Archive for the ‘Methodology of the history of economics’ Category
The debate that began in the comment box has now moved to Brad DeLong’s Grasping Reality with All Ten Tentacles. I confess that I misjudged this affair. I thought I could jest with DeLong and I now get my comeupings, a good post by him but prefaced by a sort of character assassination that extracts the first two items of our discussion but forgets to pick up the other two (where in my humble opinion I look a bit better… and make clear my motivation is not “protecting my turf” it is calling for better scholarship). And now a lot of angry folks coming over to visit this blog ready to trash at our poor academic ethics.
I think DeLong has been very thoughtful and I relish the chance to answer him. This is not the first time that I read him on the topic. In 2008, I had noted his retelling of formative experiences with the history of economics, and the new post echoes the earlier one.
DeLong’s critique is that an historian should never dismiss the possibility that Adam Smith was offering a composite of economics, psychology and philosophy, and take a priori the alternative claim that Smith’s writings are part of that much broader unity Foucault called Episteme. I don’t see in DeLong’s post a fleshed out the argument about why one should opt for the Janus faced reading. There are a few clues, he rejects my reading as “fastpaced” (and we know “fast is bad”) and the double reading is well, twice a “fastpaced” one. On recall of his earlier 2005 post on the Episteme, I imagine that DeLong is suggesting a test on the episteme thesis. Or perhaps he is just setting up a more layered, plural set of readings, “let a thousand flowers bloom”. I think this is all reasonable.
But what if I don’t want to test the episteme? What if the history of economics is not even about “reading” and nailing down an interpretation?
DeLong’s emphasis is on “reading”, but historians of economics can do about other things too, with other records, with other questions. (As Vivienne Brown has long noted, there is an abuse of the canon in projecting upon Smith the problems of today’s social science. To no other author in economics does this happen as much as for Smith, the poor guy is cited for all kinds of conflicting purposes.) I am no Smithisian scholar, I write on the history of economics post-1945, but I have been privileged to teach the topic. In that setting I have come across some of the Smith literature, extensive as it is. Given that the subject of the working paper that started this all was the place of the economist in society (the worldly philosopher) I would have thought that a more fruitful approach would be to escape the tired debate about where Smith fits in the disciplinary grid. Is he a psychologist? A philosopher? An economist? What a tangle that is, particularly if the authors that argue that moral philosophy was then understood as part and parcel of natural philosophy are right (vide Schabas, vide New Voices), in that sense he would be a physicist too…
And does it get one anywhere? I think an historian of economics approaching this topic might do better by asking what work Smith’s text did in his society. What contexts nurtured its production and what debates it fortified and participated in? Why then not recognize that there is a whole school of political thought, the Cambridge School, Quentin Skinner, Emma Rothschild, and others that have approached Smith from the perspective of political history and seen how this work fits the pre-revolutionary debates of the Enlightenment. (This work, to which Tribe is somewhat associated too, runs into the 19th century in the work of Donald Winch, into the 20th century (this time without economists) with Stephan Collini). What made me cringe is that to look at the disciplinary grid is so far away from the issues and from an understanding of what history can contribute to the question posed.
The same is true of my other complaint that is missing from the re-posting. A reference in the Shiller’s text to the Baltimore Sun as record of the professionalization of economics. This seems to trivialize how momentous the academicization or professionalization of economics was… I would suggest the work of Mary Furner, Robert (Bob) Coats, Dorothy Ross, Ted Porter, Tim Leonard among others that have written about the Progressive Era and its formative influence on the American social sciences? And on the general topic of the profession how about reading the work of the Berkeley sociologist Marion Fourcade.
I don’t want to be writing down a reading list here, it seems inappropriate for this medium. The Shillers’ intuition that history matters for the subjects they raise is absolutely correct. Maybe they can write this history, but in the working paper they are far from it.
Wandering the streets of New York I found myself at a street-side book vendor, and in picking up the Letters of the Younger Pliny I found a wonderful sentiment in the introductory quotation:
Familiar letters written by eye-witnesses, and that, without design, disclose circumstances that let us more intimately into important events, are genuine history; and as far as they go, more satisfactory than formal premeditated narratives.
-Horace Walpole to Sir John Fenn on 29 June 1784
I add to that, two definitions from Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary (1906), which constitute my second purchase of the day:
History, n. An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.
Historian, n. A broad-gauge gossip.
A few weeks ago, one contributor to the SHOE (Societies for the History of Economics) list asked a seemingly simple question: “Why did Marshall reverse the axes?”. In economics, indeed, supply and demand curves for a given commodity are usually drawn with prices on the vertical axis and quantities on the horizontal one. It may seem quite puzzling to undergraduate students who cannot understand why they do so, whereas prices are generally considered the independent variable and thus, according to standard practices in graphical representation at least, should be drawn on the abscissa. As another contributor quickly pointed out, the more common answer to this question is given in Mark Blaug and Peter John Lloyd’s Famous Figures and Diagrams in Economics: Marshall used to draw his demand and supply schedules this way because he considered price to be the dependent variable. As most early 20th century English-speaking economists got their economics from Marshall’s Principles, they followed this tradition, even though they rather took prices as the independent variable.
The answer, as Roger Backhouse cleverly notes, is not completely satisfying from a historical point of view, even though it may hold as a methodological explanation. A historical understanding of why Marshall reversed the axes should explore the way he and his contemporary fellow economists considered the place of geometry in mathematics, the way markets operated and more generally how they regarded the status of economics as a field. Though there might not be simple and direct answers to all these questions, one can find useful elements in the existing literature on Marshall, such as Peter Groenewegen‘s or Simon Cook‘s books.
Other contributors to the SHOE list do not seem more satisfied with Blaug and Lloyd’s answer than Roger but their reasons are diametrically opposed. One scholar, for instance, complains that common explanations refer to “tradition” or “precedent” and think there should be a more “penetrating” answer. But what is history about if it is not about the construction and persistence of ”traditions”? What is a historical explanation if it does not deal with “precedent”? Instead, most SHOE list members who contributed to the topic pursued, message after message, a non-historical line of inquiry. For them, there should be an ontological explanation to Marshall’s reversing of the axes: in other words, the answer should lie in the ‘very nature’ of supply and demand itself and of the mathematical equations that underlie their graphical representation. This is of course wrong from a historical point of view but it is also misleading because it offers a poor view of how visual representations operate. Sociologist of science Bruno Latour has argued, for instance, that two-dimensional representations are useful because they are both immutable and recombinable. We can manipulate them, superimpose them, even though they have different origins and scales. We can even merge them with geometry and use tools upon them – though we cannot measure the sun, we can measure a picture of the sun. The consequence of this is that we cannot reduce graphs to mathematical equations. Supply and demand graphs are not only visual representations of preexisting mathematical equations, they are artifacts that can be used subsequently to produce or spread economic knowledge. This is what economists do when they construct Edgeworth boxes or multiple quadrant diagrams – who complains about “axes reversing” in that case?
Furthermore, in the particular case of Marshall and his contemporaries, the idea that graphical analysis is separate from mathematics is obvious. As Judy Klein correctly pointed out:
According to Marshall, the method of diagrams should be seen as separate from the method of mathematical analysis. By the 1870s, graphs were not substitutes of equations or tables pegged, with apology at the end of a work for the mathematically illiterate; they were tools for exploring and describing phenomena that could not easily be captured by algebra, calculus or words.*
Therefore, it is an anachronism to want to explain Marshall’s use of supply and demand graphs by referring to the equations of supply and demand functions which we are used to think of as premises of these visual representations but which in fact were not viewed as such by Marshall and the likes at that time.
It is quite puzzling – and even saddening – to observe that people who deem themselves ‘historians’ of economics and as such contribute to a ‘history’ of economics list systematically choose to bypass the historian’s toolbox in their discussions.
* Klein, Judy L. (1995) The method of diagrams and the black arts of inductive economics. In Rima Ingrid (ed.) Measurement, Quantification and Economic Analysis. London, UK : Routledge, p. 113.
Throughout my PhD years, I have consistently avoided conducting interviews. The reason I was giving was that my protagonists were either too dead or had already given too many interviews so that nothing new would emerge from an additional one, and anyway, what was the point of asking economists about their “worldview”? The true reason was that I was totally freaked out by the sole prospect of having to seat in front of a figure of the past, ask a few questions carefully crafted and wait for them to jump in.
When I began to work on MIT, it quickly became clear that this time I would have to face the necessities of oral history. While several of my narrative’s protagonists have been interviewed over and over, they had very scarcely been confronted with questions dealing with their home institution, with the daily organization of research, with the design of curricula, with recruitment, etc.
To overcome my apprehension, I set out to read, listen, and watch economists’ interviews. But historically oriented interviews are not so common. And the bulk aims at getting information on such and such contribution of the interviewee, or on his contribution to such and such school of thought. Only the list of questions prepared by Ross Emmett for his Chicago Oral history project echoed my intent to catch the daily humming and diffuse zeitgeist of an institution. And unfortunately, neither the audio/video files nor the transcripts are publicly available to date.
Then, I questioned those of my young fellows who were seasoned veterans of oral history, and who even unbelievably seemed to take pleasure at such ventures. Questions on the first contact, the unfolding of the interviews, the kind of questions to ask, the traps to be avoided, the different techniques for face to face interviews and email requests.
Their responses consistently stressed the importance of having the least possible influence/ imprint on the researcher interviewed, whether in the initial message sent, the attitude adopted, the open and scarce questions asked, the lack of comments made about the economist’ responses during the interview. It seemed important that the interviewee knew the least possible about our projects, our frameworks, the historical narrative we wanted to supplement or challenge. And of course, oral history was much much preferred to written contacts, even if I had to wait months or years for an encounter. These advice did nothing to soothe my fear and left me with a feeling of uneasiness, although I could not pinpoint its underlying cause.
Then, I screwed up my first interview. Because of an unexpected encounter with my “target” that I discovered would not be subsequently available, I had to ask unprepared questions without any record device and “over the counter,” or rather over a plate of cheese and pasta with two hundreds persons and a pianist filling the background with laughters, murmurs and worn out jazz standards. My questions lacked the most basic diplomatic veneer (So black and glossy/ On my word, sir,/ With voice to match/ You were a bird, sir/ Well fit to be the Phoenix of these days….), and anyway I couldn’t even hear half of the responses.
The following week, my brand new -and still unused- recorder got stolen from my suitcase during my hectic trip back to Europe. A sign, for sure.
These trials and tribulations at least brought the reason for my uneasiness to the fore. The underlying thread of all the tips I received was that the economists interviewed should truly be considered as objects of study. But I did not see them as objects, I saw them as witnesses. As partners. I did not want to hide my intentions, my research, at least not in the second part of the interviews. In case I wouldn’t get substantive answers to my questions, I wanted to be able to confront the interviewee with his history, to put the copy of a 1957 letter from Solow to Fisher on the table and tell him : here’s what he (you?) was writing at that time. I wanted to be able to say “Emmett has shown in recent research that the workshop system was essential in building a common intellectual ground for the Chicago School, what about MIT ?”, and I wanted to be able to consider the response (in this case “Workshop only came late to MIT because Samuelson was opposed to them. He thought the worskhop system was the end of economic generalists”) worthy of consideration, even if biased. And they were telling me I shouldn’t.
Now I’m sitting at my desk, gloomily looking at the stack in front of me: the oral history reader, a book on the voices of the past, a few articles (list in Mata and Lee 2007). I wonder whether after swallowing these hundred pages with like a bottle of Lagavulin, to give me courage, after buying a new recorder and giving a first set of interviews, I’ll be back into the ranks of wisdom, I’ll agree with them. And from time to time, the possibility that the situation is even worse crosses my mind. Maybe deep down I don’t consider the interviewee as a witness, but as a suspect? In this case, will this literature and a baptism of fire will make me a good cop, will turn the Harry Bosch in me into an Adamsberg?
Since almost a year now I’m involved in local politics (a few long evenings a week). Apart from all the obvious differences between the business of politics and the business of history of economics, I’ve noticed an unexpected similarity. Whenever politicians receive information of any kind, they will immediately do two things: 1) Check where the information is coming from, and 2) See how they can spin the information to their advantage. Politics is founded on the firm belief that there is no such thing as objevtive, or value-free information – even though part of the rhetoric is that there is. Ok, you might say, surely you knew that before entering politics. I did, although I had never realized how strongly and deeply rooted this conviction is in every nerve of the political process. But I also think that how readily you, reader of this blog, recognize the self-evidence of this observation, testifies to how similar the history of economics perspective is to the political perspective. Although we do different things, we historians also treat all information – publications, archival sources, interviews – always and everywhere very explicitly as the product of its source. That is, we never treat the information without taking into account the origin of the source.
But academic economists (including the IMFs and OECDs of this world) do. In fact, when we as historians of economics are alerted by fact that economists could take some information about some phenomena as THE truth, we are alerted in the very same way as are politicians about the same economists. Ipso facto, when economists are alerted because we introduce this source- or context-dependence in the discussion, they are alerted in the same way as they are alerted when politicians start questioning the source of their information (or worse, start spinning it). Economics is a self-perceived body of value-free, objective knoweldge in between two realms of politics and history of economics with surprisingly similar world views.
Ps: Not implying any of the three is better than the other of course….
There is much reflexion today on how to enhance the teaching of economics and foster the teaching of the history of economics (cf Avi Cohen’s SHOE post and the CHOPE’s initiative to put online resources for the teaching of HE). In such a context, it makes sense to re-affirm that bringing back HE in economics curricula would make students better economists. At least, this morning, I suddenly felt pressed to test my arguments, and, lacking an economist audience at that moment, addressed my toothbrush, moisturising lotion and lens solution with grandiloquence.
I read the development of HE in the 1990s and 2000s as one of emancipation, whatever historians’ declared (and conflicting) attitudes toward economists were. They have refined criteria for peer evaluation, standards of truth, plausibility and/or relevance (since the post, post-post and post-post-post modern wings of our subdiscipline doubtless refuse to take “truth” as their goal) that are strictly independent from economists’ ones. Historians today (at least some) don’t expect their articles to be assessed by economists’ standards of quality (it happens, tough, when an historical paper is submitted to a generalist economics journal, and the referee reports are often problematic).
Historians handle peculiar kinds of data and are constantly developing new ways of building narratives from them: those using texts, articles, books, as a basis for investigation are acutely aware of the changing meaning of tools and data, of authorship, translations, patrons and funding, publication issues (whether related to the publishing industry in the previous centuries or to the postwar peer review process), audiences, scholarship cultures, and the influence of biographical features, including emigration, religion, political views, love interests, power struggles, perception of contemporary economics/ social events, etc. Others are relying on archives, trading some archival sources against others, wondering what kind of consistent material can be derived from such fragmentary material, or even whether it is a consistent story that should be seek in these dusty folders, reflecting on the meaning of correspondence, course lectures, etc. in the context of the 1930s, 1950s or 1980s. They would also compare such sources with autobiographical accounts and oral histories, and attempt to offset the bias inherent to such exercise by devising new ways to conduct interviews, to gather memories, such as witness seminars. Some deal with the effects of computer science and of the internet on our disciplines: the emergence of new type of material (such as blogs, online lay reviews of economic books) and new techniques (such as network analysis).
At the same time, the scope of HET has been considerably expanded. Gradually moving from a cluster of key individuals (Smith-Ricardo-Marshall-Keynes-Friedman), academic bodies or “places” (Cambridge, Chicago, Harvard, Vienna) and theories or tools, or coming from different disciplinary perspectives, historians have investigated a greater variety of theoretical developments and subfields (econometrics, business cycle theories, general equilibrium, OR, game theory, the Arrow-Debreu mess, Slutsky integrability conditions, law and economics, etc. More recently, development economics, experimental economics, the laffer curve, Ramsey’s growth theory, Woodford’s monetary economics, behavioral economics, neuro-economics…..); other figures; economists’ activities other than research: economists as teachers (awareness to the definition of curricula and to the writing of textbooks; economists as fund raisers (relationships with foundations, the NSF, etc.), policy advisers (participation to the CEA, congressional hearings) and public intellectuals (Newsweek columnists, political activists, radio speakers, TV show broadcasters, bloggers). Historians’ interest has also spread to neighbouring sciences, from psychology to biology, to hitherto understudied academic bodies (such as MIT, Michigan), to non academic bodies (such as the Brookings, the NBER, the Office of Economic Opportunities, German unions, the CED, South American central banks, Quesnay’s workshop, the poverty action lab, the Bloomsbury group). And lately, HE has come to include the study of political figures, journalists, traders, bloggers, anonymous reader and reviewers from amazon, all kind of economic actors and audiences.
And this is just a tiny sample of HE subjects, one that reflects my narrow interests as a postwar historian, my recent readings, my communities, the interests of my close colleagues and of the people encountered along workshops and conferences in the past two years.
As a consequence, historians of economic thing now have a lot to say about past economic theories/ debates/ objects, both on their content and context. Ans this might be of interest for economic students. Yet, my perception is that, focused as they were on the construction of true/ plausible/ relevant narrative, historians have lost their pretension to show economists what they were doing wrong, to show them how their elders were so much better at reasoning. For the best.
OK, this may be the moment to stop hasty generalizations. So, some historians, among which the silly me addressing my toothbrush, do not seek economists’ agreement, maybe not even their attention, anymore (which doesn’t mean they don’t care about it). As I previously said, we have developed our own scientific standards. Yet, a problematic consequence of such posture, is that, while I claim that history of economics should be a crucial part of economics curricula, I refuse to take side on how students should use the stories we could tell them. While some point to the possible quiver of the beginning of a resurgence of an interest in HE, there’s not much I can say to advertise all the work we’ve done. Whether economists may be looking for inspiration, mistakes, reflexivity in their practices, social knowledge, greater breadth of vision, lineage, entertainment or else in their past, all I can say is “listen to us, we’ve fascinating stories to tell you, and these are your past.”
I’ve never taught HE to economic students. I’ve been sitting in such courses as an economic student in France, totally missing the point, and a HE postdoc in the USA, focusing on students’ reactions. I’ve been teaching a variety of economic courses at the undergraduate level (from applied econometrics to international economics to advanced macroeconomics), sometimes trying to instil a bit of historical sense and flesh in the succession of theories and equations I was unwinding. And i’ve ben teaching HE to humanities students. From these experiences, I retained a few directions for my -so far- dreamed future course in HE, but I still have difficulty justifying some of them, even to my unconvinced toothbrush. I need help, substance. Or objections.
a distinct course in history of postwar economics is needed. I am not arguing that there is no point reading and studying Smith and Marshall and Marx and Keynes. Or course not. I’m simply relying on a common intuition derived from many works since the 1997 HOPE book directed by Morgan and Rutherford, to argue that it is in the period around the Second World War that economics took a shape that is still visible today in undergraduate curricula.One that may surprise, disturb or repel freshmen. In other words, it may make sense to the student trying to identify the saddle point of a Hamiltonian trajectory to learn all these things about the military, the RAND, the ties between engineers and economists, the emigration of Jewish physicists, and the possible consequences of McCarthyism. And the one wondering whether such estimator is BLUE may find interest, if not comfort, in hearing the social project Marschak and other Cowles economists had in mind in the forties. Ok, I’m aware that this is a bit short. If only because I’ll agree with the idea that economics underwent dramatic changes at the turn of the eighties, some that gave economics its current shape. And that a distinct course in history of economics since the eighties is needed. But I have very little idea what such a course would look like.
- A least two sessions, and up to half the class should be devoted to a broad narrative on the development of postwar economics worldwide and its economic, social and historical context. Yes, it’s a bit like making the history of everything. No, it doesn’t mind if it’s only fragmentary. Yes, students are supposed to know some basics about poswar general history. But let’s face it, they’re unable to remember that the publication of Debreu’s proof and Arrow’s impossibility theorem coincide with the heydays of Mccarthy’s witch hunt, the beginning of the Korea war, and I can’t remember which rate of unemployment. Nor will they know that Becker’s work on discrimination was written against the background of the Brown vs Board case. What is needed, in my mind, is a kind of extended Backhouse Palgrave entry on “United States, economics in (1945 to present)” from the Palgrave, which I used so often during my doctoral studies. One that could be used to point out key dates in HE and general history, before entering more specific topics, one that student could return to at the end of the semester. And resources on such broad narrative are difficult to find. Any suggestions?
- Students could be presented with a menu of topics/ speakers so that the syllabus could be fitted to their home institution and disciplinary interests: “you can get Duarte on growth theory, Heukelom on the origins of behavioral economics, Giraud on how great textbooks were written, Levallois on the history of neuro-economics, Mitra Kahn on public accounting and the generalization of keys statistics such as GNP, Mata on the perceptions of the current crisis, you can have a conference on the history of your MIT/Chicago/ else department”, to mention only some of this blog’s members fields of expertise. I said: “dreamed course in HE”
- Kids, isn’t it time to write a textbook on postwar HE?
The beginning of a new year is always the occasion to reflect on the recent past, as the posts of my fellows Benjamin, Clément and Béatrice [to whom the opposite Calvin & Hobbes comic strip is dedicated] have shown. Though their interrogations mainly concern the purposes and practices of historians, I would like to add another one, which may be a bit more ‘philosophical’ – pardon the grand word! What has struck me during the year is the slow decline of what some thinkers call relativism.
Relativism (not to be confused with moral relativism), as I have argued here and there, is not the idea that everything is equal or that there is nothing demarcating the good and the bad, the true and the false. Instead, it is the observation that what we call truth or scientific facts or fair decisions is affected by the context in which we are located and that they can be appraised differently in different communities or cultures. It is not surprising that relativism – a term sometimes used pejoratively by its detractors – has been associated with literary theorists such as Stanley Fish, because rhetoric is where it is used more conspicuously. My literary style will greatly change depending on the people I am addressing to and, as a result, the meaning of what I am saying too. For instance, while writing a scientific paper, I can call some previous contribution ‘misleading’ or ‘unfortunate’ while in front of friends researchers, I will call it a ‘piece of crap’, and back at home, in a sign of deep fatigue and irritation, I will paraphrase Lennon and call it ‘the shittiest pile of shit ever’. Talking about Samuelson in a private correspondence, Stigler wrote Friedman: “It may merely be prejudice, but I’m inclined to write him off as an economist” [in Hammond, Making Chicago Price Theory: Friedman-Stigler Correspondence, 1945-1957, p. 97]. This is certainly not something he would have used – in spite of his renowned acerbic wit – in publication, and though Samuelson may have been conscious of such animosity he certainly did not take it into account when he called Friedman “an able scholar” and “an old friend” [Samuelson, Economics From the Heart, p. xi). There is nothing abnormal in this. Whatever our opinions are, we have different ways of communicating them to our interlocutors - from our closest friends to the scientific community and the public at large.
This, however, has seriously been threatened in 2010 and I will only mention two events that struck me in this respect: the first one is the fact that a few people have been legally fired from their jobs after talking badly about their supervisors on Facebook, the other one is the whole Wikileaks affair. In the former, it is quite striking that people who have written on their wall a few negative words about their work environment - like calling their boss an idiot, or their job crappy - have been recognized as guilty of serious professional mistakes while we know that everyday people spend most of their time at the workplace, near the coffee machine for instance, unfearfully disparaging other colleagues and immediate superiors. Why is something that is considered normal in the workplace is suddenly demonized when it is done outside of it? The wikileaks affair is quite similar, as it simply shows that when diplomats talk between then, they do not adopt the same discourse that they will use publicly. Is there anything shocking about that? I don't believe so. You may have to deal in a friendly manner with that head of state you believe is an arrogant and disagreeable human being, especially if world peace is threatened. Similarly, you can perfectly envision with some allied country the use of the military force toward a country you are simultaneously conducting amiable negotiations with - just in case this does not work, as Clausewitz believed . The fact that these seemingly inconsistent behaviors are suddenly judged negatively by law courts and the public opinion at large will make people adopt the same discourse whoever they talk to. Whether we are blogging, writing academic papers or chatting on our Facebook walls, should we adopt the same writing style? Some people obviously believe we should and the huge informational database that is constituted on the internet seems to put some pressure upon us to do so as well.
How much our practices as historians [of economics] are to be affected by that? I believe History as we construct it is built upon the idea that things – ideas, objects, etc. – evolve and differ in different periods of time and among different communities. If they do not, there is simply no story to be told. The denial of relativism is then the denial of historicity. Happy new year!
I thought that answering Ben’s excellent and stimulating question (in the previous post just above this one) could justify the opening of a new post.
His question was, are there any new BIG questions for history? I’d say that there is at least one great challenge for history: the entry into “e-history”. By that, I mean the renewing of methods and research questions in history, implied by the recent digital data floods: internet, digital personal documents, online journals, transactional data (e.g., mobile communications, data on financial transfers, etc.).
Wait, is it really a BIG question, or simply a new set of tools?
Well, let’s consider what happened to sociologists, when the realization came that digital data could be of importance to their field. The following quote will make this post awfully long, but it gives such a dramatic view on the issue that I can’t resist:
Our sense of this impending crisis has crept up upon us as we have gone about our work in recent years. For Savage, an early sign was in 2004 when he attended the ESRC Research Methods festival. With colleagues Gindo Tampubolon and Alan Warde he was enrolled in a session designed to popularize social network methods. He talked about an ESRC-funded research project which mapped the personal connections and ties of members of three voluntary organizations using social network analysis. The project had proved time consuming and intensive.
A lot of time had been spent finding three organizations prepared to participate, a postal questionnaire had been sent to 320 members in total, with a very high response rate. Many members had been interviewed face-to-face to ask detailed questions about their social networks. Thirty life histories had been conducted. The resulting intensive study of the members’ social ties was amongst the most detailed ever carried out in the UK (see Ray et al., 2003; Warde et al., 2005). During the Festival Savage talked to other participants interested in social network methods. It turned out that one enthusiast was not an academic but worked in a research unit attached to a leading telecommunications company. When asked what data he used for his social network studies, he shyly replied that he had the entire records of every phone call made on his system over several years, amounting to several billion ties. This is data which dwarves anything that an academic social scientist could garner. Crucially, it was data that did not require a special effort to collect, but was the digital by-product of the routine operations of a large capitalist institution. It is also private data to which most academics have no access. To be sure, we can cavil about its limits. It does not tell us what the callers actually talked about. We can emphasize our superior reflexivity, theoretical sophistication, or critical edge. Fair enough – up to a point. Yet the danger is that this response involves taking refuge in the reassurance of our own internal world, our own assumed abilities to be more ‘sophisticated’, and thereby we chose to ignore the huge swathes of ‘social data’ that now proliferate.
Sociology is simply not the same when you rely on panels and surveys from a small sample of a population, or if you rely instead on massive and exhaustive records of the actual social transactions performed by all individuals of a population (this now classic article from 2007, from which the quote is taken, sounded the alarm first). Will digital data transform history as dramatically?
Now, transactional data might not be of prime importance for historians of economic thought. But other forms of digital data definitely are. Many living economists will donate their archives not in the form of 200+ linear feet of boxes, but simply in the form of a one kilo external hard drive containing a few terabytes of data.
The method that we know and practice – go slowly and methodically through each file of a box in the archives – might still work (simply demanding even more patience, I suppose), but the volume of data will invite to different forms of historical analysis as well.
Indeed, these archives, we might expect, will make new kinds of material accessible: more complete series of drafts leading to the published version of a given work, with preserved annotations from all co-authors in the case they used the capabilities now afforded by most text editors. The underlying data in case of an empirical work, full correspondence with co-authors, detailed chronology / calendar of the work on a publication, all will become potentially available to the historian. But also drafts of grant applications, full bibliographies chronologically indexed by date of their entry in the database (now a common practice, which will be so useful for historians!), lecture materials, administrative records, … should become routinely available to historians, very soon.
Correspondence, in particular, will be much better documented. Whereas we had to find two economists close enough professionally, but far enough geographically, to expect a letter correspondence between the two, now the communication by email will surely make available a much richer record of exchanges, even between two colleagues working on the same floor.
Same for archives from universities and departments, institutes, governmental organizations. It will surely encourage the development of mid-range studies, at mid-way between the “big picture” history and the biographical approach.
BIG questions will (actually, are) now on the table:
- geography of science (through geolocalization data and content analysis)
=> can we observe a phenomena of Americanization of economics?
=> is it possible to map the coming of Keynesianism to the US?
=> can we represent the impact of the European refugees in American universities from the 1930s onwards?
=> can the “travel” of a concept, and its derivations, be tracked in publications?
- interdisciplinarity (through scientometrics and content analysis)
=> what was the dynamics of of interdisciplinary contacts between economics and the rest of social and natural sciences? At the individual level? At the organizational level?
=> was the interdisciplinarity character of a research center or a deparment a fact, and in which sense?
- production of knowledge (through many methods, including network analysis and web mining)
=> what are the invisible colleges in the history of economics? Offline, and online?
=> trace back the precise genesis of a land-marking paper in a given field
=> trace back a very rich biographical portrait of a given scientist
One might object that these questions are not new. True, but a new question is most often a classic one, asked in a new way. Look at the abstract of the communication by Esther Duflo, cited by Ben in his post: her big question for development economics is all about suggesting different empirical methods for classic questions. Same for history of economics and the new methods from e-science, I’d say.
I do not pretend that the questions and methodological innovations brought by e-science should replace our existing practices. Neither do I claim that they will develop easily. They have begun to raise serious issues for librarians and curators, be it the delineation between private and professional documents contained in the digital files donated by a scholar, or the question of the preservation of digital files coded in file formats no longer used after a few years or decades. Even the “simple” question of the communication of these documents to the visiting or online historian appears to be a difficult one in practice. But they will have an impact – each of us can realize that – users as we are of emails, text editors, blogs, etc.
So what? If we agree on the above, then one important consequence emerges, I’d argue. PhD students, and all of us, ideally, in history (of economic thought, and else) would benefit from a training in the methods to address this new empirical material. Yes, it means learning a bit of programming and computing science. A New Year’s resolution for 2011?
Of course, there are all these discussions about the consequences of such disclosure for international relations, its influence on American and worldwide public opinions.
But what about the consequences on scholarly historical work?
Two random links to begin with:
“Why Wikileaks is bad for scholars “, by international politics Fletcher School professor Daniel Drezner
“US embassy cables: a banquet of secrets” in The Guardian , by essayist/ public intellectual/ journalist (?) Timothy Garton Ash
Any other reactions by scholars/ public intellectuals you’re aware of?
Is the forced “declassification” of such recent historical material, at such a huge scale, a blessing or a curse for international relations scientists and for historians?
Are they/we “equipped” intellectually to deal with such material, to analyze its context, its subtext, its “truthfulness” ? To make sense of it? To tell a story out of it? What does the material reflect: the course of history, actions, opinion, prejudices, decisions, other? How distinct/close is/should be the work of a scholar as compared with the work of these journalists at the NYT, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, who are trying to sort out these millions words, cut through it, report it, make sense of it to the reader? Is it their very short horizon? Does it mean it will necessary take the historian a 1/5/10 years immersion into the material to tell the story behind such and such cable? Is it at all possible? What will the exploitation of these cables say about the possibility to write contemporary history? Or if that material is unimportant/ unexploitable/ secondary/ flawed/ biased, why and how is it so?
Does any precedent exist in history/ history of science/ history of culture/ history of economic something? I mean, is there any instance you know in which the unanticipated early disclosure of some historical material have forced historians/ analysts/ journalists/ story tellers to reconsider/ rewrite their stories?
Do historians/ scholarly archivists in relation to historians have any duty in the face of such flow of material (setting aside questions regarding the legality of the disclosure) : do they have to sort the material, provide finding aid, reference it?
And if these are not the right/ meaningful questions to filter what is currently happening, what else?
Labels to categorize research are useful, but I have long had serious doubts about the separation of ‘economic history’ and ‘history of economic thought’ with its separate journals, focus and job postings. Is the implication that theorists of the past didn’t care about empirics (admittedly implicit in quite a bit of literature) or is it that empirical study of the past should be empty of its theoretical context?
Personally I think this categorization is more distracting than it is helpful. It allows us to separate the two things economists have always cared about, and it is what divides the discipline. There is a difference between economics and applied economics, but the theoretical side is the more prestigious – in history it’s empirics which is more prestigious… I wish we could collapse the two. Economics should be theories tested with empirics, and its history should be the “history of economics” – a term I use, and
was excited to see John Kenneth Galbraith use in A history of Economics: The past as present (1991: 10). We can’t change either discipline over night, but this could be a fair start – at least I like studying the history of economics…
Maybe I am slow or we have just collectively ignored the fact that the debates we keep having about internalist vs. externalist history, SSK vs Traditional History of Economics, Context vs theory-focus, was resolved many many years ago. Maybe no-one bothered telling us? At least that’s what I get from the third edition (!) of a rather excellent book on The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science (2008: 7):
The discipline of the history of science used to be riven by warfare between internalists and externalists (c. 1930-59). The internalists were supposed to have believed that science, or possibly an individual sub-discipline within science, was a system of thought which was self-contained, self-regulating, and developed in accordance with its own internal logic. The externalist, on the other hand, was supposed to believe that the development of science was determined by the sociopolitical or socioeconomic context from which it emerged. In fact, neither position seems to have been properly established as valid or viable (Shapin 1992: 345-51), and it wasn’t long before a professed eclectic approach became all the rage (c. 1960). Effectively, this eclectic approach is still dominant.
I am happy to plead ignorance on this one, but having heard this sort of debate at many a conference, across several blogs (ours is no exception, even if this memorable debate was not explicitly about externalists vs. internalists), I get the feeling it isn’t just me. At some level I wish I had had John Henry’s book a few years ago, but better late than never. Also, I’d recommend it as a good introductory read – it’s 179 pages is not strictly correct, as only 114 are content (the glossary – especially his definition of ‘whiggism’ – and references are excellent too), and it is a ‘small’ book, A5 size. Worth getting, now if only I was still going to teach that course this semester. Dammit.
Or so the Economic Journal emphasises to relax its readers’ otherwise shock and horror at their November 2009 issue. The feature issue honours James Meade (1907-1995) by drawing on a recent conference about him. The editors (Vines and Weale 2009: F423) immediately declare that “the contributors were asked to write papers on contemporary topics – this was not a history-of-economic-thought conference” ! Rest assured dear reader of the Economic Journal, we are not historians of economic thought, and this feature is not about the past.
But of course it has to be. The introduction will talk about Meade’s (or as the chummy editors repeat: “James’s”) contribution to economics through his efforts during and after the Second World War. History is then reduced to talking about the development of “obvious” ideas (ibid: F425), and how it was ”inevitably [that] the British work became better known” than US and Dutch work on national income definitions (ibid: F424).
So the editors take the Whiggish road to Meade’s work and quickly establish how “Keynes set out the policy necessary to avoid excess demand in wartime, in his famous book How to Pay for the War. In response to this, James wrote a note in which he set out the a double entry system for national accounts” (ibid: F424). In the world that Vines and Weale describe, Keynes published a book, Meade read it and he responded in 1940 by producing a framework for defining the national economy and its output. Simple. And consistent with the general story told of national income ideas in the 1940s. Simple and consistent. Albeit disputable.
It is at this point I’d wish the editors were historians or that they and other literature was proud to do historical work Vines and Weale argue it was ”in response to [How to Pay for the War]” that Meade composed the national accounts. The context of the situation tells a different story. And some interest in the history of ideas and context might have avoided this whole notion.
Meade had been hired by Austin Robinson that spring of 1940. He fled Geneva with his family to come to London, and there took up work on the national accounts. Why? Because Robinson had hired him to come to the Treasury, sit down with Keynes’s book, and extrapolate the accounts presented by Keynes. Robinson had convinced the Treasury that such an endeavour could be useful for the war effort. Meade’s note was not an independent “response” to Keynes, it was a job he was hired to do. It would only be successful after he was joined by Richard Stone and then pushed, encouraged and edited by Keynes in the Treasury first, and then in the US. Our definition of economic growth as GNP growth was far from inevitable.
Meade was not the maverick that a context-less reading of the facts may suggest. He was hired to do something, something he himself had shown little inclination to do previously. Meade supervised the League of Nations national income data before fleeing across France, and never proposed anything akin to Keynes’s GNP. The Economic Journal editors actually cite an unpublished 1940 note in Meade’s collected papers (1988: 106-17) as the source of Meade’s authorship. They did some archival-like work here. Moreover it should be recognised that they are the first people to textually substantiate the claim that Meade constructed a national accounting system – despite the lack of why he did so. Others who have written on this, have usually not even bothered with the original texts, never mind the context. So Vines and Weale may yet be Historians, albeit not very good ones, which might be why they are so keen to avoid the title.
I teach with Harro Maas, a course “Contemporary Economic thought in a Historical Perspective” at a new venture, modeled on a liberal arts curriculum, the Amsterdam University College. They require the first year courses to have a textbook and since we both admire Roger’s Penguin history we chose that one. It was Harro’s great idea of inviting Roger for a meeting with the students. After discussing the book for 5 weeks, they could ask questions of expansion or clarification or make suggestions to the author on what to write in future editions.
From the 25 students came questions like: what is the best form of economic organization, markets or the state? what works best capitalism or socialism? should we adopt sociological approaches to risk analysis instead of relying on mathematical models? That’s right! Students querying the historian on what economics to believe, and if the past could arbitrate on these dilemmas. Roger did his best to answer and not answer the questions, but not far into the conversation he was politely labeled a Keynesian. The tone was always interested and there was no disappointment from either side, and some questions were properly historical such as why some ideas developed in some countries (often their own) and not somewhere else…
To conclude, a student spoke of a concern that many had voiced before. Roger’s text has too many names, too much happens and it is hence difficult to summarize. The student asked for the ten most important economists of history that would make a summary. Roger gave us then a “Hamlet without the Prince”. The history of economics as the history of its identity, as subordinate to morality, breaking out as a subject in political and moral philosophy, finally in the twentieth century the economic becoming its field of professional and academic expertise.
It was all good! A perfect way to motivate students giving them a sense of ownership of the content… they are on first name terms with the author, and they even drank a beer with him.
(on other reviews Backhouse gets three 4 star reviews on amazon.co.uk, and one 2 star and one 4 star reviews on amazon.com, the American shopper is less impressed)