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…

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7 thoughts on “Histories of everything

  1. Yes, the workshop was nice. Yet, I do not entirely share your impression of Roger’s talk. Roger explicitly solicited suggestions for which themes they had overlooked that should be included. I didn’t hear any comments on the project being too grand, altough that might of course have been on people’s minds. Big histories do require careful thinking of what one wants to bring out, and that’s exactly the question that lingered behind the discussion.
    Moreover, as the title of your post rightly points out, all the presentations had abandonded history of economics in favor of histories of economics plus a lot more, so what’s the difference between Roger and the others really?

  2. Albert Jolink made the point on the grandiose, quite uncharitably I felt.

    I think Roger and Philippe’s project poses problems that are different from our histories which are more conventional: follow the literature, collect the interview, copy the archive and organize it all in a chronological unity. Although I innovated there with my “sandwich” paper.

  3. Excellent workshop.

    Perspectives were varied: Floris, the PhD student focusing on a chapter of his dissertation, or Tiago multi-tasking with projects of oral histories, eco and media, and archiving the 2007-08 crisis. Even though I disliked David Gindis’s framework (history as a witness for the prosecution of current economic theory), I must say he did an impressive work on the history of law and economics. I just wish he reframed his history for an audience of historians, instead of economic heterodoxists. And the historian of sociology from Leeds, and Backhouse.

    On Backhouse, I am not sure this is big history, but that will surely be a useful reader in contextualized history, maybe approaching a bit the reader we evoked in previous comments.

  4. Just a quick comment on the workshop and the post/comments. One has to keep in mind the state of development of a paper, and as Roger had made clear; they are at the beginning not at the end, meaning that one should be a bit charitable here – the same goes for Tiago’s paper (I felt that there were the two who were the more criticized. About the workshop, I felt it was interesting although Gindis was certainly a bit the odd man out – his paper leaning more on the critique of contemporary economics of the firm through a historical venture than history per se – but his work was certainly impressive. The other problem was that his presentation was completely uncontrolled, he wanted to say too many things : he had 5 sections and he began the 3rd one after 45/50 minutes (as you may have guessed the audience is still wondering what he had to say in section 4 and 5). Which brings me to the related issue of the presentation VS paper issue: when there are no papers distributed (as was the case here), the skills of one researcher as a performer is exceedingly important. For my part, I have difficulties to judge the papers, as the form is not really counterbalanced by anything more concrete – a text.

  5. Tiago: ok, granted. Plus as Loic says it was a matter of the stage of the paper.
    Loic: All those who presented have been asked whether they wanted to distribute their paper. Mine and David Gindis’ were distributed by John, the others did not have a distributable paper ready.

  6. I did not know that some of the papers were available in advance, I had none communicated to me… next time I’ll ask about it.

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