Why Do Historians of Economics Hate Social Studies of Science?

This was the title of one of the plenary session held in the 2008 HES conference. At the bar were: Esther-Mariam Sent who explains that lots historians of economics hate SSK and that it was neither nice nor very clever. Tim Leonard who said something but I can not remember what exactly. Ivan Moscati who talks about his disbelief in SSK and that it was being clever to do history of economic analysis and heterodox economics. Ross Emmet who made a case for the linguistic turn. Steve Medema who said that as an editor as well as a human being he believed in diversity in opinions. Although I am simplifying a lot (which is not nice for the participants), one could grasp that I was not impressed by the general tone of the interventions – as well as by most of the remarks made by the public. And because this post was inspired by a lunch discussion I had just after the session with Pedro and Floris, I would use Q&A to explain my point of view.

Why? Simply because I think that the real issue was not really put on the table.

What is the real issue, then? Historicity.

What do you mean by that? The bare fact that as an historian of economics, I am convinced that what is really important when speaking of my working method is history, not economics or social science.

What do you mean by that (again)? I mean that as an historian of economics, I am constructing historical narratives and that to construct (what I believe) meaningful narratives I sometime refer to the social constraints that exist on the actors of science/economics (social class, culture, etc.) and other times I believe that it is necessary to refer the theoretical discussions the scientists actually had and take for granted that it is what matters. In other words, as an historian of economics I do not love nor hate social studies of science or economic analysis, there are tools that I find sometimes useful and at other times irrelevant. When they are useful I certainly like them, but when I believe them not pertinent in my narrative, I dislike them.

So I suppose that you believed that this session was not pertinent? Exactly. I would go even further, I believe it was to some extent counter-productive. When listening to the interventions, I felt that most of us were simply recreating an old and uninstering debate about what is more important in the development of economics: the internal (history of economic analysis) of the external (SSK) factors? Let me ask you something: when you are writing a paper on the history of economic analysis, do you sincerely believe that your hand is guided only by your social/cultural background?

No I don’t. OK, now, on the other hand, don’t you believe that this social/cultural background of you has no bearing on the topics you have chosen or the perspective in which you consider them?

Yes I do. You have said all that there is to it, young blood.

You are right, let’s go do some papers of HISTORY of economics now, because this is what I need to get me a (good) position.


9 thoughts on “Why Do Historians of Economics Hate Social Studies of Science?

  1. Loic, old sport, I agree. But the follow-up question would, be, and that was briefly discussed during the session, is how to decide what history of economics is and how to judge quality while at the same time maintaining a pluralistic interpretation of the field. Despite Steve Medema’s easy remarks that he recognizes quality when he sees it, it is legitimate to ask what is history of economics and what isn’t. Despite the Mirowskian set up and the anti-Mirowskian non-interest of the participants in the session that seems nevertheless relevant. Loic, old Turk, what is history?

  2. Like Loïc, I think that this debate wasn’t interesting, because these are old questions, framed by an inaccurate terminology. I think that we should not be driven by the method, but by the question ! I am ready to give full consideration to any article that brings an interesting point of view about this question “How did economics get that way and what way did it get ?”, whatever is the name under which this work is filed.
    On the other hand, what I don’t care about is the kind of “What If” questions that so many “historians” of economics seem to enjoy. “What if Keynes had used Wicksell’s definition of the natural rate of interest instead of …” or “Did Keynes committed the fallacy of …”. Whatever it is, I call it “revisionism” in the worst case, and “Marvel Comics History of Economics” at best. But, in fact, I don’t want to know what would have happened if Jean Grey had not met the Phoenix during her attempt to bring the X-Men’s spaceship back to earth.

  3. “What If” Marvel Comics offer a chance to play with characters without worry of consequence. So Wolverine can die several times in alternate universes and no fan will be distressed. It is a powerful fictional device, it sets up a familiar scenario and then shakes you up by deconstructing it.

    “What if” in history, or counterfactuals, are effective in quantifying the past and its alternatives. Think here of Fogel on the railroads. Counterfactuals in economic history require a fixed and agreed structure so you can then tweak the factor/event/relationship. I cannot see a structural equivalent in our investigations. Like Comics we have characters and plots.

    Counterfactuals in intellectual and social history may be closer to Stan Lee than to Robert Fogel.

  4. Here is a broad and synthetic comment on the comments posted up to now. History? The first definition that comes to my mind is: trying to understand past events. On second thoughts, this needs further clarification since a past event is basically everything up to this very second (meaning among other things that current theory is also a subject of history). That leaves us with “understanding” and “event”as the most significant concepts in my definition. History can thus be defined as providing an understanding to particular events (I am borrowing this idea from Paul Veyne, Comment on écrit l’histoire, a beautiful book on the methodology of history compared to that of other social sciences, in particular sociology and economics). It is then different from economics or more generally social sciences who aims at providing a general and replicable explanation of a phenomenom (e. g. under certain conditions/hypotheses, a price will emerge from the competition of buyers and sellers and that price will have certain properties), but does not provide explanation of particular events (e. g. why deregulation has brought high prices and bad quality in the electricity market in England instead of low prices and better quality).
    Hence, history uses, among other things, social sciences, be it psychological, economical, etc., explanations to built up narratives, but these narratives are only valid for the peculiar conditions that were produced at a certain time and place (moreover you can have different narratives of a single event depending on the perspective one favours). On the other hand, social scientists may use history as validation of their own theory or as providing a set of data that can be used to validate social theories (e. g. econometrics).
    In the case of counterfactual, if I take the example given by Tiago. What Fogel did was using economics to provide results of an event that might have taken place in certain circumstances/hypotheses. From these results, he constructed a narrative spelled out in terms of what if?. So it is definitely history. Is it any “good”? It depends of the significance of the question asked in the first as well as the power of conviction of the narrative. In the case of Fogel, it is reasonnable to say that it is interesting and “good”. In the case of “What if Keynes had used Wicksell’s definition of the natural rate of interest instead of …”, I have as well as Yann my doubts…

  5. I saw a movie yesterday night called the History Boys.
    Its a play adapted to the screen, which gained little from the new medium. The plot follows a group of high school kids studying for the Oxford-Cambridge interviews to read history, and the intimate relationships between the pupils and the teachers, old and new. One of the boys rugged, true Sheffiled lad, aptly named Rudge is in the mock interview.
    Mrs. Lintott: And you, Rudge? How do you define history?
    Rudge: Can I speak freely without being hit?
    Mrs. Lintott: You have my protection.
    Rudge: How do I define history? Well it’s just one fucking thing after another.

    Not a Paul Veyne but nonetheless accurate.

  6. Thank you Loic for the reference on the methohdology of history.
    Most of us were trained as economists, not historians, and sometimes I feel I lack a lot of such references.

  7. I agree that the question was meaningless, but I cannot help wondering about the answers given by some of the participants. If not interesting for its own sake, the session might have shed light on the sociology of the profession. i live in a world where most researchers tend to agree with Loic’s pragmatic approach of SSk and economic analysis, and where everyone strive to be balanced (if not wise) as he is. This is the reason why i’m really puzzle to hear that some complain about how historians “dislike” SSk, and even more to see that there’s a young scholar coming immediately after and giving susbtance to such complain. If the question is meaningless, why are historians of all generations still stuck on it?

  8. Beatrice,
    I wish I knew the world you are talking about. In my French academic world, most people are still doing H of E with the (never-fulfilled) project of contributing to economics and ending up doing History of economic analysis. They are now looking at manuscripts, because it is considered as giving a historical pedigree to what they are doing but at the same time, to interpret these materials correctly, to render their meanings fully, it necessitated a historiographical technique (including contextualization) with which they are not bothering much if only because they do not have a clue that it existed. They live with the naive (and dangerous) idea that texts speaks by themselves. On the other end of the spectrum, I find people (Latour for example) who believe that all behaviours are strategic and that texts/ideas/theories/policies are to be interpreted as political/economic moves and comitments. The bitter irony is that these people who are criticizing neo-classical economist, most notably for their rudimentary view of the individual, and their imperialist credo are in fact, in their work, showing us an academic world in which scientists are behaving like rational puppets.
    What I am aiming at is not a balanced view, but a different view. I am not pragmatic, I only acknowledged that there are good things/techniques/hypotheses that comes from these two (in my opinion) bad scientific programs for H of E.
    To answer your last question: because as a collective entity, we are not a lot brigther than the sheeps of Panurge.

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