling into world history was a series of accidents and exigencies, the first of which had been landing in Irvine. Following the publication of his first book, Pomeranz began work on another soundly Sinological project. This second manuscript would focus on a deity called Bixia yuanjun (or, as Pomeranz has called her, the Goddess of Mount Tai), hoping to investigate the changing practices of worship of the goddess over a 500-year period and her sometimes tense and altered presence in state orthodoxy.

Life intervened. The second child that Pomeranz and Graves were expecting in 1992 turned out to be twins, while their eldest was diagnosed (as the twins would be later) with developmental differences.4 A study of popular religion that required extended archival research in China was off the table (although Pomeranz has repeatedly returned to the subject over the years since, publishing a range of articles about the goddess and Chinese popular religion). Meanwhile, a project that Pomeranz had picked up in the interim—an investigation of the growth of the world economy—took an unexpected, productive turn.

Pomeranz had begun writing this book’s introduction, where he hoped to briefly sketch a portrait of the world on the verge of the Industrial Revolution. He expected to find that Europe was already, at that point, significantly richer than the rest of the world. Received scholarship on the subject had come to the conclusion that this was true, and often assumed that Europe started pulling away from the rest of the world somewhere between 1400 and 1600. But the more Pomeranz read the less convincing seemed the hypothesis that divergence was a done deal by 1800. Having written about 100 pages that felt like just a beginning, he called his editor to say that he thought he was looking at a possible book, just not the book that they had talked about. His editor urged him to follow his instincts.

Pomeranz is a voluminous writer. His writing process relies, in its beginning, on logical excursions that seek to connect seemingly disparate stories. To sketch out these stories, Pomeranz creates concept maps, two-dimensional doodles that put his points in juxtaposition but not, critically, in hierarchical order. Initial drafts are subject to extensive and dogged rewriting and revising. The new book capitalized on this tendency to layer information in order to synthesize, compare, and use evidence in surprising contexts. Importantly, most of this research could be done from Irvine where Pomeranz and Graves were consumed with caring and advocating for their young children.

The resulting book, The Great Divergence, came out amidst a body of literature that was re-visiting old discussions on the West and the East, seeking to go beyond world systems to think more synthetically about global phenomena. This community of scholars was dubbed the California School, for the heavy presence of UC faculty, and in which Pomeranz, alongside Wong, Andre Gunder Frank, Jack Goldstone, and others played key roles (though they neither created the term nor felt comfortable with the implication that they all agreed with each other). It is increasingly clear that this body of work is among the most influential set of historical propositions in recent decades. Recently voiced concerns about whether the discipline has taken the “global turn” too far—concerns that Pomeranz has sometimes shared—point, above all, to the reach of The Great Divergence and its global approach and speak to the resonance of that approach among historians who are working in an age of interconnection, internationalism, and convergence.5

In The Great Divergence, Pomeranz took a material approach to the old question of European success, comparing agricultural productivity, consumption rates, wages, environmental degradation, and marital fertility rates, among many other factors, across Eurasia. His methodology garnered as much attention as his conclusions. Pomeranz carefully set his units of comparison, demonstrating how selective use of evidence from the wealthiest parts of western Europe had in the past been compared to all of China, say, with the predictable result that China fared very poorly in the comparison. Instead, Pomeranz set the wealthiest parts of Asia (the lower Yangzi Delta, in particular) side-by-side with the wealthiest parts of Europe (especially England), and the poorest parts of Europe alongside the poorest parts of interior China. As a result, Pomeranz argued for a much later date of divergence between Asia and Europe than earlier scholars had: sometime around 1800. (In the discussions of the intervening decade-plus he has settled closer to something like 1770.)

What, in Pomeranz’s view, accounted for Europe’s economic success? Pomeranz argued that two factors mattered more than others: coal and the American colonies. Europe’s ability to harness those resources (and its possession of them in the first place) was contingent—and could not be explained by cultural superiority, developments in science or technology, or relative institutional complexity. In the case of coal, England had it, the mines were located in damp regions (requiring the development of steam engines to pump the mines dry), and they were close enough to urban centers to make shipping possible and economical (which was not true of the mines in, for instance, China and Japan). The American colonies, meanwhile, were a windfall for European countries bumping up against the ecological limits that afflicted all of Eurasia. They could now export population and bring the ships back full of natural resources that the Old World was running short of (timber and cotton were particularly important), allowing them (but not other regions of the world) to escape their ecological cul-de-sac.

The book’s publication was followed by a decade of defense and response. Pomeranz has given over 200 public talks in the last 15 years, many of them related to the book in one way or another. Panels were convened at national and international meetings to discuss the book’s implications. The book has been translated into five languages, with three more translations underway. The book’s argument for a delayed divergence became a touchstone for other historians who used it as a foil for their own counter-arguments. And it spurred a fresh round of scholarship in topics like the early modern economy, natural resource extraction and use, and comparative commercialization.

Perhaps the most watched of the debates over the book took place in the pages of the Journal of Asian Studies in 2002 and 2003 between Pomeranz and Philip C. C. Huang, a historian of China at the University of California, Los Angeles, with additions from other scholars.6 This debate focused primarily on detailed analyses of the Yangzi Delta, particularly in regard to agricultural production, population dynamics, and labor intensity, and on methods of interpreting and extrapolating from evidence. Pomeranz’s participation was noted for its measured tone but also for his careful scrutiny of data and assumptions—both his own and those of others.

The Great Divergence was the cornerstone of Pomeranz’s professional life for the decade following its publication. As China’s economy boomed and the environmental consequences of fossil fuel-driven growth attracted new attention, his research seemed particularly relevant. Lectures to packed rooms from New Haven to Paris to Beijing testified to the resonance of his scholarship with the questions about how and why China was on the rise.

Pomeranz used his new prominence to encourage the growth of the nascent world history field. He was the co-founding editor of the Journal of Global History, which began publication in 2006, as well as being active in several other boundary-crossing journals (like History Compass, for which he served as the initial East Asia editor), and co-founded the University of California Press’s world history series. He began to consult, both formally and informally, with other programs that were trying to get world history programs off the ground. And he wrote widely about what world history can and can’t do as a field, advocating for a historical approach that—when it suited the subject matter—could broaden and enrich understandings of local or provincial concerns.

Arguing for History and Beyond

Pomeranz’s willingness to engage audiences in new ways was evident in 2008 when Pomeranz and his colleague Jeffrey Wasserstrom started a group blog, The China Beat. Taking advantage of the growth and ease of online publishing, the two, working initially with a cohort of colleagues and students at UCI, wanted to create a space to feature academic work on China that would counter the steady refrain of Chinese journalistic tropes certain to be wheeled out in advance of that summer’s Beijing Olympic Games. The blog, which published almost daily postings from 2008 until 2012 and featured the writing of dozens of academic and journalist contributors (and eventually led to an edited “blog-to-book,” China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance), debuted several pieces where Pomeranz grappled with a few related contemporary issues that had captured his attention: dam-building in southwest China and the management of the Himalayan watershed.

These issues were connected to a broader area of concern for Pomeranz: ecological problems, climate change, and the historian’s responsibility to contribute to understandings of human roles in environmental change. In analyses of drought, water use, glacial melting, and major government construction projects (such as the South-to-North Water Transfer Project that China has been at work on since 2001, which if completed would be the largest construction project ever, or India’s Interlinking of Rivers Project), Pomeranz returned again to the complex of human, environment, and state that he investigated in his first book. Giving talks and publishing in a variety of places—his first article on the topic appeared in slightly different forms in Japan Focus, New Left Review, and Engineering World—Pomeranz brought the historian’s gaze to bear on the environmental implications of these massive projects (particularly in light of the ways that climate change might limit their effectiveness, and the ways that the projects themselves might mitigate some climate-related problems—by reducing carbon emissions—while exacerbating others).

While Pomeranz has recently focused on history’s possible contributions to the climate change discussions, his greatest public outreach work for the past two decades has been focused on advocating for his children, all of whom were diagnosed with autism. Efforts by Pomeranz and his wife, Maureen Graves, to institutionalize that work were borne out of their saddest moment. In late 1994, when he was five years old, Pomeranz’s eldest son Benjamin, who his parents called Benjy, died from a rare, undiagnosed metabolic disorder. Though his death was only indirectly related to his autism, amid their grief, Pomeranz and Graves founded Autism Coalition for Creative Educational and Social Services (ACCESS), a group that brought together parents and experts in order to try to ensure that children in Orange County, California, could receive the intensive care that autistic children need to thrive. Graves was ACCESS’s president, and the group drew on her expertise as a special-needs lawyer.7

The next step was to found “The Bridge Program”—which thrived for the next six years—in collaboration with UCI’s School of Social Ecology. The program provided academic credit to undergraduates who received training in applied behavioral therapy, intensive one-on-one interactions between caregivers and autistic children that are the best-known way to aid autistic children in learning to communicate and interact. The students then provided therapy to families who participated in the program, under supervision from professionals. The program was critical for families who could not afford the expensive (preferably full-time) therapy, and sought to expand, through undergrad exposure, the pool of autism therapists. Pomeranz’s capacity for self-education is evident in his knowledge of autism and autism research. In the process of caring for his sons and overseeing the Bridge Program, he gained enough expertise in the topic that he has occasionally wound up reviewing autism scholarship and acting as an expert (pro bono) witness in legal cases.

Pomeranz carried his belief that the university should be a center of social good into his professional service work as well. As an extension of building the world history program at UCI, Pomeranz and several colleagues encouraged the department to be involved in outreach to K–12 teachers. In California, primary and secondary teachers were being asked to implement a broad-based world history curriculum, often with little educational background in the subject. The department launched two major programs to address this gap. The first was part of a statewide initiative called the California History-Social Science Project, and the second was based at UCI, a program called Humanities Out There (HOT), founded by Pomeranz’s colleague Robert Moeller and Julia Lupton, a professor of English. Pomeranz played a significant role in each project, helping to drum up funding and acting as director of HOT from 2007 to 2009.

Pomeranz’s desire (and ability) to communicate with multiple publics in multiple registers is perhaps most apparent in the classroom, where he is eager to demonstrate for students how history is made and told. He approaches introductory history lectures just like his research and writing, by building a case to try to get students to understand the visceral and practical reasons for historical change. For a lecture on World War I, he collated comparative data on weaponry—how many shots could a Revolutionary War-era soldier have gotten in against an enemy racing at him across a half mile of open field versus his 1916 counterpart? And what were the implications for not only grand strategy but for the plebian soldier who faced the rain of bullets? He employs this detail-oriented approach whether in a large world history lecture, where his tendency is to pose big, comparative questions, or in upper-division Chinese history classes, where fine-grained detail is used to illustrate the human effects of government policy and economic and social change.

Graduate education affords the opportunity to continue the intellectual dialogues that Pomeranz has sought out his whole life. The care he takes in developing and cultivating students is deliberate and persistent—he meets one-on-one with advisees every week, often for up to an hour or more to talk about research and writing. His responses to written work are no less rigorous for first-year students than for his own colleagues: 10-page seminar papers are sometimes returned with two pages of single-spaced comments attached (plus numerous, if sometimes illegible marginalia). His goal is not only to train students in a body of knowledge but to train them to think, research, and write historically, flexibly, and inventively.

Pomeranz brings pedagogical attention to his editorial work, where he provides to authors the same kind of feedback that his own students receive. He has served on the editorial boards of both the University of California Press and the University of Chicago Press, as well as on numerous journal editorial boards. Editors know him for his unusually detailed reviews where, as in intellectual discussions, Pomeranz focuses on the ideas at hand and on strengthening and improving them.

Pomeranz’s belief that history’s unique contribution is not just in the result, in the telling of a historical story, but in a process of gathering and weighing always imperfect sources has been the center of his tenure as AHA president.8 As the discipline faces, across the country, falling undergraduate majors, declining hires, and smaller graduate programs, Pomeranz—as in intellectual arguments throughout his life—has staked out a position and defended it vigorously. History matters, and showing how means marshaling the evidence to prove how the discipline matters.

In 2012, Pomeranz accepted a position as University Professor at the University of Chicago. The choice was a difficult one, given Pomeranz’s lengthy, productive tenure at UCI and his deep personal connections in the area. Chicago, however, offered new vistas and new challenges. Having settled into Hyde Park, he is working toward completion of several projects that have preoccupied him for the past decade.

The first of these, China’s Long March: Farming, Family, and Environment in the Shaping of Modern China’s Political Economy, ca. 1650–2000, argues for a distinctive “Chinese” or perhaps “East Asian” path to modernity. The book makes the argument that the basis of China’s economic engine rests in its rural institutions, institutions that reflected both a particular system of land and water rights, types of community organization compatible with those rights, and statecraft principles that adapted to them. Once again working across the 1911 divide, Pomeranz asserts that some aspects of that system remained important even through the Maoist and early reform period. As the Chinese economy and landscape now converge with other developed countries, that different path needs to be taken as seriously as the, thus far, hard-to-duplicate Western path.

The second in-progress book is simply titled, Why Is China So Big? The book investigates the anomalous persistence of China’s (relative) unity. It challenges the idea that China’s size is a straightforward result of geography or in any other way “natural,” but also argues that we can identify crucial moments at which political, economic, cultural, and environmental patterns were established that tipped the scales towards cohesion, some of which remain important today.

Finally, Pomeranz has undertaken a re-envisioning of world history curriculum in a new textbook, written in collaboration with Segal, which is just beginning to take shape. Humanity and Its Histories rebuts the notion that connections matter above all else. That approach, Pomeranz and Segal contend, privileges certain peoples and areas of the world over others and is, moreover, a poor fit for global history prior to about 1400. Instead, by making transparent the processes of historical thought and by refusing to divide people into those inside and outside the currents of world history, they hope to present a more complex but fuller global history.9

While these books are eagerly anticipated, for those who know Pomeranz, his scholarly productivity—great in both quantity and measure—is quickly acknowledged before they land on what they’d really like to say about him: that he knows how to “live well.” Living well, for Pomeranz, means above all engaging with the world. Having experienced incredible tragedy, Pomeranz’s life has nevertheless been characterized by a persistent generosity of spirit and openness to the world, a spirit that infuses both his scholarship and the lives of those around him.


1. Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 8–10. Pomeranz’s notion of “reciprocal comparisons” was inspired by his colleague R. Bin Wong; see Wong, China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000 [1997]).

2. These details are available in a forthcoming chapter by Kenneth Pomeranz in the book Architects of World History: Researching the Global Past, ed. Kenneth Curtis and Jerry Bentley (New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014).

3. Kenneth Pomeranz and Daniel A. Segal, “World History: Departures and Variations,” in A Companion to World History, ed. Douglas Northrop (New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 15–31.

4. Kenneth Pomeranz, “Three Old Boxes: Lessons from Research Gone (Partly) Awry,” Perspectives on History (May 2013): 5–6.

5. David A. Bell, “This is What Happens When Historians Overuse the Idea of a Network,” The New Republic, October 25, 2013; Peter A. Coclanis, “Ten Years After: Reflections on Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence,” Historically Speaking 12, no. 4 (September 2011): 10–12.

6. Philip C. C. Huang, “Development or Involution in Eighteenth-Century Britain and China? A Review of Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy,” Journal of Asian Studies 61, no. 2 (May 2002): 501–38; Kenneth Pomeranz, “Beyond the East-West Binary: Resituating Development Paths in the Eighteenth-Century World,” Journal of Asian Studies 61, no. 2 (May 2002): 539–90; James Lee, Cameron Campbell, and Wang Feng, “Positive Check or Chinese Checks?” Journal of Asian Studies 61, no. 2 (May 2002): 591–607; Robert Brenner and Christopher Isett, “England’s Divergence from China’s Yangzi Delta: Property Relations, Microeconomics, and Patterns of Development,” Journal of Asian Studies 61, no. 2 (May 2002): 609–62; Philip C. C. Huang, “Further Thoughts on Eighteenth-Century Britain and China: Rejoinder to Pomeranz’s Response to My Critique,” Journal of Asian Studies 62, no. 1 (February 2003): 157–67; Kenneth Pomeranz, “Facts are Stubborn Things: A Response to Philip Huang,” Journal of Asian Studies 62, no. 1 (February 2003): 167–81; R. Bin Wong, “Integrating China Into World Economic History” [This piece was posted, at the time, on the Association for Asian Studies website, but it is no longer available].

7. Karen Newell Young, “Irvine Couple, Their Family Racked by the Effects of Autism, Work to Help Others Cope with the Disorder,” Los Angeles Times, January 30, 1996.

8. See for instance, Kenneth Pomeranz, “Not by the Numbers Alone,” Perspectives on History (January 2013): 5–6.

9. Some of this thinking is articulated in Pomeranz and Segal, “World History: Departures and Variations.”


Co-editor (with Laura J. Mitchell and James B. Given), Worlds Together, Worlds Apart: A Companion Reader. New York: W.W. Norton, 2011.

La Force de L’Empire: Révolution industrielle et écologie, ou pourquoi l’angleterre a fait mieux que la Chine. (Edited, with an introduction, by Philippe Minard.) Alfortville: Éditions ère, 2009.

Editor, The Pacific in the Age of Early Industrialization. Ashgate Publishing, 2009.

Co-editor (with Kate Merkel-Hess and Jeffrey Wasserstrom), China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance. Rowman and Littlefield, 2009.

Co-editor (with Edmund T. Burke III), The Environment and World History, 1500-2000. University of California Press, 2009. (Author of “Introduction: the Environment and World History,” pp. 3-32, and Chapter Five, “The Transformation of China’s Environment, 1500-2000,” pp. 118-164.)

Co-editor (with John McCusker, Stanley Engerman, David Hancock, and Lewis Cain), Encyclopedia of the History of World Trade. Thomson Gale 2005.

The Great Divergence: China, Europe and the Making of the Modern World Economy. Princeton University Press, 2000.

Co-author (with Steven Topik), The World that Trade Created: Society, Politics and an Emerging World Economy. M.E. Sharpe, 1999. Third edition, 2012.

The Making of a Hinterland: State, Society and Economy in Inland North China, 1853‑1937. University of California Press, 1993.

Presidential Columns

Not by Numbers Alone (Perspectives on History, January 2013)
Why Go? The Case for the Annual Meeting (Perspectives on History, February 2013)
Narrowing Distances: A Proposal for Talking about History (Perspectives on History, March 2013)
Getting Right with Mr. Epstein (Perspectives on History, April 2013)
Three Old Boxes: Lessons from Research Gone (Partly) Awry (Perspectives on History, May 2013)
The Next Big Thing: Supporting the Second Book (Perspectives on History, September 2013)
Dealing with College Costs: We Won’t “Win the Future” by Ignoring the Past (Perspectives on History, October 2013)
Advanced History for Beginners: Why We Should Bring What’s Best about the Discipline into the Gen Ed Classroom (Perspectives on History, November 2013)
Recalling What We Do: Some Habits of Mind Historians Keep Hidden (Perspectives on History, December 2013)