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In praise of Clio: Recent reflections on the study of economic history

Chris Godden
p. 645-664
Référence(s) :

Francesco Boldizzoni, The Poverty of Clio. Resurrecting Economic History. Princeton University Press, 2011, 216 pages, ISBN 978-0-691-14400-9

J.W. Drukker, The Revolution That Bit Its Own Tail. How Economic History Changed Our Ideas on Economic Growth. Aksant Academic Publishers, 2006, 308 pages, ISBN 90-5260-198-4

Robert William Fogel, Enid M. Fogel, Mark Guglielmo, and Nathan Grotte, Political Arithmetic. Simon Kuznets and the Empirical Tradition in Economics. University of Chicago Press, 2013, 148 pages, ISBN 978-0-226-25661-0

John Lyons, Louis P. Cain, and Samuel H. Williamson (eds.) Reflections on the Cliometrics Revolution: Conversations with Economic Historians. Routledge, 2008, 491 pages, ISBN 0-415-70091-4

Robert Whaples and Randall E. Parker (eds.) Routledge Handbook of Modern Economic History, Routledge, 2013, 352 pages, ISBN 978-0-415-67704-2

Texte intégral

1This review essay reflects upon five recent studies dealing with the sociology, methodology, practice, and future direction of economic history. I will summarise the key features and findings of these texts, set them in their wider historiographical context, and consider what they say about the broad subject matter of economic history. It will be shown how these books illuminate different facets of the discipline—its methodological and institutional development from the mid-twentieth century; the influences and activities of key practitioners; current approaches, findings, and agendas; and debates centred around complex relationships between the social sciences and humanities. Particular attention is devoted in the latter half of the review to a recent study by Francesco Boldizzoni suggesting how modern economic history can escape the methods of economic science without lapsing into narrative history. I end by briefly considering views regarding anticipated research trajectories, as well as drawing attention to the core principles of economic history in order to highlight its importance within the humanities.

  • 1 Discussion of the literature on the economics of, and historiography surrounding, American slavery (...)
  • 2 See Whaples (1990) for a quantitative assessment of the cliometric revolution in the contents of th (...)
  • 3 Useful, short overviews of the history, methods, findings and achievements of the cliometric school (...)

2At the heart of the five texts under discussion is the impact of the cliometrics revolution (otherwise known as the ‘new economic history’ or ‘econometric history’) on the study of economic history in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. The roots of this revolution can be traced to the early 1920s, beginning with investigations by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) into the size, composition, and distribution of US national income. By the end of the Second World War, the key developments and refinements of cliometric techniques had emerged, fuelled by the growing attention in the mechanisms of economic growth, new approaches to the study of the aggregate economy, better availability of economic data, and the increasing mathematic formalisation of economic theory. It is generally recognised that it was at a special gathering held in Massachusetts in the autumn of 1957 that the discipline achieved wide academic recognition. The speedy acceptance of the new economic history owed much to the methods and techniques of the cliometricians (mathematical economics, etc), and the clear absence of language barriers between them and economists. Institutional structures and scholarly activities quickly reinforced the distinct character of the new disciple, famously through conferences and seminars at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. From these emerged the style, tone, and (primarily American) interests that came to define cliometrics for the next quarter of a century. By far the most famous eruption of hostility towards the new quantitative-analytical method came with the publication of Fogel and Engerman’s dramatic reinterpretation of American slavery in Time on the Cross (Fogel and Engerman, 1974).1 Yet even with these heated (and often well-publicised) disputes, the cliometric approach retained sufficient momentum to ensure its survival and wide diffusion. Cliometrics continues to dominate publications in the Journal of Economic History2 as well as a significant proportion of articles in the Economic History Review (although the cliometrics revolution never achieved the same degree of dominance amongst European economic historians compared with their American counterparts). The ‘new economic history’ added to the understanding of modern economies, and its successes were formally recognised in 1993 with the awarding of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics to Robert Fogel and Douglass C. North.3

  • 4 See, of for example, Swedberg (1990), Tribe (1997), Parker (2002) and Samuelson and Barett (2007).

3Lyons, Cain, and Williamson’s Reflections on the Cliometrics Revolution provides a useful introduction to the history and sociology of this post-war story, and their book follows in the wake of various interview collections published over the past twenty years.4 The main chapters of the book consist of twenty-five interviews, conducted with a body of influential cliometricians over a roughly thirteen year period—the earliest with Lance E. Davies (by fax and telephone) in late 1989/early 1990, the last with Charles Feinstein in 2002. In addition to these interviews, short essays, in the form of ‘further reflections’, are provided by, amongst others, Douglass C. North, Eric Jones, Robert Fogel, Stanley Engerman, and Peter Temin.

4The first six chapters serve to set these interviews in context, and provide a succinct overview of the development of cliometrics as an intellectual movement/revolution, together with a lucid commentary on the impact, debates and controversies it generated. While celebrating the achievements of the early cliometricians in signalling a methodological revolution and challenging existing historical interpretations, it is hard to ignore their role in the creation of an academic environment antipathetic to this particular model of economic history. Upon securing the necessary critical mass within mainstream research, the members of the cliometric community quickly “engaged in a prozelytizing mission” that saw them “reacting—some would say overreacting—to the dominantly descriptive and institutional approach of earlier scholarship” (Lyons, Cain, & Williamson: 17). The editors attribute some of this alienation to the attitudes and conduct of this group of innovators who, in seeking to reinterpret established historical viewpoints, became “bedazzled by their own technical abilities” and subjected their critics to a barrage of “unfamiliar formulae, bewildering jargon, and esoteric mathematics” (Lyons, Cain, & Williamson: 21).

5Published interviews are, more often than not, a matter of taste, and it is clearly difficult to do adequate justice to a collection that contains so many engaging and important pieces with this intellectual community of cliometricians. The wide-ranging nature of the discussions covers observations and humorous asides on a variety of historiographical and methodological debates. To provide a very brief flavour, we may note: Parker’s view on the importance of economic history for economists (“this is an exercise in imagination and thought that economists need, both in framing hypotheses and in making policy recommendations”, Lyons, Cain, & Williamson: 190); North’s comments on his move into institutional economic history (“I’m sometimes looked on as a traitor to my cause, you know, because I’m attacking cliometrics in many ways”, Lyons, Cain, & Williamson: 203); Fogel’s recollections of the response to his paper at the first Clio meeting at Purdue (“they picked away in detail at all of my different estimates”, Lyons, Cain, & Williamson: 333); Feinstein’s remark on the vital role that cliometrics played within the study of economic history in America (“their work had lacked quantification analysis entirely”, Lyons, Cain, & Williamson: 293); and even Hartwell’s own reflection of his relationship to the ‘new economic history’ (“I do not think of myself as a cliometrician at all!”, Lyons, Cain, & Williamson: 271).

  • 5 Private comments by the late John Lyons to this reviewer, in Manchester in the autumn of 2011, prov (...)

6A few points are also worth noting about perspectives and approaches. First, given the research focus of the ‘new economic history’, a number of interviewees reflect upon the determinants of long-term growth and issues relating to geography, resources, technological change, income inequality, and politics. Second, as is only to be expected, the participants do not speak with a unified voice. There is no escaping the variable quality of the material presented, a fact primarily attributable to the disparate circumstances under which many of these interviews were conducted.5 Elements of the work are occasionally exasperating, and the reader can be left feeling frustrated (cheated!) as a line of argument is hastily touched upon and never fully developed. A particularly annoying feature of the work is that the publishers have included only an index of names, thereby making it a cumbrous and time consuming task to properly cross reference material and so trace out patterns of scholarship and institutional networks. Irrespective of this, the intellectual force of much of this material remains palpable, and the keen reader will benefit enormously from the opportunity to enter the company of these ‘elders of the tribe’.

7One entire section of this book is devoted to interviews with some of the students of Simon Kuznets—Richard Easterlin and Robert Gallman at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman at the John Hopkins University in Baltimore. It is superfluous to say that Kuznets was one of the founding figures—and legends—of quantitative economic history. There is no interview with Kuznets in this book (the earliest interview in this volume dates from approximately four years after his death), yet it is impossible to escape the fact that Kuznets’s shadow falls with impressive grandeur across this collection. Various contributors comment throughout on the significance of Kuznets’s contributions to the study of historical national accounts and patterns of economic change. In light of this, it is pleasing to find a new, short study—Political Arithmetic. Simon Kuznets and the Empirical Tradition in Economics—addressing Kuznets’s research and legacy, and co-written by his spiritual and intellectual son, the late Robert Fogel.

8Faults the book has, certainly: chief of these being that it is really two slim books sandwiched into one short volume. The first three chapters concentrate on the rise of America’s economic profession before the First World War, the early history of the NBER, and the recognition of the importance of quantitative data for both military and post-war purposes. These chapters complement the brief discussion in Lyons, Cain and Williamson on the early history of the NBER, while emphasising the organisations focus on the presentation of economic data, the distribution of national income, unemployment and business cycles, and economic policy. These chapters are enjoyable and, although running to less than forty pages, can profitably be read in conjunction with Fabricant’s (equally) short history of the NBER (Fabricant, 1984) and, say, the early chapters of Stapleford’s study of American consumer price statistics (Stapleford, 2009). It is only in chapter four that the figure of Kuznets properly emerges, and it is from here, through the remaining four chapters, that the reader is offered an overview of both his scientific method and contributions to the field of economic research. This latter point includes, of course, national income accounting and the investigation of the long-term growth patterns of industrial nations, the art of measurement and analysis of quantitative data, and interrelations between demographic processes and modern economic growth. Interested readers will find this overview of Kuznets’s lasting contributions far too short, and are best directed to consult key articles by Lundberg (1971) and Kapuria-Foreman and Perlman (1995).

  • 6 A full discussion of the issues leading to the separation of historical knowledge and economic theo (...)

9The importance of historical investigation and knowledge within Kuznet’s conception of economics serves to illustrate the sharp differences between the form practised by him and that which came to dominate after the Second World War. Critical of the sterility of abstract, deductive theories of economic behaviour, Kuznets’s research agenda set him apart from the main body of theoretical modellers. From the mid-1950s through to the late 1960s, he produced a series of monographs that established the building blocks for his complex, empirically based theory of modern economic growth. His magnum opus—Modern Economic Growth: Rate, Structure and Spread (Kuznets, 1966) —explored the economic epochs of human history and those innovations that both transformed societies and served as the basis for rapid economic development. For him, the primary position of history as the principle source of generalisations about economic behaviour required no justification. Distinguishing itself from the atemporal character of modern deductive economics, Kuznets’s research demonstrated sensitivity to the importance of historical experiences. This was more than some simplistic, extended commentary on economic statistics, and Kuznets was led to emphasise the historical specific character of economic phenomenon, with work directed towards understanding and evaluating real world structural developments and institutional processes operating through time.6 Although not involving himself directly in the great (and often heavily politicised) policy debates of his day, the character of Kuznets’s work embodied rigorous, disciplined, policy-oriented empirical research. At the heart of this was the nature of economics as an empirical science directed towards evaluating economic performance and thereby serving as a guide for policy.

10Today, economic history is seen as a luxury rather than an essential feature of economics. Yet historical knowledge and mathematical modelling are, as the authors of this short study make clear, complementary ways of examining economic activity. This book, even allowing for its rather odd structure, serves as a timely reminder of the role of historical analysis as an essential foundation stone in the professional training of economists.

  • 7 My thanks to Professor Roger Middleton, University of Bristol, for drawing my attention to this boo (...)

11Moving now from the specific to the general, The Revolution that Bit its Own Tail: How Economic History Changed our Ideas on Economic Growth (Drukker, 2006; translated from the Dutch by the Caribbean Development Institute) serves as a useful, one-stop introduction to the development of modern economic history.7 Anyone without prior interest in the subject will, with a little effort, derive much from this instructive volume. Lengthy chapters explore, amongst other things, the problems faced by the inductive-oriented Historical School in isolating itself from the deductive nature of mainstream economic theory, the relationship of the Annales school to the new economic history, and (inevitably) the impact of the cliometric ‘colonization’ in the United States. There are also useful short sections covering Conrad and Meyer’s groundbreaking study of the economics of slavery in the Antebellum South (Conrad & Meyer, 1958), the role of historical national accounts in destroying the ‘myth’ of the Industrial Revolution, and the rise of anthropometric history.

  • 8 One fascinating example of this shifting framework can be found in North’s recent study of the use (...)

12The issue at the heart of Drukker’s book is to show how economic historians, trained in the tools of cliometric analysis, came to recognise the limitations of neo-classical economic analysis, and so move to bring different elements of social science theory into the study of economic history. While the cliometric method offered satisfactory explanations of historical economic development in the Western world, it found itself wholly unable to explain why similar developments did not emerge elsewhere or the problems experienced by later countries undergoing economic development. It was the eventual recognition of the limitations of the new economic history that provoked a number of cliometricians—including Douglas North, Paul David, and Joel Mokyr—to emphasise the historical importance of the institutional background and cultural heritage.8 Yet these social and cultural factors had been prominent within traditional economic history, before being systematically ignored following the methodological revolution associated with the ‘new’ economic history. This shift back towards more traditional approaches leads Drukker to identify the revolution that heralded cliometric economic history as one that ultimately ‘bit its own tail’.

  • 9 For a wider discussion of North’s contributions, see Libecap (1992) and Brownlow (2010).

13The issue that emerges from a reflection of Drukker’s book is the contribution that historical analysis (as represented in the developments outlined by him) can make to the study of modern economics and economic change. Set within the context of the social sciences, the requirement must be to strike a balance between formal theory (taken from across the social sciences rather than just economics), quantitative methods, and historical techniques. While the reader will find some repetition of material offered by Lyons, Cain, and Williamson, the broad focus of the text makes Drukker’s book significantly more useful in documenting the origins of traditional economic history and the advance of the cliometrics revolution. The latter part of the book can profitably be read in conjunction with Douglass C. North’s interview and further reflections commentary included in that collection.9

  • 10 Interesting examples of these approaches may be found in and Bordo, Taylor, and Williamson (2005) a (...)

14Turning from discussions of methodologies, some attention should be given to current subject themes and findings. A succinct introduction to these may be found in Robert Whaples and Randall E. Parker edited collection, The Routledge Handbook of Modern Economic History. This text, a worthy supplement to the editors earlier volume dealing with major macroeconomic events over the past two centuries (Parker and Whaples, 2013), is clearly the product of experts thoroughly versed in the recent developments in their respective subjects. Having marshalled the expertise of a team of scholars, the results of their labours are presented across twenty-seven thematic and topical chapters with much that will interest engaged students and academics alike. Part I addresses the methods of modern economic history, and contains the (by now) obligatory essay on economic history and cliometrics, followed by commentaries on the new institutional economics, economic growth and living standards, and anthropometric history. Parts II, III and IV range widely across themes, with illuminating studies addressing economic growth and stagnation, individual economic sectors (including agriculture, transportation, healthcare, entertainment and sport), and the work force and human outcomes (including labor markets, labor unions, education, slavery, and urbanization). Even allowing for the inevitable degree of brevity, each contribution has its own strengths, and the overall work has enormous value in spotlighting topics and key readings. Many chapters deserve a place on undergraduate reading lists, and would be ideal teaching aids demonstrating how to summarise and synthesise issues and debates associated with a given topic. It is interesting to note in the preface that the editors had sought additional chapters (on ageing, energy markets, natural resources, property rights, housing markets, and demographic change) but had been unable to convince scholars in these areas to contribute. This absence in no way harms the quality of the overall work, although it does, as the editors acknowledge, reflect current professional incentives to publish only in refereed journals. One issue that the book does raise is its relatively static geographic framework. It is a shame that an overly heavy focus on the North America context led many contributors to downplay the great value of the comparative approach. This is particularly sad given shifts in the recent historiography that have emphasised transnational and comparative global processes.10 Nonetheless, set against the context of Lyons, Cain, and Williamson’s collected interviews, and Drukker’s commentary on shifting methodologies, this volume serves as a useful overview of topics, current trends, and advances in economic history studies.

15The four books discussed thus far have concentrated on the evolution of quantitative economic history, the successes and limitations of the cliometrics revolution, and current themes in modern economic history. An informed reader of these four texts is unable to escape their overall focus of economic history as a sub-field of economics and, by extension, the place of economic history within the social sciences. What about the situation with regard to the humanities? As a very brief prelude to our discussion of Boldizzoni’s study of this issue, let us note five books, published over the past decade or so, that include contributions by many of the world’s leading historians and theorists of history, and which, in aggregate, serve to illuminate the current status of economic history within the humanities. In the first of these, What is History Now?, the reader will search in vain for any discussion of economic history beyond a short, disdainful remark by the distinguished historian, Richard J. Evans, where he comments that “economic and econometric historians are still plying their recondite trade in the decent obscurity of learned journal, conference volumes and subsidized monographs” (Evans, 2002 p. 9). The editors of Manifestos in History (Morgan, Jenkins and Munslow, 2007) offer a sophisticated rendering of the character of history in both its present and expected future forms, yet fail to make reference to the case of economic history. In the case of A Companion to the Philosophy of History and Historiography (Tucker, 2011), the reader will encounter nothing more substantive than a half page discussion of historical political economy. Something a little more instructive appears to be offered in Martland’s The Future of the Past: Big Questions in History, but closer inspection reveals this to be a fairly bland discussion of long-run economic cycles (Trebilcock, 2002). It is only in Harlaftis, Karapidakis, Sbonias and Vaiopoulos’s The New Ways of History: Developments in Historiography, that we find explicit reference to the status, character, and expected development of economic history as a sub-discipline of history (Mathias, 2010).

16How are we to explain this lowly position of economic history within the humanities? A detailed examination of this sorry state of affairs is beyond the scope of this essay, and brief discussion of a couple of possibilities will have to suffice. The first, and most obvious, of these concerns historians’ highly critical view of the familiarity between economic theory and the new economic history, and the emergence of a methodology that, it is argued, strips humanity from the historical narrative. A second possible explanation concerns a perception within the humanities that economic history deals only with the ‘dirty’ world of business, trade, and commerce, and so fails to blend with on-going research agendas based around topics such as identity, consciousness, public memory, and so on.

17There is no denying that there has been a separation between economic historians with their roots in economics and those with roots in ‘general’ historical research. Given this serious state of affairs, the rejuvenation of economic history within the humanities will be dependent on its ability to engage the attentions of a new generation of innovative scholars. While some discussion of these issues is provided in Drukker’s book, the interested reader is better directed to consult Patrick O’Brien’s Afterword to the study by Lyons, Cain, and Williamson. Entitled “The shock achievements and disappointments of the new”, O’Brien’s chapter offers an engaging summary of the themes present in Lyons, Cain, and Williamson’s book, a retrospective analysis of the discipline—addressing, amongst other things, problems, critical debates, and institutional uncertainties—before rounding off with a discussion of potential future developments. Sparkling with wit and erudition, the chapter provides ideas that are certainly worthy of reflection. Given its length—less than seven pages—it deserves to be brought to the attention of anyone interested in understand the problems and possibilities of economic history as an academic discipline.

18Taking all of the above points into consideration, the time would appear to be ripe for an injection of fresh ideas. It was therefore with some interest that that this reviewer approached the final book under discussion in this essay—Francesco Boldizzoni’s The Poverty of Clio. Whereas Lyons, Cain and Williamson assessed the development of cliometrics from within the intellectual community of cliometricians, Boldizzoni considers the existential crisis of economic history brought about by the rise of econometric analysis and the institutional development of cliometrics within American Universities.

  • 11 A vigorous defence of the counterfactual approach can be found in Engerman (1980).

19A reader acquainted with the methodological debates surrounding economic history will find little in the early chapters of this book that constitutes a tale of the unexpected. An outline of the time-old critique of the fundamentalist cliometric model is presented i.e. while some familiarity with formal economic models assists in disentangling the complexities of economic phenomenon, the degree of abstraction applied by cliomatricians has resulted in the construction of historical narratives that correspond to the conceptual framework of conventional neo-classical economics. The tendency to view history purely through the prism of abstract models, so the argument goes, raises further important methodological issues, ranging from the ease by which investigators can select independent variables in order to condition the results of regression analysis, to the dangers inherent in counterfactual analysis.11

  • 12 For an example of this, see North (1976).

20We must agree that an accessible outline of the cliometric method is essential for any lay reader wishing to engage with issues associated with the modern discipline of economic history. Boldizzoni’s aim here is clearly to engage with relevant methodological questions associated with burgeoning of cliometric analysis. Yet the end result is only to present the reader with the usual critical interpretation of the application of theoretical economics and quantitative methods in the service of historical investigation. It is hardly a revelation to say that, since the methodology of economic history is firmly rooted in the methods of economic science, the research programmes of many economic historians have been influenced by the changing structure of economics.12 Boldizzoni therefore offers a fairly generic critique that leads back to the view that economic history has become little more than a sub-field of applied economics.

21Given the focus of this book in seeking to challenge the (perceived) dominance of cliometrics, Boldizzoni attempts to speak to an alternative methodology through which economic history will no longer be overly encumbered by the restrictive conditions of neo-classical theory. Boldizzoni’s study is therefore centred around drawing economic history away from formalised economics and quantitative methods of analysis. It is useful to briefly compare this point with ideas outlined in the above mentioned study of Kuznets. In that book, the discussion focused on the importance of the empirical tradition and the need to draw historical knowledge back into mainstream economics. It is interesting to note how, in these two works (which, it has to be said, offer significantly varying degrees of detail and presentation), we find differing attitudes, expressed by practitioners in different academic disciplines, concerning the intertwined relationships between economics, history, and economic history.

22In seeking to challenge the dominance of quantitative economic history, Boldizzoni’s proposes an alternative methodological framework structured around a metatheory that draws upon several branches of inquiry, both theoretical and historical, with the duel aims of enriching economic history and—more boldly—redefining the very principles of mainstream economic discourse. In addressing this, the author has drawn on ideas developed and applied in European historical studies since the mid-twentieth century. The points underpinning Boldizzoni’s manifesto (Boldizzoni: 150-151) may be summarised as follows:

  1. The need for economic historians to investigate a wide range of primary sources.

  2. Moving economic historians from the oversimplifications of cliometrics through improved training in social, cultural, political, and institutional history.

  3. The importance of economic historians being pro-active in initiating constructive dialogues with, for example, sociologist and anthropologists (thereby escaping the ‘special relationship’ between economics and economic history).

  4. A more judicious and critically aware application of quantitative methods.

  5. The need for economic historians in establishing a new relationship with theory.

23What is one to make of these five principles? The range of material deployed to support this framework is certainly interesting, and the reader is ably led through issues relating to, amongst other things, the problems associated with quantification and econometric analysis, the importance of the longue durée, economic sociology and economic anthropology, as well as numerous examples and historical case studies.

24Turning to more substantive issues, the informed reader cannot help but offer a few comments. For example, under point (1), established criticisms of cliometrics claim that its practitioners have ignored the need to undertake archival research, have missed opportunities to generate evidence from primary sources, and generally have been over-reliant on conveniently published data sets. Yes, there is some truth is such criticisms; but we cannot ignore the numerous cliometricians who have assiduously unearthed and offered scholarly evaluations of primary source material. In fairness to the author, the issue presented under point (1) is connected with the act of undertaking archival research, as well as the need to expand the range of primary sources consulted by economic historians in order to avoid repeatedly churning through existing series. This idea connects with point (4), and reflects the application of sophisticated quantitative methods associated with the expansion of the quantitative record undertaken by cliometricians from the 1950s onwards.

  • 13 Anyone seeking further instruction on Kula’s arguments are advised to consult the translation of hi (...)

25The foundations for parts (2) and (5) of Boldizzoni’s manifesto can be traced to the work of the Polish economic historian, Witold Kula, particularly the microeconomic perspectives of production, consumption, and exchange developed in his book, An Economic Theory of the Feudal System (Kula, 1962). Only by freeing themselves from the useless toolbox of received, neo-classical theory, Kula argued, will economic historians be able to construct their own microeconomics compatible with the empirical evidence being interpreted.13 These general criticisms of the cliometric method have, of course, been recognised for many years, with various economic historians appreciating the limitations of formal method and the need for broader, more subtle approaches. To give just one example, consider the following quote from William N. Parker:

[T]o a strict neoclassical economist, the “human nature” behind the activity is and has always been essentially, drearily, the same at all times and places. We [economic historians] should postulate instead a “human nature”, itself semi-malleable, a putty clay, which can form and be formed with different values, skills, tastes, and energies, according to the chance of its genetic composition and the physical and social world in which it grows up. (Parker, 1996: 456)

26Comments by practitioners in the twenty-five interviews included in Lyons, Cain, and Williamson’s book echo this theme. Rostow, for example, recognised that cliometricians were “too much in the grip of the neoclassical economists” (Lyons, Cain, & Williamson: 88), while North called for economic historians to “break out of the structures imposed by neoclassical theory.” (Lyons, Cain, & Williamson: 197).

27This leads to point (3) of Boldizzoni’s manifeso concerning the need of economic historians to initiate constructive dialogues with other disciplines. This is certainly a useful point, and should help draw some towards appreciating the shifting, often subtle, relationships (theory/history, social sciences/humanities) that have developed over recent decades. For example, recent evidence of moves towards establishing positive and constructive dialogues between the humanities and the social sciences can be found in studies by Beugelsdijk and Maseland (2011), Jackson (2009), De Jong (2009), Hann and Hart (2011), as well as edited collections by Ruccio (2008) and Gudeman (2009).

  • 14 For discussion of the ‘new political history’, see Fielding (2007)
  • 15 On this latter point, see Daunton, (2011) and Castelles, Caraçq, and Cordoso (2012)

28The move towards greater communication between disciplines is certainly to be applauded, but there is still more to be done. Could more also be done, for example, to integrate new ideas from the humanities into the study of economic history? One possibility may be to consider those approaches that, in recent years, have reinvigorated political history. In its new form—the ‘new political history’—traditional approaches, based around studies of leadership and institutions, have been fused with investigations into the culture of representative politics.14 With this in mind, would economic historians (and even historians of economic thought?) be prepared to move beyond established disciplinary boundaries and so further embrace the study of economic cultures and the social generation of economic knowledge?15

29Boldizzoni’s overall argument is interesting, and through clear, calm prose he has performed a valuable task in producing a text (the most systematic in recent years) that addresses long-standing methodological questions associated with the study and practice of economic history. On this level, the book can be read with no loss of interest or enthusiasm. In substance, however, the work offers relatively little that is radically new either in spirit or ideas. Indeed, much of its central argument is rooted in the past, with the author’s focus of attack being that army of cliometricians whose approach to the study of economic history reached its zenith around thirty years ago! In emphasising the historical method and the relationship between the humanities and social sciences, Boldizzoni draws on the philosophy underpinning the German historical tradition. The shadows of Roscher and Schmoller hang over this work, although it is surprising that so little direct reference to either writer, or their schools of historical economics, is actually made in the book. This is in sharp contrast to Drukker’s book, where comments on the future rehabilitation of the body of ideas associated with the German Historical School is prominently presented. (Drukker: 17).

30The scope and methodology of economic history, its relationship with economics, or even its development as an academic discipline, has been addressed in a range of works over the years, including Hicks (1969), Tuma (1971), Koot (1987), Kadish (1989), Cippola (1991), Rawkski (1996), Hodgson (2001), Wright (2001), Mokyr (2005), and Zamagni (2012). The five texts discussed above are worthy additions to this list. All can be read profitably as complementary studies, and deserve a wide readership amongst scholars across the humanities or the social sciences. Drukker’s book, in particular, is easily accessible, with the clear aim from the outset to translate the approach and results of the new economic history for readers with no economic background. The interviews presented by Lyons, Cain and Williamson serve as valuable oral histories, and are recommended to anyone—friend or foe—seeking to understand both the intellectual agendas of those pioneers of the cliometric endeavour and the sociology of twentieth century economic history. Boldizzoni’s work is worth reading in conjunction with the introductory material provided in Lyons, Cain and Williamson: one offers a detailed commentary on the development and impact the cliometric revolution; the other questions its central themes and seeks to offer a new methodological framework to facilitate the renewal of economic history. Many (unsympathetic) readers, however, will no doubt see Boldizzoni’s overall work as little more than a highly able re-packaging of the established critique of a particular (American) version of economic history. The combined bibliographies of these five books—even allowing for the inevitable repetitions—provide a rich feast, and serve as an ideal starting point for researchers seeking greater insights into these issues. Overall, these are books that, it is hoped, will serve to stimulate and encourage. Their overall strength lies in the extent to which they force the reader to reflect upon the different aspects of, and approaches to, the study and practice of economic history. In this regard, they succeed in raising more questions than they answer—questions about the need to better understand the sociology of economic history, questions about the complex methodological relationship between history and economics, questions about future research agendas, and so on.

31A few final points that are worth noting. First, given the scope of these texts, it is a little surprising that there was not more coverage of the relationship between economic history and the history of economic thought. Some moves in this direction have occurred in recent years—for example, the highly enjoyable The Clash of Economic Ideas (White, 2012)—and one would hope that more could be done to assist in further re-establishing links between the two disciplines. Second, the dominant American character of much of these works—demonstrated particularly in Lyons, Cain, and Williamson’s collected interviews—draws into sharp focus the need for wider geographical investigations into the professionalisation and institutional development of post-1945 economic history. While the development of economic history within American academia is ably covered by Cole (1965), Coats (1980), de Rouvray (2004) and Mitch (2011), discussion of the situation in Britain is noticeably spare, represented only in Harte’s collection of inaugural lectures (Harte, 1971), a short study by Coleman (Coleman, 1987), and a book of reflections published to mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Economic History Society (Hudson, 2001). A companion volume to that of Lyons, Cain, and Williamson, focused on commentaries by European scholars, would be most welcome (although this reviewer is not holding his breath that one will be appearing anytime soon…)

32As a final point, it is difficult not to give some thought to the future direction of economic history. A useful perspective on this can be found in a recent contribution by Stephen Broadberry to a special article marking the sixtieth anniversary of the Scandinavia Economic History Review (Jones, van Leeuwen and Broadberry, 2012). Broadberry’s comments are drawn from a survey conducted amongst (unnamed) colleagues, all of who where asked to identify research topics/themes that they believe will develop increasing attention amongst economic historians over the next decade. These topics/themes were grouped as follows: financial crisis; the Great Divergence of living standards between Asia and Europe; new institutional economic history; anthropometric history and quantitative analysis of living standards; historical national accounting covering various Asian economies including China, India, and Japan; environmental history; and methodology. The anticipated trajectory that Broadberry’s sets out is powerful (no one could describe any of these topics as sedate!), and yet in aggregate it fails to deviate in any significant degree from long-standing research trends amongst economic historians i.e. themes of growth, development, stagnation and decline, social transformation, inequality, welfare, and so on (all of these, we should remember, formed the basis of large sections of Whaples and Parker’s edited collection).

  • 16 Let us briefly note one example: the ability of pre-industrial (organic) societies to circumvent ph (...)

33In the light of the five books discussed above, one is left considering whether, within this anticipated research trajectory, the central features of economic history are becoming somewhat lost. Economic history is a discipline whose core principles possess a powerful human character. It is a subject whose research questions lie at the heart of examining mankind’s existence in a world of innovation and development.16 And it is these core principles, as Patrick O’Brien has pointed out, that makes economic history “too fundamental to be virtually ignored by historians and too complex to be left to economists with their shortcuts into cross-country multiple-regression.” (Lyons, Cain, & Williamson: 443). Interesting thought the bulk of Broadberry’s themes are, it is to be hoped that, through opportunities for honest intellectual debate about methodological issues, the engaged practitioner will gradually be led to critically consider what needs to be done, and what can be done, within the study of economic history to re-evaluate approaches, reconsider standards, and refocus ideas.

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Notes

1 Discussion of the literature on the economics of, and historiography surrounding, American slavery can be found in Fogel (2006). For a detailed discussion of the reception of Fogel and Engerman’s 1974 book, see Crowe (1976).

2 See Whaples (1990) for a quantitative assessment of the cliometric revolution in the contents of the Journal of Economic History between 1941 and 1990.

3 Useful, short overviews of the history, methods, findings and achievements of the cliometric school can be found in Crafts (1987), Goldin (1995), Lamoreaux (1998), McCloskey (1978, 1987).

4 See, of for example, Swedberg (1990), Tribe (1997), Parker (2002) and Samuelson and Barett (2007).

5 Private comments by the late John Lyons to this reviewer, in Manchester in the autumn of 2011, provided some insights into the difficulties that surrounded the completion of at least one of the interviews in this collection.

6 A full discussion of the issues leading to the separation of historical knowledge and economic theory in the twentieth century is beyond the scope of this review. The interested reader is directed to consult Hodgson (2001) for details.

7 My thanks to Professor Roger Middleton, University of Bristol, for drawing my attention to this book.

8 One fascinating example of this shifting framework can be found in North’s recent study of the use of evolutionary psychology and cognitive science in explaining institutional structures and the dynamics of economic change (North, 2005).

9 For a wider discussion of North’s contributions, see Libecap (1992) and Brownlow (2010).

10 Interesting examples of these approaches may be found in and Bordo, Taylor, and Williamson (2005) and Broadberry and O’Rourke (2010a, 2010b).

11 A vigorous defence of the counterfactual approach can be found in Engerman (1980).

12 For an example of this, see North (1976).

13 Anyone seeking further instruction on Kula’s arguments are advised to consult the translation of his 1963 book, The Problems and Methods of Economic History (Kula, 2001)

14 For discussion of the ‘new political history’, see Fielding (2007)

15 On this latter point, see Daunton, (2011) and Castelles, Caraçq, and Cordoso (2012)

16 Let us briefly note one example: the ability of pre-industrial (organic) societies to circumvent physical and biological processes (i.e. energy budgets and the ‘Malthusian trap) and so allow an increasing population to co-exist with long-term increasing is living standards. For a detailed discussion of this fascinating account of the transformation from organic to advanced mineral based economies, see Wrigley (2010).

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Chris Godden, « In praise of Clio: Recent reflections on the study of economic history », Œconomia, 3-4 | 2013, 645-664.

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