SOME history please

In the last issue of the Journal of the History of Economic Thought in a symposium on the Future of HET, Ivan Moscati writes that

By using Google, I then found that thirty-eight of [Young] scholars are now working as lecturers, assistant professors or associate professors. More exactly, sixteen entered academia in Europe (five in France; four in Italy; two in the UK; one each in Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Portugal [my emphasis], and Spain); fourteen got into academia in the United States, and eight in other countries …

There is also a table…

Few might quote my papers but my existence is noted. In fact, I am entitled to a row in the “table of youth.” I there discover that I am in “Economics,” which is formally true but speaks nothing of what I am doing or where I will end up. Moscati’s sociology of affiliation serves the argument that in the strained duality economics vs history/science studies, economics wins by a head count.

None of the papers at the symposium read the question historiographically. (Palma gets close, but he is so excited by the marketing pitch that he misses the forest for the trees.) The future of the history of economics is surely the future of writing history. Why then did no one ask, with the courage and curiosity of youth, what questions remain unexamined in economics’ past? I would offer at least two: the communication of economic ideas and economics as cognitive science.

Among the youth, we seem to have plenty of philosopher kings and vice-presidents for marketing, but do we have serious historians?

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6 thoughts on “SOME history please

  1. I (and I guess Yann) would add to your list economics as it is made outside universities and laboratories, especially in central banks and international institutions.

  2. This is a pity that historians of economics who are are not interested in social studies of science think that doing a sociological research mainly consists in googling names.

  3. Well… Tiago, you’re lucky! People can indeed identify you. With respect to people living south of the Equator, they are lumped into “other countries”. What is most puzzling is the chance that Ivan thinks the capital of Brazil is Buenos Aires, a rather serious mistake…
    Jokes aside, I’m not in the table because I had not graduated by the time Ivan wrote the article.
    The main problem, besides your well taken point that affiliation speaks nothing about what really people “do”, is to use the current situation in an argument about what will/should happen in the future. The current situation may reflect past trends or practices: for example, it is still the case in several Latin American countries that a course in HET is mandatory to undergraduates. So, economics departments still have to have a “historian of economics” in their faculty (i.e., there is still a narrow market for historians of economics in those countries). A similar situation emerges in most liberal arts colleges in the U.S., which demand historians of economics (able to teach economics as well). But as you said, this speaks nothing about what people do. Moreover, it may be very well the case that these are mostly teaching jobs, with little space/value for research. Therefore, believing that the future is in keeping historians in econ departments hides the nature of the job: with not strong incentives and value given to serious research in HET in teaching colleges, no good future can exist to our discipline.
    Another controversial point in Ivan’s article is the characterization of HET-as-science-studies approach: in the end, there is an opposition between “History-only-with-Theory” (Rational reconstruction/ Internalist accounts) and “History-with-(almost-)no-Theory” (science studies). That’s very problematic. Papers emphasizing the social construction of knowledge do not leave aside theoretical arguments, but contextualize them (not as responses only to logical flaws). If an article explains little about the theoretical arguments it is because this is assumed as prior knowledge (several times, some reference to a literature review appear in those papers).
    That’s enough (though there are many other points worth discussing)! Cheers from the South.

  4. It is to me significant that historians of economics consider the matter of their disciplinary place in terms of the bottom line, job prospects, wage levels, and so forth. At those times, I feel like the profession is some corporate venture looking for a market niche. It only reveals how we are socialized as economists.

    I wish we could be driven by the question and in some sense by the passion of answering it. It sounds hopelessly romantic but I cry at the cinema and I have learned to like with that. Seriously though, thinking in marketing terms clouds our vision to examine the work we have to do, diverts energies to mindless alliance building and other Machiavellian schemes. It is true that every academic effort is Machiavellian, so say Latour and Science Studies, but they are so in an effortless and organic fashion not blueprinted as such.

    That’s it! I want to be effortlessly historical.

  5. I agree with you that defining the work we have to do in terms of job prospects clouds our vision to the deeper problem of the nature of our work and the future of our discipline. However, job prospects is part of the future of the discipline because it can attract young fellows in part based on the job prospects they have. We have to be able to weight the different aspects, including that of job prospects (and here I think the most important element is the “quality” of the job –if it provides good research and teaching opportunities–, not wage levels or prestige of the institutions etc).

    In this sense, and I think going in the same direction of your comment, I view the discussion about whether or not historians of economics should insist in being at econ departments as reversed: I think it is the nature we assign to our work that will define where we will end up in the university systems, not the contrary. I have serious difficulties with rational reconstructions because they simply tell nothing (or almost nothing) about how a particular knowledge was created (and mostly disseminated) –leaving aside my belief that I do think economists are in general reluctant to hear historians about how they played the game. And as historians I believe we have to think about its usefulness and not simply accept it because it increases the chance of having economists reading historians’ works…

    P.S.: I loved the idea of being “effortlessly historical”! I just don’t see exactly how to be right now because of our current situation in which we have to keep proving our fellow economists that “we are able” as economists and historians…

  6. To Pedro, read my article! I explain (with appeals to the history of physics and the history of economics) that historians of economics can re-claim an active role in shaping what economics is. (I also have a forthcoming companion piece, “Prophecy, eclipses and whole-sale markets in Babylon: a case study on why data driven economic history requires history of economics, a philosopher’s reflection,” (2008) Jarhrbuch für Wirthschaftsgeschichte. Edited by Bertram Schefold,” in which I offer an account of how economic history and history of economics can be joined in developing economic theory.
    This is not to deny, that is a shame that there was no paper on the kind of areas that may be exciting for a *conventional* history of economics. But to claim that this must accept current historiographic standards is also a kind of laziness; an informed historian of economics ought to know (by now) that the writing of history (by economists and others) itself is a moving target with many different (contested) aims and methods.

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