Reader Meet Author @ HES 2009

You can call it scandalous; you can call it Mickey Mouse; you can even call it fried chicken, if you want. But the session titled “From History of Economics to Histories about Economics” at the last HES meeting in Denver was just a thrilling experience. Let me explain in a few words what its purpose was. The last few years have witnessed the development of a literature about the history of economics outside of our field. Historians of science, economic historians and journalists (among others) have begun to write about the same issues we are (supposed to be) interested in and most of the time, they do not quote historians of economics. How did it happen? It is very simple, actually, and could be summed up in Stanley Fish’s terms: 1) Do your job, 2) Don’t try to do someone else’s job, 3) Don’t let anyone else do your job. Historians of economics have tried to act as economists, using the past to build alternative economic models or criticizing mainstream economics on its own terms. By doing so, they have created a “What If” History of Economics, one that builds parallel stories that can be understood only within the community, but offers virtually no insight on its recent developments, its status as a science or its cultural influence. On the other hand, you have another kind of accounts, such as Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine. They provide a more caricatural view of the economist as a torturer, mass-murderer and conspirator. Historians of economics may find them shocking (that’s the word, indeed), misinformed, misleading and dangerous, but those accounts have a significant appeal beyond our small community, and by refusing to address them in some ways, considering them as popular rubbish, we choose to remain in self-referentiality.

During this session, Loïc Charles, Harro Maas and Tiago Mata presented a perspective on the future developments of our field, not by restating previous positions, but by looking at possible new ways of doing the history of economics. Looking at recent developments in other fields such as history of science, economic history and political science, Loïc observed that non-disciplinary histories of economics are currently being written, offering a new intellectual space of trade between these various communities. Harro, by resorting to the metaphor of the historian as a curator, showed that we can build new narratives on the history of economics if we try to go beyond the text, arranging economics as a series of objects. For someone like me who studies the place of visual representation in economics, this metaphor has a strong appeal. I look at the large amount of visual materials I collected over the years (books, digital pictures and scans) and realize I use them in a very conservative way in comparison to the vast possibilities that are open if I think of them as pieces of art which would have to be curated in an exhibition. Would it provide a different kind of history? Last but not least, Tiago used Fish’s concept of interpretive communities to construct a picture of the public imagination of economics in recent works, without distinction between works intended for an audience of specialists and those intended for a larger audience. In Tiago’s account, indeed, there is no “audience” understood as this abstract mass of people out there, there are only anonymous individuals, internet users and bloggers, all contributing to create some understanding of economics.

I would not assert that these papers are perfect. They were intended for discussion rather than for immediate publication and I should say that the presentation itself seemed to me better than the actual papers. The presentation, actually, was quite spectacular. It had a kind of restrained violence toward the audience – the violence became less retrained during Tiago’s presentation when spectators were exposed to Klein’s striking rhetorics by way of graphic images – and the tension was palpable. In the same way art history has gradually given way to visual studies and visual culture, these papers may be viewed as an attempt to get rid of the “old” history of economics and to replace it by “economics studies” or “economic culture”. This is not a mere question of wording, it is a deeper transformation of our field. The skepticism of many attendants, explicit or implicit, makes sense.


7 thoughts on “Reader Meet Author @ HES 2009

  1. For me this post has clarified a lot of the argument being made in the session, but a few problems stand out to me:

    I am of the generation who read Heilbrohner’s ‘Worldly Philosophers’ and Galbraith’s ‘Money…’ – both written by scholars in the history of economic thought and both fascinating pieces of work, to the layman and the student. So let’s not stereotype the Historians of Economics just yet. Yes, there has been a lot of work in the last 30(?) years composing ‘what if’ stories, and I agree this practice should be questioned. But you can question it in several ways. For me personally, a lot of the work presented and done at HISRECO this year did exactly that, in the ‘look at what I have done’ spirit. Some sessions in HES this year were very similar, although too few by my reckoning, so I see why this Session was different and why it was useful.

    I don’t think it is right to negatively portray Naomi Klein’s ‘Shock Doctrine’ as a book written by someone outside the field and therefore sub-standard. There may be some mistakes in the text, but which book doesn’t have that?? What is correct outweighs this by a substantial margin anyway. Published in 32 countries, and almost as many languages, the fact of the matter is, that this book takes the very complex subject matter of development economics & policy and places it in a historical, social, theoretical, cultural and institutional context in a very readable and understandable way, using the analogy of shock therapy. As a development economist, let me remind you that this is a very apt description of the majority of economic policies prescribed by the World Bank / IMF from 1982-2000, and arguably beyond.

    Klein may caricature economists (or more correctly, the economic theory propagated by the WB/IMF) as ‘shocking’ or conspiratorial (useful rhetorically and very true in many cases). That said, we are all guilty of caricaturing economists, so this is not a criticism; be it the absent-minded but benevolent Adam Smith or the incisive but reluctant Robert Malthus. Klein’s caricature is just much more relevant and more exciting to the reader because it hits a nerve and covers an issue few have discussed, and almost none as elegantly as she does. That is not her fault, it is ours. As historians of economics we should have been interested in this, we should have written on this, but we were too busy doing other things.

    Shocking is the order of the day if your topic is that important. Al Gore uses it to great effect, and so does Naomi Klein. Let me assure you that if you have to give a lecture on public health, a picture of a slum-hospital’s maternity ward is a lot more effective than a statistic on low-income survival rates. And more than that, if you have taken that picture you have been there, you’ve seen the effects of ‘structural development loans’ and you have a lot more to say than a bare history of theory ever could – A lot of Klein’s story also comes from having ‘been there’. That brings up your last point. Presentation:

    There is a difference to the substance of a talk and its presentation. Just because the presentation is exciting doesn’t mean it is substantive – the opposite is also true of course. The best example again comes from HISRECO this year (which was great I thought) where a lot of the presentations used very different techniques, but their function was always to emphasise the core point aimed at an explicit audience. I am not sure Tiago’s presentation had considered the audience, especially in the wardrobe department where a lot of people would miss the point – I did – and that is not what an effective presentation is about. Some might look at the t-shirt and be alienated immediately. Harro, to me, had thought very hard about the audience and his message, while Loic took the more traditional route, relying more on his spoken word than the slides anyway. So exciting is not always effective, and the latter is more important than the former.

    As for Stanley Fish, I think it is refreshing to have ‘outsiders’ consider your field. Be they curators or writers. We shouldn’t deride them, and maybe we can follow their example and their work in considering our own. Fish’s credo [“Don’t try to do someone else’s job”] hasn’t stopped him from venturing out into all sorts of fields, writing about the NBA draft seems very far from his beaten track of Milton and the 17th century.

  2. Yann greatly oversimplifies, and in the process hurts rather than helps the situation, in suggesting that the two types of history of economics are “what if” history done by those who want to change modern economics, and the “new” historiographic methods of the history of science, etc. We can debate whether the former is actually history or not, but let’s say, for the sake of convenience, that such work is not “history.” If one removes that work from the list of stuff being done in the field today, one is still left with a wide variety of approaches to historical analysis, from Samuelson’s attempts to turn classical economics into grand systems of equations to SSK to journalistic approaches. One of the problems that some of the youngsters have (and certain seniors are also guilty of this) is that they have a tendency to assume that only the latest and greatest methods are proper history. That is a view which I reject completely.

    I disagree strongly with the opinion that what Tiago (and others) are doing is Mickey Mouse history; I have learned immensely from Tiago’s work, and it has spurred me to spend some time working on the role of Chicago economists (Friedman and Becker in particular) as journalists and creatures of other sorts of media. This is an important and under-analyzed aspect of the history of economics. But it is no more important–and no less important–than studying the history of theory.

    There is a lesson for the youngsters in this. If you are going to take shots at traditional ways of doing the history of economics, people are going to take shots back at you, and justifiably so. You are not, in my view, showing people how to do “better” history. You are showing them how one can do history differently, and in doing so unlock things that are incredibly important but that are missed by traditional methods. But it is equally the case that traditional methods can go places where the new histories do not.

    I have spent a lot of time over the past decade encouraging the work of young scholars such as yourselves, including a slew of jet-lagged stays in Paris. I do so because you are doing fabulous work–and you should keep it up. There is more good work being done in our field than ever before, and you are part of the reason for that. But that good work extends across the historiographic spectrum, and it is important not to lose sight of this essential truth.

  3. @ Steve: Thank you for correcting this overconfident Yann guy, he surely deserved a good kick in the ass!
    Seriously, I plead guilty for poor dual thinking here. My “what if history of economics” label does apply specifically to one particular approach in the history of economics – and it is unsurprisingly one of the defenders of this approach who called the whole session (and not only Tiago’s presentation) Mickey Mouse HET. You are perfectly right in saying that there is between the two extremes I have described a large spectrum of different methods for doing the history of economics, and I am not even sure my work so far is located at one of the extremities (though I intend to go forward to it).
    I still believe, however, that those who have been the most hostile to what has been presented in this session are also those who have worked the most to render history of economics a self referential field, mostly ignored outside of the profession and often despised by economists. It is most ironic that those people who contributed to the decline of the field see what Tiago (and others) does as a form of degeneration. But once again, I don’t think this implies all other historians of economics. This is not us against all the others.
    Also, I agree with you that there has been more good work published in HET than even before, but I also have the impression that in spite of the attempts by individuals to favor those good works, there are still solid institutional obstacles and an exacerbation of positions toward new approaches. It is possible that my post is itself an overreaction to this hostility and if my blog post have hurt those who have more moderate opinions, I sincerely apologize for this.

  4. Yann and others,

    I am not sure I see this as an either/or choice. I actually think the sort of work that Tiago is doing represents a fascinating slice of contemporary intellectual history. And this sort of work makes one think hard about how ideas shape and our shaped by our culture. The quality of his work, is separate from the judgement of the quality of the works that he is talking about, e.g., Naomi Klein.

    But Tiago’s work, as I read it, doesn’t attempt to make an assessment of the truth claim of the works he is discussing, instead he is looking at how those works are read and the creation of communities around the reaction to these works.

    However, I don’t think work along these lines necessarily excludes others in the field from working along different lines. One could envision a role of history of thought as a tool of contemporary theorizing. This is not “rational reconstruction” nor is it “haigiography”, but instead it is seeing works as part of an “extended present” as Kenneth Boulding talked about in “After Samuelson, Who Needs Smith?”

    If you use the analogy to history of ideas in political theory, you can actually see how both approaches can be blended together in some of the best work. In Skinner and Pocock’s respective works, e.g., the contextualization of ideas also suggests avenues to redirect modern theorizing.

    Anyway, I think Steve Medema’s general attitude is the right one for the field — a wide tent view encouraging a variety of approaches. I had not been to a meeting in a while, and I was thrilled to see so many young scholars working in the field. It was very encouraging to see. However, it is probably important for individuals to also hold strong individual positions. In another context, I have argued that pluralism is not a position, but a result. So there will be clashes. In this, as in so many other areas in this field, the current community would do well to learn from Warren Samuels, who held strong opinions, had high standards, but yet also could appreciate a wide variety of arguments and styles of argumentation.


  5. A quick follow-up, think about the current discussion on the “fiscal stimulus”. One can talk about how the language impacts political psychology, independent of what one thinks about the actual economic consequences of fiscal policy.

    But there are also relevant debates about those consequences that can be resolved throgh economic analysis.

    It depends on what your research purpose is all about. Are you trying to understanding public policy decision making, the intellectual movements that produce social change, the consequences of the social change, etc.

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