Angry analytical historians of economics !

Four years ago, while we were first-year doctoral students, Clément Levallois and myself were selected among several other contributors to present a paper at the French Summer School in History of Economic Thought. Usually, those Summer Schools, though they can be of some interest, are also the occasion for senior researchers to lecture the younger ones and to bash their work in public – I have been told that the American Summer School, which is organized every year at George Mason Univeristy is of a different kind, and far more interesting for the graduate students. This time, in Clement’s case, it was worst than bashing, it was a witch trial, not more, not less.

I guess that some context is needed here. In fact, Clément and I were not in a very friendly territory. Philippe Fontaine, our PhD advisor, had clearly expressed his opposition to the views of most attending scholars, the latter being more than skeptical toward contextual history of economics and social studies of science. But this time, the father was away and there was a good opportunity to mistreat the kids. I was first in line and my presentation on “Samuelson, Boulding and Visual Representation” met moderate disapproval. An attendee told me that I was going nowhere, because my framework is Latourian, so that the conclusion of the article is known even without reading it. I was told later than one of the attending professors mumbled that I would never be qualified for a position as a lecturer in economics (which I have been last year). It was the expected reception, so I did not feel disappointed.

Clément’s presentation was another kettle of fish. His paper was on the reception of E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology among economists, which I had never seen as a very controversial subject. The opinion of the audience was not similar to mine. First, he was reproached his absence of position against Wilson. One attendee – the same that reproached me the use of Latour’s framework – asked Clément to present a disclaimer for what he thought were “some very hazardous ideas”. One other scholar – I will not mention his name by charity – told him that “[he] should be ashamed of what he has done”, because “Wilson’s theory is used in South America to sterilize populations”. In his mind, Clément was guilty of complicity with death squads, Pinochet and all the other criminals of the last half-century. Then, dissenting voices dramatically increased. The crowd wanted some blood, they wanted an execution by burning, they craved to see Clément’s head on a pike.

At that time, I felt guilty in some way, because I felt like I should have stood up and say something like : “Are you totally irrational ? Can you make a distinction between understanding and apology, between history of economics and ideology ?”.  I wanted to tell them that Wilson is particularly mainstream in the US – he is even quoted in a novel by Jim Harrison ! – and that if they had some problems with his ideas, they should have addressed their claims to the Academy of Science, not to Clément. I wanted to tell all these former marxists that if they were able to follow their logic to its implications, they should also feel guilty for the gulags and the millions of people who perished under Staline – that would have been a mean and nasty argument ! But I did not. Today, I realize I was right. I did not have to stand up for Clément. He did not need to be defended. The message he wanted to deliver was not to be understood by people who see history of economics as a think tank for the defense of heterodox economics. Those researchers were blinded by their hatred of all things neoclassical or right-wing (moreover, they can barely distinguish between the two) and that prevented them from hearing a different kind of discourse. What they don’t like doesn’t exist, so it should not be questioned, even from a historical point of view.

Yet I remember that Clément’s own defense was a bit clumsy – we were still young and inexperienced. He argued that he was just seeing things as a historian and did not want to take position. He said he wanted to keep some objectivity. It did not calm down the angry analytical historians of economics, who argued that “objectivity” has long been discarded by historians. Still, when I think about that day, I can’t see a more appropriate defense against that kind of criticism. So I wonder how historians of economics can justify their refusal to take position (which of course is a position !!) when dealing with some really hot potatoes. Is it enough to say that we’re different as citizen and as historians ? I am a bit annoyed by that argument, because it really sounds like the economists themselves, when they try to trace the limits between positive and normative economics. Our studies are mostly based on the fact that scientific creation cannot be separate from the sociological/political/ideological context surrounding it. Are we consistent if we try to argue the same thing as historians ?

PS : I would like to reassure people about Clément. He is alive and well, and he has stopped beating his wife.

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13 thoughts on “Angry analytical historians of economics !

  1. I’ve been reading Stanley Fish’s new book, Save the World on Your Own Time. It is an extended essay, or linked essays, which would put the right words in Clément’s mouth, were he to want to (verbally) disembowel those fools. He did not have the same luxury I had at the last Gide Society Meeting held in Strasbourg of listening to a commentator give a harangue against Debreu (and me who wrote and delivered the paper about him in that session), and as he vented his spleen not letting on that I did not understand a word of his over-histrionic French. He then had to repeat his 20 minute critique in 2 minutes, to which I was able to rejoin that he obviously did not understand my paper, alas.

  2. That’s a tough question. Especially, as you say, for young scholars.
    Yesterday, I had a similar experience. In my dissertation, I analyze Buchanan’s theory of social unrest, and I link it to his own experience at UCLA, using precise archival material.
    A commentator completely discarded this subpart of my dissertation, because he didn’t want to hear a thing about Buchanan’s life and the difficulties he had to face. Why? Because Buchanan, a central character in my dissertation, is a right wing theorist, and should be criticized, no matter what. Those angry analytical historians make you look like you are advocating the theorists you work on.

  3. I have rambled about this before. It is not unreasonable to expect some association between the historian and his subject. This is true beyond the history of economics, very obvious with biographers, but follows to social and diplomatic history. Local historians are community driven. Labour historians are often committed to some form of labour associativism or politics. When history is understood as treasure hunting, for great ideas that will surprise and inform the present and move the present, then you expect the historian to be endorsing his subject.

    We are not doing that. We are doing social science through history. We are closer to cliometrics and methodologists and philosophers than we are to humanities historians. We use history to make a general point about construction of ideas, or their circulation. And the subject is not the subject.

  4. I do not agree with Tiago last paragraph. I believe that the problem is precisely that the whole point at issue is whether or not Clément, Yann and Jean-Baptiste are doing history or not. The guy who accused Clément for not taking position against Wilson did clearly think he was not an historian but a zealous partisan of sociobiology disguised as an historian. For them, history can not be a serious endeavour, you have to have something else in mind (social science? philosophy? politics?).
    My all defense is that I am doing history for the sake of history, because I believe that the knowledge I produce will make some people more aware of certain aspects of the past they can relate in some way (even incounciously) to their practices as economists, as citizens or as human beings. I am using social science to make history, not the other way round.

  5. I agree with Loic, this Tiago guy doesn’t know what he is talking about.

    I would agree with this Tiago dude if he had said, that as historians we respect the historical record but do not reference our work to discussions of the historical profession (humanities history). Historians generally have not much use for our work, we don’t reference them, they reference each other, we reference each other. Being careful about history, our cohort makes points about the past that build upon a (naturalized, social) theory of science and knowledge. Our language denotes it. We write about: place, communities, visualization, instruments. Its still history, even if we don’t write “L’Evolution de la notion du temps et les horloges ‘a l’époque coloniale au Chili.”

  6. Hey Tiago, I am co-writing one (but I plan to do others) paper with what you call humanities historian and I can assure you that in my line of trade (Early modern French history) I happen to be read and quoted by at least some of them! On my part, I never neglect to quote those who are of direct interest for my research and they are a lot of them. I confess that I never read nor used the famous article you mention, however for my research on Quesnay’s Tableau published in HOPE and the EJHET (my apologies for the self-reference), it was very important for me to know the “evolution of the notion of time and of clocks in France from the Renaissance to 1800”.
    Besides, the guys who are barking at Yann, Clément and… us are not the humanities historians (although some are far from perfect) but the “discipline historians”, that is historians who are only concerned by an history that “misconstrued the past in the service of current disciplinary trends” and issues (this is quoted from a paper published in Modern Intellectual History, 2008, p. 399 about which I plan to say more in a future posting).

  7. Another side to this discussion is the use we make of “great names” –this clearly relates to many of the points mentioned, especially that of scientists as disguised historians. Marx, Wilson, Smith, Samuelson, Buchanan, Becker, are all names associated either with “good” or “bad” things, and historians can not mess around with those dichotomies. “No one” is interested in a narrative about Saint Paul that doesn’t stress and explain his faith…

  8. Loïc & Tiago : This is the core of the debate ! And it’s both exciting and frightening, because for now the only thing we’re sure to know is that we’re moving from the old history of economics, but it appears that we’re still not sure of what is our next direction. Is it History of Social Science, is it History of Science, is it just History or is it SSK ? I thought that it was not important, but during the last HES conference, when there was the round table on SSK, I realized I did not agree with everything that Esther Mirjam-Sent said and also did not disagree with everything that Ivan Moscati said (actually, I disagreed with all points he made but one). For now, we operate around a rather loose concept, which is “context”. But there might be more differences than similarities among us (and that’s the frightening part of it). Today we’re all united against the evil ones but what about tomorrow ? I haven’t taken side yet, because I just don’t know … but will you turn your back on me when I choose either Tiago’s, Loic’s or neither of the two’s direction ?
    But I think that these debates are the symptoms of one of our bias. For now, as we attribute all the sins to past historians of economics, we also give all the virtues to historians of science. This is the sign that we are not far enough in our travel. We will go further when we are able to read one issue of Isis (or Science in Context) and say : “This is a very bad article”. I don’t see why we should have all these debates, and why there would not be as many debates in the other disciplines. Tiago’s comment make points on the fact that History is not more homogeneous than History of Economics. So, I guess that History has also experienced its own postmodernist transformation.That is why I am going to read the book Roy mentioned, because in my case, I think that I lack references on the methodology of history and on historiography. I guess Loic is much more aware of this because he works with historians himself, but are these French historians representative of what History is in general ?

    Pedro :
    I think that the difference between St Paul and (St) Paul Samuelson is that the former’s job is related to faith, whereas the latter’s job is related to economics. Do historians study St Paul’s economic thought (I’d bet some historian of economics already did) ?

  9. Which community we direct ourselves too seems unimportant to me. We are likely to try many. What I think has already happened, so it is not a question of reading the intestines of goats, is that we have disconnected ourselves from our subjects. (We need more histories of the history of economics, more historiography and less manifestos and day dreaming utopias.) If I study radical economics it is not an endorsement of radical economics. If Yann studies Samuelson it is not an endorsement of Samuelson. And in that respect we are closer to social science history, and not humanities history. Loic will disagree.

  10. I do agree Tiago with what you are saying except that I do not see why you think it is social science history, it is history, and I am not sure that I understand what you mean by “humanities history”. The link between history and social science goes way back (remember the German historical school) or to mention something more closer to your area of interest, the French Annal school. Braudel was very keen in the fifties and sixties to plead for history as the synthetic “science sociale”, the one that should have command on the others such as geography, ethnology, sociology and, yes, economics. He even devised a specific methodology call “area studies” that did not go very far, but that was at one time considered as hype (ironically more or less in the same period dissenters were attcking the economics cathedral to no avail). There is a few things about these aspects in Christelle de Rouvray’s thesis, which by way the I liked reading very much.
    In the US, history departments have certainly made their post-modern revolution in the 1990s and now it is almost passé since everybody have gone for it: they are looking for the new thing. The methodology literature of history is huge, I have read a couple of books I cherish like Paul Veyne’s Comment on écrit l’histoire (which I mentioned in a previous comment) and Braudel’s essays, Ecrits sur l’histoire (there is two volumes). I only came across the US side of this literature through a few articles I read in the leading History journals, such as Journal of modern history and American historical review.
    About Tiago’s position and me; as an historian I pride myself of looking at the economists practices as economists as much as to their discourses on what they are doing, and when I do the same with the two of us the opposition looks much narrower than it seems too be when reading us. Is if we go besides our discourses, the way we are working on our materials – archives, bibliometry, the use of social science, etc. – are much the same, it is more a question of emphasis than a straightforward opposition.

  11. Cristel’s chapter on France and the debates between the annales folks and the early french cliometricians raises the issue of two very different identities and methodologies that face off in the 1960s within economic history. Cristel is the authoritative statement on the subject, I have seen Nick Crafts reference her, and he should know. What might not come out so clearly from Cristel’s thesis is that this was a global movement, beyond economic history.

    The Social Science History Association was created in 1974 to integrate social science methods with history research. (Its journal is actually Duke press). Within the UK these lines of division have been pretty important, with some history departments lining up one way or the other. Some stayed with a humanities emphasis, training in languages and textual analysis, interpretative, influenced by cultural studies and the new criticism. Others lined up with the social scientific approaches, often data and methods driven.

    My suggestion is that even though we look on to history of the humanities kind, our writings by their sense of detachment from our subjects and by our style of writing (the way we reference, they way we structure papers, the dry language we use) has more to do with social science history. It could not be otherwise. We have been trained as economists.

  12. Peter Novick’s history of the American historical profession (THAT NOBLE DREAM) is good on the humanities side, noting how the profession fragmented into different branches of identity history – black, chicano, feminist, radical.

  13. Wow, that was a long time ago. Indeed, I had tried at the time to reply something about objectivity in history. My view now, if that had to happen again, is that it is infertile to discuss methodology when positions are so far apart. Nodding politely and trying to submit the paper in a good journal afterward is the best answer in my opinion.

    PS: I am writting this comment from the annual conference of the society for neuroeconomics, that I am researching from a historical / sociological point of view. I plead guilty by anticipation.

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