In 1976, Prosperity without progress was completed as a dissertation at the University of Michigan. In 1984, it was published in book form by Ateneo de Manila’s University Press. Written for a scholarly audience, the book retains copious footnotes and technical caveats. Distributed in the USA by the University of California Press, this work early on makes an effort to accommodate an international audience (starting with an author’s note that introduces the difference between Filipino and Spanish surnames), but does not neglect to ground itself in the local historical literature.

Historiographically, Owen draws on several trends that were either budding or blossoming in Philippine scholarship during the last quarter of the 20th century. His work was part of a body of economic historiography that drew links between capitalism and underdevelopment. It should be compared, for example, with Daniel Doeppers’ 1984 Manila 1901-1941 (both works make use of dependency theory). Owen’s work was also part of a growing number of autonomous regional and local histories generally built on John Smail’s and John Larkin’s respective calls to action in the 1960s. As Francis Gealogo has pointed out in his 1998 essay Demography and an autonomous Filipino history, a subset of these local histories were geared towards social history and shared an interest in using demographic history as a tool for historical and social analysis.

Owen’s book is a local socio-economic history and, like most of that genre, primarily explanatory and structural in approach. Owen applies dependency theory in the analysis of Bikol’s material life during its version of Larkin’s (1982) “century of the frontier” (1800s to 1930s). Despite its initially profitable integration into the world economy, Bikol experienced little structural development. Worse, its specialization in Abaca production exposed it to the fluctuations of the world market. As seen in chapter four (where the bulk of Owen’s demographic material is taken up) the population’s foothold in the subsistence economy initially allowed the population to weather Abaca’s business cycles. Eventually though, both labor and land were increasingly reallocated towards abaca production, and the population expanded strained even its informal food production capacity. In good years profits were used import rice from other regions. In bad years population pressure meant that more and more people found themselves sharing fewer and fewer resources.

In the above analysis, Owen uses demographic data by linking it to economic data, to provide measures to track the region’s specialization and vulnerability. In this way he multiplied estimated per capita rice consumption by Bikol’s population totals, and compared the results with the region’s rice production capacities to evaluate the shrinking limits of the region’s self-sufficiency. In the same way, he suggests that high mortality and high rice prices can be correlated to show the population’s shift away from the subsistence economy. As a final example, statistics on women involved in the weaving industry, when compared with the total population of women, can be used to illustrate the rise and fall of the local weaving industry (133, 136, 150). In general, the author’s analyses made use of a demographer’s consciousness that his historical subjects exist as individuals within a total population, sharing finite resources of both food and labor. Also applied was a demographer’s consciousness of relevant models; although Owen uses models here less as tool to fill in the gaps left by missing data, than as a standard against which to contrast Bikol data and highlight the latter’s specific context (117, 136).

Prosperity without progress carries many of the hallmarks of Owen’s later demographic scholarship; including a tendency to interrupt the flow of his own arguments with thorough and informative discussions on methodology. But the book’s focus is distinct from that of his later works on Southeast Asian, Philippine, and Bikolano demographic history. These later studies dedicate themselves completely to grappling with sources to hammer out and explain the curves of population growth and of its components (particularly mortality). Prosperity without progress meanwhile, breezes through the same analysis after roughly three pages (115-117). Demographic history is used here instead, mainly as a second order study; one applied in tracing the roots of underdevelopment.

For a full dose of Owen’s work and of the other sources I mention, see:

Doeppers, Daniel F. 1984. Manila, 1900-1941: Social change in a late colonial metropolis. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press.

Gealogo, Francis A. 1998. Demography and an autonomous Filipino history: A bibliographic essay. In Population and history: The demographic origins of the modern Philippines, eds. Daniel Doeppers and Peter Xenos, 367-372. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press.

Owen, Norman G. 2002. Population and society in Southeast Asia before 1900. Paper presented at the IUSSP Regional Population Conference: Southeast Asia’s Population in a Changing Asian Context, Bangkok, 10-13 Jun.

_______________. 1998a. Measuring Mortality in the Nineteenth century Philippines, 1845-1846. In The Bikol blend and their history, 48-67. Quezon City: New Day.

_______________. 1998b. Life death and the sacraments in a nineteenth century Bikol parish. In Population and history: The demographic origins of the modern Philippines, eds. Daniel Doeppers and Peter Xenos, 225-251. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press.

_______________. 1987. The paradox of population growth in nineteenth-century Southeast Asia: Evidence from Java and the Philippines. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 18: 45–57.

Larkin, John A. 1967. The place of local history in Philippine historiography. Journal of Southeast Asian History 8(2): 306-317.

Smail, John RW. 1961. On the possibility of an autonomous history of modern Southeast Asia. Journal of Southeast Asian History 2(2): 72-102.