Notice of New Book – “The Social History of Agriculture” by Christopher Isett and Stephen Miller, published October 2016

This innovative text provides a compelling narrative world history through the lens of food and farmers. Tracing the world history of agriculture from earliest times to the present, Christopher Isett and Stephen Miller argue that people, rather than markets, have been the primary agents of agricultural change. Exploring the actions taken by individuals and groups over time and analyzing their activities in the wider contexts of markets, states, wars, the environment, population increase, and similar factors, the authors emphasize how larger social and political forces inform decisions and lead to different technological outcomes. Both farmers and elites responded in ways that impeded economic development. Farmers, when able to trade with towns, used the revenue to gain more land and security. Elites used commercial opportunities to accumulate military power and slaves. The book explores these tendencies through rich case studies of ancient China; precolonial South America; early-modern France, England, and Japan; New World slavery; colonial Taiwan; socialist Cuba; and many other periods and places. Readers will understand how the promises and problems of contemporary agriculture are not simply technologically derived but are the outcomes of decisions and choices people have made and continue to make.


Praise for the book:


In this audacious book, Isett and Miller argue that the key to understanding the emergence of the modern world is the epochal transformation of agrarian class structures. They show how their framework can account not only for the ‘Great Divergence’ between East and West, but also the ‘Little Divergence’ between Northwest Europe and the rest of the continent. Written with tremendous clarity and verve by two scholars in complete command of their subject, this is one of the best works of analytical history to have been published in recent years.
Vivek Chibber, New York University

In an extraordinary feat of interpretation, Christopher Isett and Stephen Miller have produced a theoretically informed history of agriculture, from its origins nine thousand years ago to the present. They have synthesized vast historical literatures on every major phase in the development of farming, from the rise of sedentary production, through the transition to capitalism, to the green revolution and beyond. They have also provided their own, always-illuminating resolutions of the debates over conceptual framework that have defined the field. An invaluable contribution for scholars, students at all levels, and general readers alike, it truly is a tour de force.
Robert Brenner, University of California–Los Angeles