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"We are Dealing with the World…"

International Economic Statistics, the Emergence of the 'World Economy' and Globalisation Processes in the First Half of the Twentieth Century

Post-Doctoral Resarch Project by Dr Martin Bemmann


This project aims to contribute to (or rather to complicate) the history of globalisation processes in the nineteenth and twentieth century in three ways: firstly, to determine the actors who established international economic statistics; secondly, to investigate the reasons for their endeavour; and thirdly, to examine the results of their efforts. By focusing on the establishment and development of the infrastructural, conceptual and methodological bases of international economic statistics (itself an influential tool to periodise globalisation), the project questions the still widely accepted tripartite periodisation of globalisation since the late nineteenth century. It also strives to uncover the role and motives of the main actors in this field (the ‘globalisers’), and to reveal how international statistics helped to establish a widely accepted notion of a single ‘world economy’.

The conceptual starting point of the project is the assumption that globalisation is not a single uniform development, but the result of numerous different ‘globalisation processes’. The establishment and development of international economic statistics is only one of these processes, but nonetheless an important and special one, since it has greatly influenced recent periodisations of ‘globalisation’. Furthermore, globalisation processes are understood as having a ‘material dimension’ and a ‘reflexive dimension’. In the case of international economic statistics, the ‘material dimension’ mainly refers to the necessary interncontinental infrastructure and also to internationally accepted concepts and methods. The ‘reflexive dimension’, on the other hand, refers to the interpretations of international and global economic relations, made visible (or constructed) by these statistics.

Based on the findings of existing studies, the project concentrates on the first half of the twentieth century, particularly the period between the two World Wars. It is argued that during those years, an older form of international economic statistics, established mainly by private actors during the nineteenth century, was accompanied by a new form which was mainly driven by state actors. This new form is called ‘world economic statistics’. Both forms differed from each other in several ways (e.g. actors, concepts, aims, and form of collection), but both have influenced our views on what the ‘world economy’ actually is. The 1920s is especially seen as a crucial period: the League of Nations established a potentially global statistical infrastructure; governments around the world actively assisted the Geneva-based organisation in this work to an extent unknown before 1914; private companies and business associations joined and contributed to this process; and statisticians and economists established conceptual and methodological standards, which were accepted internationally for the first time. Of utmost importance was the cooperation of governments worldwide, many of which had been unwilling to cooperate before 1914. Since the First World War, however, the attitude of these governments had changed considerably. The main reason for this was – paradoxically – an increased will to compete with each other by means of statistical numbers. Only by using the same methodology, two countries could compare with each other and could relate their economic prosperity and significance to the ‘world economy’. As for the ‘material dimension’ of that specific globalisation process, the 1920s witnessed an intensive development of a global infrastructure and the establishment of widely acknowledged conceptual and methodological standards. Without them, the global character of the Great Depression of the 1930s could not have been realised as quickly as it had been.

Moreover, the emerging ‘world statistics’ of the League of Nations had an especially great impact on the widespread acceptance of a single, dynamic, and actually existing ‘world economy’. Particularly from the 1927 World Economic Conference onwards, international discussions on economic problems more often than not referred to the League’s data. This increased frequency of references to international economic statistics had several consequences. The necessary equalising effect of a statistical perspective contributed to the emergence of a view in which the ‘world’ was mainly seen as a sum of formally equal (nation-)states. From the mid-1920s onwards, for example, the League's international trade statistics comprised data from about 150 countries and were presented alphabetically rather than according to political relevance or dependency. Therefore, international statistics provided their contemporary readers with a permanent comparative framework within which states could compete with each other.

Furthermore, they also helped to establish means to describe and to influence cross-border economic processes. And lastly, the presentation of numerical data made it possible to add country-relevant numbers to continental and global figures, which together represented a certain form of ‘world economy’. In summary, the ‘world economy’ we know today came into being in the 1920s and was popularised in the 1930s due to the much greater attention economic statistics had received since the beginning of the Great Depression.



Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg
Historisches Seminar
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79085 Freiburg im Breisgau

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