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Morris David Morris (1921-2011)

A tribute to Morris David Morris, the American economic historian of India, who died earlier this month.


Morris David Morris (1921-2011)

Tirthankar Roy

industrialisation spread to the poorer regions of the world, and how a disciplined industrial labour force came into being. It was but a short step from here to studying Indian labour, which he embarked on in 1951 as a Fulbright scholar. In the 1950s, he lived in Mumbai and Jamshedpur, trav-

A tribute to Morris David Morris, the American economic historian of India, who died earlier this month.

Tirthankar Roy ( teaches at the London School of Economics.

Economic & Political Weekly

march 26, 2011

n 12 March 2011, Morris David Morris passed away in Boulder, Colorado, the United States. Morris was an economic historian, whose writings on India have had a paradigmatic impact on the development of the field. He is one of the most widely cited authors on India. His influence can be seen (as online academic citation lists will show) in almost all branches of the social sciences dealing in some fashion with Indian history.

Morris was a member of that generation of post-war American social scientists who chose India as their main fi eld of research, and contributed to developing the institutions that specialised in south Asian studies in the US. Through their work, south Asian studies in the US diversified away from language and literature towards anthropology, sociology, and history. But he was much more than a bridge between two worlds. Few in that generation had the influence that Morris had upon academic debates in India. Morris especially cherished the fact that he was read, discussed, and criticised in India. The proof of that sentiment was the decision to donate his valuable library to the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, Mumbai, and to continue as a subscriber to the EPW until last year.


Morris was born in 1921 in San Francisco of Jewish immigrant parents from Bialystock, Poland. He did his undergraduate degree in the University of California, Berkeley, with Economics as his major. In the six years after that, he worked in a shipyard, joined military service during the war, where he had at one time J K Galbraith and Paul Baran as colleagues, worked as a business manager, eventually returning to Berkeley in 1946 for graduate studies in Economics with Sociology. The Berkeley experience led him to take an interest in two connected questions, how

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elled widely in India, and completed the first academic study on the history of the textile mill workers of Mumbai. A similar work planned for Jamshedpur was begun but not completed because of differences within the Tata management.

Morris joined the faculty of the University of Washington, Seattle, in 1949, where he taught popular courses in economic history and south Asia until 1980. Between 1960 and 1983, he published his most important writings, including the doctoral thesis on Mumbai labour. After 1980, he also taught in Brown University, and briefl y, Brandeis University. This phase in his academic career gave him scope to pursue his interest in poverty and welfare. He produced, singly and with Michelle McAlpin, a series of major works on measurement of welfare, and took part in international philanthropic work.


Like many of Morris’ best works, the history of Mumbai mill workers was a rich narrative history and a challenge to established orthodoxies at the same time.1 The target of Morris’ polemical attack in this case was a view popular in the American academia that factory workers in India were insufficiently committed to industrial work. The argument implied that the spread of industrial capitalism in India was constrained by a shortage of effi cient and committed workers. Morris noted that in Mumbai, the growth of a textile labour force had been accompanied by relatively stable real wage for a considerable length of time, which would suggest to us that labour shortage was not a problem. Many of the so-called symptoms of lack of commitment, he argued, could be understood with reference to managerial policy in response to the prevailing factor priceratios. He concluded that the challenge of recruitment, training, and disciplining an industrial labour force was relatively easily overcome in every case of early industria lisation, and India did not differ


from the more familiar examples in any essential way.2

The experience of teaching Indian economic history and writing survey articles led Morris to broaden the target of his critique in a series of seminal essays on colonial India.3 Debates over the performance of the Indian economy in the colonial period had been “vigorous but not very fruitful”, he observed, because these discourses moved on predictable tracks. There was a preoccupation with either imperialist policy or the cultural characteristics of indigenous entrepreneurship as the main driver of economic growth, or the lack of it. By and large, scholarship emanating from India and steeped in nationalist fervour followed the fi rst trajectory, and when he started writing these articles, scholars in Morris’ own milieu took the second road. Morris expressed scepticism with both these approaches, because they (a) seemed unable to explain the facts of history, and (b) obscured other drivers of economic change.

The critique of the empire theory of underdevelopment was set out in a 1963 article.4 Treating the empire as the main agent of development or underdevelopment lived uneasily with the fact that British India was one of the poorest states in the world. State capacity was severely constrained by limited fiscal resources. In the 1820s, for example, average tax per person in the three presidencies of India was less than one-tenth of that in England, half that of Ireland, a quarter that of Australia, on average about a third of the west Indian colonies, and a quarter of that in Mauritius. Surely, the empire mattered to Indian development. But it was far too small a state to matter in any direct fashion, by undertaking ambitious expenditure programmes, for example. It simply had no money for that kind of thing. It is important, then, to discuss how the state mattered. According to Morris, the state adapted to the situation by taking a “nightwatchman” stance. It saw itself as a means to create a set of enabling conditions for private enterprise to flourish. The enterprises that most administrators wanted in the 19th century world were British in origin. The passive stance enabled economic growth and industrialisation in the 19th century by integrating markets in Indian commodities and labour with British capital and knowledge. But the passive stance also restricted the scale of the change in India.

It is possible to draw two further inferences from this analysis. First, the structural factors that constrained state capacity imparted a larger effect on economic growth than did the colonial state. Geography and climate reduced the productivity of land to abysmal levels, and in turn, constrained the capacity of a state that lived mainly on land taxes until 1920. Morris drew this inference and explored its ramifications. Second, British India perfected a particular technique of rule, one that relied on public goods that cost little money to build. It focused on institutions such as law, as opposed to infrastructure such as roads. The empire in the 19th century offered a single umbrella of property and contract law, security of property, one official language, and uniform channels of transaction in knowledge. Morris argued that British India was a different and a more modern kind of state insofar as it created the economic institutions necessary for global capitalism to function. Particular dimensions of this argument came to be explored more fully in later research. Law as a defi ning feature of the empire, for example, remained inchoate in his own writings, but emerged as a big idea later.

Morris dealt with the cultural theory of Indian underdevelopment in a 1967 article.5 He stated the prevalent view that certain tenets of Hinduism favoured conformity and risk-aversion, and disfavoured innovation and entrepreneurship; and questioned the reading on the grounds that it identified south Asia too closely with Hinduism, identified Hinduism too closely with brahmanic texts, and mixed up norms with actual behaviour. Next, the critique moved on to history. Morris argued simply that too much attention to cultural norms or the colonial state invol ved an “inability to specify the role of private enterprise in the overall performance of the system”. It is futile to speculate what might have happened to enterprise had there been a different state or a different culture. It is more important to analyse what actually happened. By 1914, the fourth largest cotton textile mill industry in the world was “almost entirely Indian financed and managed”. The “fascinating” aspect of this industrialisation was that Indian capitalists “poured capital into the very sector where it would seem that competition with Britain was the sharpest” – so much for risk-aversion. Rather than being reckless risk-taking, the decision owed to a “rational responsiveness to available technology and factor-price relationships”. The reading allows us to analyse why Indian capital entered specifi c fi elds rather than going everywhere. It is unnecessary to imagine obstacles raised by the imperial state to block their ambitions; rather, prices of complementary factors led to choices being made about joining some fields and leaving others alone. The parallel between the analyses of labour and capital is too obvious to be spelt out.

Morris concluded, more controversially, that “for the economic historian there seem to be no analytically signifi cant differences between Indian civilization and any other” (emphasis in original). It is one thing to say that culture did not matter via religion. It is another thing to say that culture did not matter. One relevant meaning of cultural norms is now playing a role in analytical history, which has developed an interest in cooperative clubs. Some communities are good for collective action, others less so. Some communities are good for knowledge exchange and technological development, others less so. That capitalists and producers in India

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march 26, 2011 vol xlvi no 13


represented “no analytically signifi cant differences” with their counterparts elsewhere is a testable proposition, and does not necessarily follow from the evidence discussed in the paper.

These two ingredients – decentring imperialism and culture, and rehabilitating innovation and choice – came together in the last major published work produced on India, a chapter on industrialisation in the Cambridge Economic History of India.6

Reception and Response

Morris’ writings proved prescient and pathbreaking in several fields of research.

His critique of cultural readings of Indian history anticipated the reaction to modernisation theories of development that took shape in the 1980s. Within the economic history discourse, demonstration of the strengths of indigenous capitalism stepped out of the example of the cotton mill-owners of Mumbai and Ahmedabad, and in the last 30 years, focused mainly on the early modern Indian Ocean trade.

One part of the critique of the empire theory of underdevelopment inspired fruitful research in the 1990s. Traditionally, the legacy of the Indian craft workshop that had proved so successful in the early modern maritime trade drew much controversy. The Indian nationalists suggested that the craftsmen of India disappeared due to the competition of cotton cloth and yarn imported from England in the mid-19th century. Morris pointed out that this was an overstatement, for more than 10 million craftsmen continued in business in 1900.7 He speculated that the positive changes introduced in British India in fact strengthened the artisan sector. Later research discovered evidence of a complex pattern of transformation. A number of artisans had changed jobs, lost jobs, or migrated away in the 19th century. But there was also considerable survival, thanks to segmented markets for textiles, and many of the surviving crafts did gain from the ongoing globalisation process by being able to access cheaper raw material, techno logical knowledge, and export markets.

In 1968, Morris’ first critical essay on Indian history was reprinted in the Indian Economic and Social History Review, together with three assessments by Bipan

Economic & Political Weekly

march 26, 2011

Chandra, Toru Matsui, and Tapan Raychaudhuri. For more than one generation of students in India, the symposium was mandatory reading, indeed a point of entry into the subject. This is hardly surprising, since “in one way or another my commentators and I have raised or suggested virtually every general methodological and substantive issue confronting economic historians of India”, Morris wrote in a rejoinder. Reviewing this symposium in detail would be pointless today, because many of the issues are now obsolete. Suffice it to say that the debate invested the then-ongoing research on historical national income statistics with a new relevance, and, thanks especially to Raychaudhuri’s piece and Morris’ comments on it, integrated the 18th century more closely into discussions on 19th century India. Later research on the 18th century drew out this significance more fully.

Morris’ 1968 rejoinder, though 70 pages long, is one of the less frequently cited of his articles. It is a signifi cant piece, nevertheless, mainly as an example of the manner in which he joined public debate. Notwithstanding a slight hint of impatience with Bipan Chandra, the tone was restrained and respectful of differences of opinion. So much so indeed that the sharpness of the opposition between Morris’ vision and the orthodoxies he criticised was lost in the rejoinder. Not surprisingly, the article remains less noticed.

The reactions in India to his critical agenda did not always share his tolerant attitude to academic debates. In the 1970s and the 1980s, the nationalistic orthodoxy came back, with reinforcements from the left. Morris continued to be cited for contributions to research in specifi c fi elds. But perhaps more often, he was cited as the representative figure of a dangerous intellectual tendency. The backlash came together in reviews of the Cambridge Economic History of India published in India. Given the length of his contribution in the volume, Morris was a vulnerable target. More than that, critics saw him as trying, in the words of Irfan Habib, “to exonerate the colonial regime from any culpability throughout”.8 In the high court of Indian economic history, Morris, unfortunately, had taken stand as a witness for the defendant.

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In fairness to his critics, Morris did under estimate the problems that industrialisation in a colonial setting entailed. In the difficult global economic conditions of the late-interwar period, for example, economic performance and policy became a politically charged issue. The interests of the colonial state and the Indian capitalists were sharply opposed; the imperial umbrella was in tatters; and yet, cynical politicians in a declining Britain wanted India to stay in the umbrella more than ever. It is impossible to study this phase of Indian development by leaving empire and ethnicity out of the picture. The dynamics that Morris discussed in his reinterpretations paper broke down during decolonisation, and decolonisation happened partly because it broke down.

Poverty and Well-being

Despite asking questions about national income, Morris’ work did not take much interest in the historical national accounts. In the 1970s, however, Morris did produce a major work on measurement.9 He devised a measure for welfare, which, he thought, would be a superior alternative to both gross national product and the poverty line. The Physical Quality of Life Index (PQLI) was a composite of three variables – life expectancy at the age of one, infant mortality, and basic literacy – and an index of “how well societies satisfy certain specific life-serving social characteristics”. In short, Morris anticipated the Human Development Index (HDI) later popularised with much fanfare by the United Nations Development Programme, and some believe, without suffi cient acknowedgement of Morris’ pioneering contribution.

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Such exercises have added two major stylised facts to the discourse on history and development policy. First, in a comparison of regions, relative advancement in GNP did not necessarily entail advancement in the quality of life. The comparison of Kerala and Punjab illustrated the point easily. PQLI was fully aware of these ap parent anomalies and drew attention to them. Second, over the 20th century, the world became more unequal in respect of GNP, but less unequal in respect of the quality of life. PQLI, confining itself to providing a snapshot, did not fully explore this dimension. The much larger scholarship that the HDI generated a decade later drew more attention to this fi nding.

The Person

The tributes coming in from his peers and students after Morris’ death unfailingly mention his warm-hearted personality. It was a rare pleasure meeting him. He was a great host, a patient listener, tolerant and liberal with opposing views, and a store of delightful anecdotes. My fi rst long conversation with him happened in 1993 during a three-hour drive back from a seminar to his home, over which I was entertained by a torrent of stories about his time in India. My favourite is the one about his first journey to India. In the ship taking him to Mumbai, he befriended a Danish sailor, who told him that the best place to visit in Mumbai was a spot known as Yoohoo. For several days after he landed in Mumbai, Morris looked in vain for Yoohoo, when one evening enjoying the sunset at Juhu beach, he realised that he was standing on the very spot.

Morris’ writings were infused with the same vibrant humanity that made him take notice of everyone around him. Although trained as an economist, he did not like looking at the world through the filters of systems and models. His criticisms of big abstractions like empire and culture came from that instinct. In his vision, workers and capitalists, the rich and the poor, were real people, and not representative agents of a model, nor victims of forces beyond their control. This

wonderfully human approach to history gives his scholarship its enduring quality.


1 The Emergence of an Industrial Labor Force in India: A Study of the Bombay Cotton Mills, 18541947 (Berkeley: University of California Press), 1964.

2 See also “The Recruitment of an Industrial Labour Force in India, with British and American Comparisons”, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 2(3), 1960, 305-28.

3 For a survey, see M D Morris and Burton Stein, “Economic History of India: A Bibliographic Essay”, Journal of Economic History, 21(2), 1961, 197-207.

4 “Towards a Reinterpretation of Nineteenth Century Indian Economic History”, Journal of Economic History, 23(4), 1963, 606-18.

5 “Values as an Obstacle to Economic Growth in South Asia: An Historical Survey”, Journal of Economic History, 27(4), 1967, 588-607; “South Asian Entrepreneurship and the Rashomon Effect, 1800-1947”, Explorations in Economic History, 16(3), 1979, 341-61.

6 “The Growth of Large-scale Industry to 1947” in Dharma Kumar, ed, The Cambridge Economic History of India, Vol 2: 1757-1970 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 1983.

7 See note 4.

8 Habib, “Studying a Colonial Economy – Without Perceiving Colonialism”, Modern Asian Studies, 19(3), 1985, 355-81.

9 Measuring the Condition of the World’s Poor: The Physical Quality of Life Index (New York: Pergamon Press), 1979.

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march 26, 2011 vol xlvi no 13

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