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Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy: Lessons from Medieval Trade (Political Economy of Institutions and Decisions)

5 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0521671347
ISBN-10: 0521671345
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Editorial Reviews


"Greif strips economic transactions down to their elements. He focuses on the core question: who (or what) were the watchdogs that allowed the merchants to trust one another and to bear with the princes who could confiscate the fruits of all their efforts? And who (or what) were the watchdogs' watchdogs? Greif repeatedly and carefully relates these questions to economic theory. He illustrates them with real transactions of medieval merchants. He takes the right approach to economic development, and thereby achieves an original and important new perspective on its causes. Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy is a seminal work in economics and in history. It should be read by all social scientists."
-George A. Akerlof, 2001 Nobel Laureate in Economics and University of California, Berkeley

"If economic theory is worth anything at all, it should illuminate economic history. The most usual attempts to interpret history in terms of mainstream economic theory have tended to leave out the specifics and, in particular, the influence of past events and structures on later ones. Avner Greif's work demonstrates the power of using economic theory, especially game theory, to illuminate both structural patterns and change, while still respecting historical specificity. The evolution of medieval trade is used as a case to show how the problems raised by economic theorists (e.g., the need for enforcement of contracts ) are resolved by the creation of institutions which are constrained to be self-enforcing equilibria. I believe Greif's approach will lead to a revolution in the study of other eras and even the changes in present regimes."
-Kenneth Arrow, 1972 Nobel Laureate in Economics, and Professor Emeritus, Stanford University

"In Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy, Avner Greif explores the cultures that prevailed in the European and Islamic portions of the Mediterranean in the Medieval period and the implication of their differences for the modern world. To tackle so grand a theme, Greif rearranges the intellectual furniture. Embedding game theory within the behavioral sciences, blurring the boundaries between deductive reasoning and empirical research and qualitative and quantitative methods, Greif teaches us not only about history but also about the place of history in causal explanation. Greifas book will shape future work in history, the study of development, and the social sciences."
-Robert H. Bates, Harvard University

"Avner Greif's study is a major landmark on the road to increasing our understanding of institutions and the role that they play in economic performance."
-Douglass C. North, 1993 Nobel Laureate in Economics

"[B]y creating new tools for studying institutions, [this book] is likely to inspire research for years to come. By all rights it deserves to do so, in economics, in sociology, in political science, in law, and (to the extent that historians in history departments pay attention to the social sciences) in history too. Economic historians obviously have special reason to prize the book, since it takes up some of the biggest issues in the field and makes a vigorous case for economic history within the larger discipline of economics. But other social scientists will highly value it too, and it will be no surprise if it ends up becoming -- and rightfully so -- a classic."
-Philip T. Hoffman, Division of Humanities and Social Sciences, California Institute of Technology, EH.NET

“Greif displays not only a masterful command of game theory and relevant historical detail, but also admirable and insightful integration of work by sociologists and political scientists on organizational and institutional change...The book provides a cogent demonstration of how game theory, careful attention to historical detail and interdisciplinary analysis can illuminate each other. Highly recommended.”

-Clyde G. Reed, Simon Fraser University

"Greif has addressed the great issues in economic expansion: emergence of markets, organization of trade, and how the medieval world provides the first encounter with the dynamic conditions that lat behind modernity."
-Susan Mosher Stuard, Haverford College (Emerita), Journal of Medieval Studies

"Greif's comparative approach, and his provocative conclusions regarding the centrality of institutions, are worth serious consideration."
-George Duncan, Saint Michael's College, Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"...[this] book is among the two or three most important to emerge during the past two decades on the historical development of economic institutions."
Perspectives on Politics, Rogers Hollingsworth, University of Wisconsin

Book Description

It is widely believed that current disparities in economic, political, and social outcomes reflect distinct institutions. Institutions are invoked to explain why some countries are rich and others poor, some democratic and others dictatorial. But arguments of this sort gloss over the question of what institutions are, how they come about, and why they persist. This book seeks to overcome these problems, which have exercised economists, sociologists, political scientists, and a host of other researchers who use the social sciences to study history, law, and business administration.

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Product Details

  • Series: Political Economy of Institutions and Decisions
  • Paperback: 526 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press (January 16, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0521671345
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521671347
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #962,990 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

22 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Claire Mbeki on May 17, 2007
Format: Hardcover
This original book draws into historical studies to illustrate the evolution of economics institutions. The application of economics, history and game theory is very creative and a definitely achievement of the book, in the tradition of North's "Understanding the Process of Economic Change" or other recent followers like Acemoglou's "Economic Origins of Dictatorship and democracy".

The book is divided in four main sections and 14 chapters. First, the author explains institutions as systems in equilibria, applying history and game theory. Then, he enlightens institutional dynamics as historical process (focusing on endogenous change or how history affects institutions and cultural beliefs) only to conclude with a method to apply in sociological and historical studies.

This is a seminal work and Greif's is able to clarify how market institutions work and evolve, how control and oversight institutions are created and how this questions relate to economic history and theory. Moreover, he illustrates them with real examples, like the evolution of medieval trade. It is a careful, readable and historical approach to economic development, applying economic and game theory to explain institutional patterns and change. Interesting!
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Herbert Gintis on October 26, 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Despite my love for a great many works of historical research, and despite my abject dependence upon such works for the information needed to formulate and evaluate models of historical change, I never really understood what position historical works have in with relation to the behavioral sciences (economics, psychology, sociology, etc.). Historians are well trained in the scientific method, but they do not have any "theory" to go on in deciding what material to collect and how to interpret their findings. In a way, this allows historians to "just find out what really happened," without trying to force the facts into a preconceived paradigm and without using theoretical prejudices to decide what "facts" to collect. But then I learned that there are no "facts" independent from a theoretical framework that makes sense of the facts. And this appears true, at least if the "facts" involve higher-level constructs, such as "power," "purpose," "culture," and the like.

Well, now that I have found out that society is a complex adaptive dynamical system that will never be fully modeled, and have learned that the human mind is full of partially filled-out "templates" that can be deployed and refined given a new set of data, I no longer am uncomfortable with the historian's musings. Now Avner Greif comes along and tries to convince the reader, rather successfully, that historical research can after all be undertaken fruitfully and synergistically with the social sciences. But, and this is a rather giant but, only if we accept a broad notion of the social sciences in which transdisciplinary arguments are routinely made and upheld, and when a reasonable effort is made to adjudicate the differences across disciplines by developing novel arguments as syntheses.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Mr. M. J. Wilkinson on February 20, 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I recently read Greif's book to help with the completion of my Masters thesis in economics. The framework of institutional change he creates in this book represents an very strong method for economic analysis, one that I have not seen, elsewhere.

Briefly, Greif focuses on how actors decide which action to take. When actors' payoffs depend on the actions of others, they will attempt to predict how others behave. When they themselves behave similarly, regularities of behaviour - institutions - will form. Greif explains that actors will often make use of institutions that were used in earlier situations - explaining the path dependence often observed in institutional analysis - but that new institutions will form when parameters are such that actors will do better by following different patterns of behaviour.

Although Greif develops his framework in relation to medieval trade, I found invaluable for the economics analysis of a much more modern subject, retail payment systems (such as debit or credit cards). I thoroughly recommend this book as a seminal work in the developing area of the economic analysis of institutions.

Kind regards,
Mike Wilkinson
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8 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Benjamin Guilbert on February 22, 2008
Format: Paperback
No question that this book that sums up 10 years worth of articles by one of the most remarkable scholars of his times is a must-read for anybody interested by economics and economic history. That being said the book has its defaults. Some are linked to the difficulty to gather good sources from the medieval Muslim world, but the readers will regret that no statistical approach was attempted even for the European side of the research.

Furthermore, the book is particularly poorly written and often enough it seems as if Greif was just making his sentences complicated to make his work sound smarter than it really was. It is unfortunate and many students will hate him for that. Still the conclusions are often brilliant and the book is well worth buying.
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4 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Chiang, Chia-an on March 25, 2006
Format: Paperback
This is a very good book of historic institutionism, It deserves possession.
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