economic history of economic thought

Labels to categorize research are useful, but I have long had serious doubts about the separation of ‘economic history’ and ‘history of economic thought’ with its separate journals, focus and job postings. Is the implication that theorists of the past didn’t care about empirics (admittedly implicit in quite a bit of literature) or is it that empirical study of the past should be empty of its theoretical context?

Personally I think this categorization is more distracting than it is helpful. It allows us to separate the two things economists have always cared about, and it is what divides the discipline. There is a difference between economics and applied economics, but the theoretical side is the more prestigious – in history it’s empirics which is more prestigious… I wish we could collapse the two. Economics should be theories tested with empirics, and its history should be the “history of economics” – a term I use, and
was excited to see John Kenneth Galbraith use in A history of Economics: The past as present (1991: 10). We can’t change either discipline over night, but this could be a fair start – at least I like studying the history of economics…

6 thoughts on “economic history of economic thought

  1. Doing a couple of interviews to our elder statesmen: those from the time of Titans, that created out of the volcanic rock our journals and our societies; their recollection was that it was the economic historians that lost interest in the history of “thought”.

    It was once the case that the two tribes banded together in the hunt of the buffalo but then the economic historians turned cold and indifferent. One among the many fragmentations of the 1970s social sciences.

  2. For an HE blog, might some history be offered? This topic has been well-addressed in a lovely and important study:

    Historians, Economists, and Economic History

    “First published in 1989, Alon Kadish’s study re-examines the standard view held by historians of economic thought whereby economic history emerged from the historicist criticism of neoclassical economic theory. He also demonstrates how the discipline evolved as an extension of the study of history. The study will appeal to students and scholars in historiography, the development of higher education and in the history of economic thought in general, as well as all those interested in the evolution of Oxford and Cambridge.”

    Economic history only came “into” modern economics with the cliometric upheavals of the 1960s — it’s not the case that it was always “in” and then it was pushed away after WWII.

  3. I am looking forward to reading the paper by Kadish, which I think sounds very interesting, but I am not really saying that one is better than the other – I think it is a strange division in general. I understand the rise of cliometrics and the interest in doing empirical investigations of the past, but why should that be seperate to what people thought? Indeed, how can you investigate the thoughts of the past, without understanding either what was happening at the time, or how the people at the time analysed what was happening. We can assume that the past was somehow unempirical, which I think is being adressed in work on the statistical offices of the 19th century, and indeed the general history of how politicians have used empirics to back up their policies for centuries – at least in Britain. But Lavoisier back in 1791 put out a national account, and it was packed with data to inform policy. The same demand for data laid the foundations for the French Bureau of Trade in the 1710s, and the British Customs & Excise House in the 1690s…

    Is it the case that we can’t help but think of our discipline(s) as seperate. One deals with numbers, the other with words. Seems odd doesn’t it?

  4. When I look at the work that some of my colleagues do using historical data, it is clear that they are not much interested in history for history’s sake. For instance, one tries to verify Becker’s theory of marriage by replicating Becker’s hypothesis using some special types of wedding practices among British nobility in the Renaissance. In this setting, it seems to me that history is an alternative to the laboratory in some way. I don’t know whether the example I gave is characteristic of what current cliometricians do or not but if so, I understand from Roy’s reference that there has been some drastic changes in the field over the past few decades. Another reference that comes to mind is Cristel de Rouvray’s PhD dissertation, of which I have heard only good things. She did it under Mary Morgan so maybe Tiago knows more about it than I do.

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