The Wheel of Misfortune (in the archives)

If you definitely want to prevent an undergrad from doing research in HET, you just have to show him Box 1 of Patinkin’s papers at the Duke Library. This is where are stored the raw materials Patinkin has collected to write his 1973 AER piece on Frank Knight’s “Wheel of Wealth”.  The archives show that Patinkin has looked at many books, textbooks and documents to find the origin of the diagram Knight used in the classroom and in his Economic Organization to represent the allocative functions of the price system in a capitalist economy.

The list of books Patinkin has scanned for this research is pretty impressive: it goes from Cantillon to Taussig and includes the works of Bastiat, Cannan, Marshall, Ely among many others. Most often, it ended up with a “no relevant diagram or text” scribbled under the reference. Then he went on with the books and textbooks that contain diagrams and pointed them out, noting the relevant pages and adding some stark comments: “some diagrams are pictures, not analytical diagrams” (on Fisher’s introductory text), “a lot of diagrams” (on Marshall’s Principles, which he didn’t bother to enumerate). He wrote to the University of Chicago’s archivist, obtained some copies of Knight’s unpublished manuscripts, wrote to Samuelson (the letter is mentioned in Knight’s article on “Frank Knight as Teacher”, which is also included in the same issue of the AER, but is not in the archives at Duke), wrote to McGraw-Hill, scanned the first eight editions of Economics, observed that Knight is not mentioned (except in the 2nd edition).

As you can expect, the result of all that is rather meager. The 1973 article does not locate the origin of Knight’s Wheel of Wealth, noting that it is possible that “it seems to have been original to him” (p. 1044). For the contemporary historian of economics – especially for the author of these lines -, it is also very frustrating. Like the 1973 piece, the archives show that Patinkin was fascinated (if not obsessed) by Knight’s diagrams but never unveil the reasons for this fascination.

Quite depressing, uh?

Well, yes …and no … because in fact, Patinkin’s unfruitful research produced two articles published in the AER (!) … and if we, the kids, could expect such a prestigious output every time we embark on a bibliographical research of that sort, I guess we would have already been considered for a tenure somewhere …

End of days

9420The results of the Research Assessment Exercise in the UK will come out Friday 18th. The suspense is substantial. From midnight today there will be blogging on how to read the data at this site. Given all this intricate staging and delays, I wonder if the sky will fall on Friday.

Categories Web

Mundell, China and Chess

portrait51As some of you may know, Robert Leonard have been engaged for some time in a research on the links between economics and chess in the first half of the twentieth-century , which either as a chess fan or an historian of economics I find fascinating. While looking for chess news, I came accross this (click the link below) and it made me wonder whether the historians of post-WWII macroeconomics knew about this.  I did not.

Histories of everything

Yesterday was the Amsterdam-Cachan Fall Workshop, aka “research day,” in the history of economics. The venue was held in the seminar room of the Tinbergen Institute, neighbor to the Faculty of Economics of the University of Amsterdam. The room was nicely packed. Unbenounced to the participants there was a secret society infiltrating the event. Two of the presenters were members of this blog, and two more “kids” were in the audience. World domination is in our grasp.

Besides our two papers, there were presentations by David Gindis, University of Lyon 2, surveying a close and distant history of conceptualizations of the firm as a legal person/entity/fiction, and Chris Renwick, University of Leeds, giving the tortured history of sociology at the London School of Economics and its self design as social biology. Finally, Roger Backhouse gave a draft of his (and Philippe Fontaine’s) introduction to an edited volume on the history of Post-WWII social science. One should applaud this project for its originality and the wealth of the materials it was unearthed. (I learned, for instance, that psychology headed many of the interdisciplinary efforts of the social sciences!) Omissions are a disclaimer in such comprehensive histories, and Roger was rowing against a stream of criticism when the floor opened for questions.

I want to reject our academic navel gazing, and the belief that “the dynamics of academia is surely too complex to be captured in a book”, or an introduction to a book. It should be easier to write a history of post-WWII social sciences than a history of economics from Aristotle to the present. The project is feasible. The trouble is how to write it? How to structure your text to stack up the materials? One might structure the introductory survey in short segments. This is how the authors are drafting it, slicing sections suffixed “context” (too much “context” however endangers semantic spillage). The assumption is that academia despite its internal mutation and biodiversity was faced with the same environment. It is one way to strike sameness. But I would look for it at another level, thinking cohorts and generations. Imagine three generations, one coming of age in WWII, another in the Cold War, another in the 1960s, and follow that generation around. For each generation one could select a branch of social science (scientists) to describe. As one follows the travels of our Odysseus, one could remark on how other social sciences faired. The social science interactions would come out vividly from a microcosmic vantage point.

To conclude, I file my suggestion for the Cold War period, be the turtle…

Zotero and scholarship for historians

I just discovered (thx to Micha Werner) an excellent software for bibliography. So far, I had tinkered with an Excel sheet and the mail merge functions of Word, which advantageously replaced Endnotes for the use I had.

But ZOTERO, developed by George Mason University beats everything:

Minority Report, directed by Steven Spielberg (2002)

– excessively user-friendly (you can start using it without training)

– not exactly a software, but an add-on incorporated in your Firefox browser

– detects automatically and imports in a click the references displayed on the webpages you are browsing (like your search results page on J-Stor or Science Direct)

– allows you to tag, comment, classify, link, import and export all your entries (e.g., from and to Endnotes)

– integrated to Word

– formatting styles for journals available in rapidly increasing numbers

– and in a very preliminary beta test: allows you to host all your bibliographical files (pdfs etc.) on a distant server. So that you access all your bibliography + files from any computer.

– free licence.

Endnotes is seriously threatened! (Thomson Reuters, which develops it, tried to fight Zotero on legal grounds – and lost).

I have never heard of senior historians of economics sharing their experience on organizing their archives and bibliography, as if it was dirty kitchen work, not worth revealing.

But PDFs, pictures from the archives, stacks of photocopies, interviews, photographies, correspondence…, all of this has to be professionally, or at least seriously, organized. Above a couple of hundreds of references (not mentionning thousands), it becomes hard to manage it in DIY mode.

Gaston Lagaffe, a comic strip created by Franquin in 1957

There are nice tools out there to do it, and they would be worth advertizing to the students starting a PhD. It will become all the more relevant that the archives used by historians are diversifying: entries of blogs, websites, emails, videos, files in all formats, softwares… digital archiving is a technical business. Zotero has been developed by the Center for History and New Media at GMU, and that should be an encouragement for historians of economics to board the train.

Is there a lab-field distinction in economics?

Is there a lab-field distinction in economics?

This is what I kept wondering while reading Robert E. Kohler‘s Landscapes and Labscapes: Exploring the Lab-Field Border in Biology (University of Chicago press, 2002).kohler

This is a great book: mastery of primary and secondary literature over the 1880-1950 period (he makes extensive use of the 32 archive funds he consulted), and a narrative line full of confidence, alternating between detailed demonstrations and illuminating comments.

Kohler’s general point is that practitioners of natural history, whose main place of work was the field, struggled to retain a legitimacy when the laboratory emerged as the place where scientific facts were crafted. In the field, you don’t control for anything, so that your observations can hardly be repeated and your variable of interest cannot be isolated. Plus, you might actually experience pleasure walking in the field, which is dangerous if your concern is serious science, rather than leisure.

A modern-day naturalist

As Kohler explains, naturalists first adopted a self-defeating strategy: they endorsed the ideals of the lab practices, and they tried to emulate them in the field. Of course, the result was that a lot of second rate experiments were performed, and many careers suffered from this. Later on, around the 30’s, biologists in the field set a more autonomous agenda for themselves. Thanks to very intensive data-collecting (Ernst Mayr, Robert Whittaker), or by developing “big science” projects (the Odums brothers), field practices could reclaim scientific credentials.

So Kohler concludes on a cautious optimistic note, tending to think that by the 50’s, a shared and legitimate space emerged between the field and the lab (I would be more inclined to say that the naturalist’s struggle for an identity continued as hard, in different modes).

In parallel, I am reading in the history of experimental economics (starting with Kyu Sang Lee PhD dissertation). And I was wondering: is there an equivalent of a lab-field distinction in economics? Labs there are, but the field? Markets, of course… but where do you find them? My intuition is that experimental economics could have created the field it was supposed to test, like in a performative act (I’ve to check a book precisely on that). Labs coming before the field… that would raise interesting issues.

[in contrast, this would conform to a more traditional view of the lab/field partition in economics]