Debates - Guilds

Is an international comparison of guilds viable?


There is no question that in our quest to understand international institutions for corporate collective action, the international comparison of guilds plays a key role. The international comparison – within Europe, but especially also outside Europe - is needed to enhance our further understanding of the workings of the guild. But is this a viable enterprise? Some first steps have been made in recent years (see Prak et al, 2006; Lucassen, De Moor, and Van Zanden, 2008) The definition of what a guild constituted is very important to make any comparison feasible. Core features of the guilds were that they were locally based organizations, sanctioned by the local authorities, which united individuals on the basis of their profession, had membership and could regulate it – because of the official sanctioning by the authorities - and whose goals were primarily economic and directed in particular to the protection of their members from external competition (De Munck, Lourens, and Lucassen, 2006).

The study into informal associations and their evolution to formal associations, some of the most interesting features of a history of institutions for collective action, has so far received substantially less attention in scholarly debates and subsequently riskw obtaining an aura of lesser importance. This should be countered by finding new methodologies and sources. Also, there is a need to compare the formal guild structure to other social structures, in particular in relation to the family and (local) governments. The development of guilds was driven in large part by their relation to and developments in these sections of social and civil life and a significant part of the explanation for their change and longevity can be found here.

The question how non-European institutions relate to their European counterparts, and whether it was those institutions that gave the world-market powers a comparative advantage in the era of industrial capitalism and imperialism, has long concerned scholars in East and West. Max Weber in his endeavor to define the spirit of Capitalism juxtaposed to the European 'spirit of capitalism' a seemingly parochial, family-based socioeconomic system in China that may not have lacked rationality, but failed to establish impersonal, objective business procedures and legal frameworks. He found amazing, for instance, the attestation of Western observers that the Cantonese hong, a state-supervised group of merchant firms that for much of the eighteenth century until the mid-nineteenth, monopolized trade with Europe and the U.S. (see 'typology') and had a reputation of reliability and efficiency. If this was actually true, he thought, it was rather 'accultured from outside than developed from within, as in puritan ethics.' (Weber, 1915/1989, 460 ['mehr von außen ankultiviert als von innen heraus entwickelt, wie in der puritanischen Ethik.']). Most Western and Japanese, and also Chinese guild historians of China have sought to comment on, refute or qualify Max Weber’s assertions on the Chinese guilds; for instance, William T. Rowe, Bryna Goodman, and Richard Belsky (see the stringent analysis in Belsky, 2006, 13-7). All three agree that Chinese guilds and huiguan, rather than remaining unchanging, parochial and narrow-gauged, changed over time and eventually came to identify themselves with their host region (Rowe, 1984, 250), and that native place identity did not exclude nationalist feelings and the rising sense of a greater public for the provision of which the guilds felt their responsibilities. Goodman stated that as sojourners became Shanghainese, identities were added, not substituted.

The question, in other words, is not whether or not to compare, but how to achieve meaningful comparison. This project with its quantifying approach is one important step towards that goal. How do we interpret the great number of guilds in relatively confined spaces in Europe, while in China, we find the concentrations of guild houses along the Yangzi and in Beijing and a concentration of migrant huiguan in Southwest China, especially Sichuan? Time dynamism should also be taken into account. In China, the number of guild houses proliferated enormously as treaty ports were opened after 1842, and business opportunities increased. Moreover, in an earlier historical period from the eighth to thirteenth centuries, trade and craft associations were established on government order for taxation purposes. Obviously the European and the Chinese peak periods of trade and craft associations alternated, with the period of the Mongol rule (1279-1368) and the early Ming (1368-1644) autocracy until the fifteenth century as a great divide. Were these phenomena independent from each other, or rather indicators of early globalization? In other words, comparison of what may seem unrelated historical entities is necessary as well as the study of communication and mutual influence. This may show then how labour intensive and capital intensive development paths evolved and interacted, how global inequality came about, and which role collective action played for those processes.



> Back to overview of debates