American Sociological Association

Historical Sociology’s Puzzle of the Missing Transitions

Prominent accounts of the transition to capitalism have a far too limited understanding of pre-capitalist agrarian economies’ potential for dynamism. Recent research shows that conditions earlier accounts identify as triggers for a transition to capitalism could be present without a transition occurring. I expand on implications of these cases of “missing transitions” for theorizing the dynamics of pre-capitalist agrarian economies. I present a theoretical framework that shows how phenomena previously associated with the transition to capitalism—such as flexible property rights in land and labor, extensive markets, and accumulation of industrial and mercantile wealth—emerged in pre-capitalist societies without leading to capitalist development. I illustrate the analytic upshot of this framework by considering the case study of Japan in the Tokugawa era (1603 to 1868). For historical sociologists, early modern Japan has long been seen as an anomalous case, puzzlingly mixing developments thought to represent early signs of capitalism with evidence of the durable survival of the feudal social order. In light of a more accurate account of the forces for and limits of dynamism in pre-capitalist agrarian economies, Tokugawa-era Japan is no longer a puzzling anomaly.


Mark Cohen





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