This is an interesting book on theme of comparative analysis in historical studies. There are 7 chapters describing specific comparative studies; Patrick Kirch on the evolution of Polynesian societies, James Belich on frontier societies, Stephen Haber on the development of banking systems in selected Western Hemisphere nations, Jared Diamond on Haiti vs the Dominican Republic and Pacific island societies, Nathan Nunn on the long term effects of the African slave trade, Banerjee and Iyer on the long term consequences of Indian colonial land tenure systems, and Acemoglu et al on the effects of the Napoleonic conquest of parts of Germany. Most of these chapters are summaries of previously published research. There are essentially 2 major themes. One, exemplified in the chapters by Belich and Acemoglu et al,is an effort to find common underlying structures by use of comparisons. A second, and generally more robust theme, is use of comparisons is to identify contingent features that result in marked differences in present day outcomes. In his comparison of Haiti and the Dominican Republic and what led to the marked differences in present day economic status, for example, Diamond points to differences in geography and ecology but also to marked differences in the behavior of the 2 major 20th century dictators, Duvalier and Trujillo.
The chapters vary somewhat in quality. Chapters by Kirch and Belich are really brief summaries of a large body of prior work. They are interesting but insufficiently detailed though they have excellent bibliographies. The Nunn chapter is most interesting part of this book. Nunn uses a careful accounting of the regional distribution of the African slave trade to assess the long term effects of the slave trade on African economic development. Nunn makes a very creditable argument that the slave trade not only negatively impacted African development but accounts for a large component of the economic discrepancy between Africa and the rest of the world. This is a remarkable result. A less impressive analysis is that of Acemoglu et al on the effects of the Napoleonic occupation of parts of Germany. Acemoglu et al argue that French occupation eliminated traditional legal codes and barriers to economic development, facilitating economic modernization. The analysis does show a modest effect of French occupation. A point on which they don't comment is the bigger effect of being part of Prussia, not surprising given the historic commitment of the Prussian monarchy to development and subordination of traditional institutions.
An important point made by several of the authors is the importance of interdisciplinary approaches. While some of the authors are looking for underlying common features, more than anything else, these chapters emphasize the importance of careful, systematic analysis of contingent features over long periods. Comparative analysis can certainly be very useful in identifying such features.