How the Modern World was created

Why did the industrial revolution first emerge in Europe and not in Asia? Professor Terje Tvedt wants to answer this question, and is now in the final round for an ERC Advanced Grant.

Terje Tvedt
FINAL ROUND: Professor Terje Tvedt is now in the final round of a possible ERC Advanced Grant from the European Research Council (ERC).
Kim E. Andreassen

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For many years, Professor Terje Tvedt has crossed the globe to do research on water and its impact on societies. His research has resulted in a series of critically acclaimed books and award-winning documentaries. His books have been translated into a number of languages and his films shown in about 150 countries.

Now, Tvedt is hoping to do a research project that he has prepared for decades. It is an ambitious project that attempts to give a new answer to one of the most asked questions in historiography: Why did the industrial revolution emerge in Britain at the end of the seventeenth century and not in China, India or the Ottoman Empire.

“The way one interprets the industrial revolution, has a profound impact on how we view the world today,” says Tvedt from the Department of Geography at the University of Bergen (UiB).

Tvedt is now in the final round of a possible ERC Advanced Grant from the European Research Council (ERC). The ERC Advanced Grant is awarded to researchers that are “… leaders in their respective field(s) of research and must demonstrate significant achievement in the last 10 years.”

Two competing interpretations

Tvedt points to what roughly can be called two dominating schools in the historiography of the first phase of the industrial revolution. One of them claims that Great Britain and the West had success primarily because Europe had unique political and cultural properties. It was Europe’s culture and institutions that enabled Great Britain first to lead this revolution that changed the world. If so, the power and dominance of the West is also basically legitimate.

The other interpretation argues that this revolution could just as well have happened in China and India, but that Europe’s ability to change the game was due primarily to their success in establishing unequal trade relationships, imperialism, relations of extraction, and so on. If this is the case, then the power and dominance of the West is also basically illegitimate.

“My project is testing an explanation that integrates parts of both these interpretations, but I will interpret them in a broader and less reductionist perspective. The project will seek to break out of a tradition that in general has been concerned with social variables, only. It integrates geographical factors in order to understand how different preconditions created various social dynamics, and analyses the entire process in a much longer time horizon than what is common and with input from different disciplines,” says Tvedt.

“The project will also have an impact on how we regard the importance of religion when it comes to development trajectories, and how we view the West, the Middle East, and Asia today and in the future.”

Bringing a critical attitude

Tvedt will compare how nine countries and regions developed in the period between 1500 and 1820, through a rigid empirical analysis of the development of two factors; transport and industrial technology.

“At the same time, the project will relate explicitly and independently to the vast literature in the field in order to develop the debate about concepts and analytical approaches,” Terje Tvedt adds.

According to Tvedt, the plan is that the project will produce a number of PhD theses and he will himself publish an overall original narrative of the Rise of the Modern World and documentaries for a broader audience, which the field of research is well suited for.