Hazy concepts can produce some enjoyable reading.
Evidence of that has been furnished by the recent conference on “Creative Communities”, which has been held at Duke on saturday, november 1st. I understand that the conference itself was an emanation of the HES list, following a question asked by Evelyn Forget in April 2008. Attendees were among those who answered Evelyn’s initial question. Those were the usual suspects working on some other usual suspects: Robert Leonard on The Vienna Circle, Ross Emmett on the Chicago School, Loic Charles on Quesnay’s circles and Craufurd Goodwin on the Bloomsbury group. Bruce Larson provided the opening speech and Evelyn Forget presented a paper on the US economists doing economic policy at the Office of Economic Opportunities in the 1960s. That episode, which is not well known among economists and historians, seems very interesting to me, because it is my feeling that the history of economics as it has been done until now has on the whole ignored the importance of economic policy and more generally of the work that has been done by social workers, statisticians, propagandists, journalists and bureaucrats at the crossroads of creation and diffusion of economic knowledge.
The other contributions were similarly interesting and produced many thoughtful comments from the audience. I particularly enjoyed Ross Emmett’s article on the Chicago School of economics, and its emphasis on the worshop, the seminar organized by the Chicagoans to train their graduate students and spread the Price Theory to the rest of the academics – involving some painful paper bashing from senior Chicago professors toward their students and guest lecturers.
Yet I have to confess that, while I learned a lot from individual contributions, I did not learn as much about the whole idea of “Creative Community”, a term that does not make much sense to me. What is the difference between a “Creative Community” and a “Collaborative Circle”? As Roy Weintraub suggested during the conference, it is even doubtful that the term “creativity” is of any interest as a historical concept. It results from this that the real contribution of the conference was elsewhere. Actually, it showed that good articles are easily obtained when the emphasis is placed on social relations in the process of creation and diffusion of (scientific) knowledge rather than on individual contributions or on the text itself. Said in other terms, good contributions to the history of economics require at least some understanding of the context. Though it would be rather easy to say that we already knew that, as historians of science have done such work for decades, I will simply say that I was delighted to see how the discussion turned naturally to the questions that interest me the most. Should we use the word “schools”? How collaborations occur? How one’s personality toward his friends and collaborators affect the work that is done? Are we focused too much on the output of scientific research and not enough on the process itself?
For this reason, I don’t think that the output of the conference should be a specific issue or a mini-symposium in a HET journal. If those contributions were to be fully developed and joined by some others, I would rather see a kind of SSK Reader following from this. But my wish might be at odds with the feelings and expectations of the other participants.