The audience, yet again

No theorizing today, just a quote from the last paragraph of the preface of the very interesting Let us now praise famous men.

b2ae06e288a21332797b8fcfada672afHere it is: “This is a book only by necessity. More seriously, it is an effort in human actuality in which the reader is no less centrally involved than the authors and those of whom they tell.Those who wich actively to participate in the subject, in whatever degree of understanding, friendship, or hostility, are invited to address the authors in care of the publishers. In material that is used, privately or publicly, names will be withheld on request.”

I am wondering whether anyone ever wrote to the authors/the publisher and what did he wrote?

Doing the Archives

These last days, I have received – like some of you I guess – two guidelines about how to do a master or a Phd Thesis in history of economics. That is too bad that I completed mine 10 years ago! Anyway, I am not sure that these pieces are really useful for it very much depends on what is the conception of history of economics you have and you intend to convey in your work. The best advice I can give – and that is the way I proceeded myself – is to look a recent Phd Thesis from someone you respect as a scholar and whom you feel shares your general methodological outlook, and use it as a kind of reference document.  Receiving these guidelines made me wonder about the fact that in the blog, which is made by if not made for young (and not so young anymore) scholars there is, indeed, very little information about one organizes his research work.

There was a time, not so long ago, when the would-be historian of economics can safely go on the first day of his research the university library, inquire the librarian about where the complete works of Ricardo (by Sraffa) or the complete work of Marx (or Keynes or Hayek) were and very much sit here for the rest of his Phd Thesis. c4cea1e828This is not the case anymore and it is now common and almost an obligatory requirement for a Phd student to have done some archival work. However, doing the Archives can be a very different – sometime nice, sometime quite painful – experience depending on which Archives you go. A few looks like that:

registres-3But quite often, you end up like this nice looking young researcher on the left. This image might look scary, but you may have gotten the wrong idea. Because for all the reassuring neatness and geometrical perfection of the archive below, the archivist may have done a very lousy job in cataloging it, meaning that you probably would have to open half of the drawers and go thoroughly through their content to get anywhere. Whereas, on the other hand, the half-smiling women might very well be the curator who knows in detail the content of the folders she is actually browsing for preparing the new catalog and you would get what you want in less than an hour!

More seriously, when looking forward to do an archive, it is very important to understand that the easier you get the information – by browsing on a digitallized catalog for example – the less chance you have to find something really new and unexpected. On the other hand, when you are inquiring about an archive on which you have very little information it is most important to keep a very open mind and to be a little stubborn even when the odds seems against you. Moreover, keep in mind that curators or archivists made mistakes and have limited knowledge of the content of their own archives. When one has been working for a long time in a specific archive, one often knows it better than its own curator.

Let me share a recent – last week in fact – experience I had in the Archives of the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.  In the context of a research project we are conducting with Yann on the visualization in US economics, we became interested in the Vienna economist and philosopher Otto Neurath and its possible connections on the other side of the Atlantic. As one of the former directors of the MSI was cousin to the economist and philosopher Otto Neurath, we inquired about the possible existence of a correspondence between the two cousins. We were told by an assistant curator that there was no correspondence. Indeed, as I discovered last week, the same assistant curator had been already sollicited, two years ago, by another researcher for the same piece and after working on it for a few days was unable to find it. The same researcher who was preparing a book on Neurath e-mailed the MSI  again a few months later because he would go to Chicago for a conference, asking if it was worthwhile passing by the Museum archives to give a try about the correspondence. As the assistant curator repeated to him that he was unable to find anything, the researcher decided not to come. Hence, when he answered to our query, the assistant curator was pretty sure that there was nothing to find.

Being in Chicago for another project, I decided to give it a try anyway and spend a few days, at least one, in the MSI archives. The first day, I came with my sole computer not knowing if there was anything worthy. Looking through the inventory (made by the same competent assistant curator mentioned above) I did find a few things, enough to spend the whole day there and too decide to come back two days later with a digital camera to save my findings. I did not find the correspondence though: at the letter “N”, there was no folder “Neurath”. However, I found a mention to a letter the former MSI Director received from Neurath in one of the documents I read. It was enough to convince that there might be something that have been missed. On the second day and after digitallizing what I had found , I decided to go ‘fishing’. What I did was fairly simple and obvious, instead of looking  at the name of the person, I looked at the name of the institution he was in charge at the time (the Vienna Museum of Economy and Society). And, indeed, I found the correspondence: dozens of letters and a few important documents that were supposed not to exist. Later on (I came for a third day), I tried to force my luck and repeat the same procedure with another individual. But this time I end up in a dead endd: the box I wanted to look at was nowhere to be found (I was looking for the box with the letter P, but the boxes between M and R were missing). We looked with the assistant curator in the premisses, but nothing! However, instead of calling it a day I asked for another kind of documents (pictures) to spend the two hours that were left for my last day at the archives. The assistant curator took me to the location where the pictures were archived but we were unable to find any of interest for me. Out of sheer curiosity, I browsed the shelves and look at the name on the boxes that were around, just to find the correspondence box I was looking after a few hours before. Inside was indeed the piece of correspondence I expected and a few valuable documents.

To sum up this very long post:

– When there might be a chance you can get an important piece of information or documentation in an archive, but you are told that there is nothing by the archivist. Try to verify it by yourself and take the necessary few days to do it properly. If you find nothing, which happens quite often, you may have lose a few hours or a few days, but if you find something unexpected you may have gain an easy and good article or a chapter from your forthcoming Phd thesis, which may in turn launch or speed up your career.

– When you plan to do an archive, use all the time you have even if the odds are that you ain’t gonna get anything more.

– Keep an open mind, if you do not find something at the obvious location it does not mean it is not there, it might have been placed somewhere else because the archivist does not have the same logic as you (you are thinking names of individuals and he sees names of institutions, or the reverse) or because it have been misplaced (shit happens).

– Do not lose heart. Especially when working on a archive that has not been properly catalogued or arranged. Quite often, the first hours or even the first days are not very useful: you do not know how to begin, what you are really looking for, you do not understand the logic of classification (which is almost always different in each archive). You may have the impression that it is like finding a needle in a haystack, there is however one big difference: when the archives are classified and most of them are, it means that there is a logic to it, you just have to find it! – Needless to say that it is easier say than done.

The Historian, the Economist and the Scientist

Back from Amsterdam where I attended the Observation in economics and natural sciences, historically considered‘s conference ( In the conference, several discussions have focused on whether there was some difference between observations in natural and social sciences (at least  for the sake of history).

bad-economyWhile opening the Saturday issue of Le Monde, I found an article (reproduced from the NYT) titled: “Physicist Tried to Outwit Wall Street. They Failed”, that put (at least for me) these discussions in an interesting perspective. One of the quotations from the main character, the former physicist turned professor of finance, Emanuel Derman, is interesting. He wrote in his biography: “In physics there may be one day a Theory of Everything; in finance and the social sciences, you’re lucky if there is a usable theory of anything.” I take this quote as representative of what many scientists , who believe that there is a lot of differences between natural and social science, think. The question is: does it matter to us, historians. I do not think so. In the face of history, all sciences are equal!

History of Economics as Culture (Histoire des savoirs économiques)

I must say that I feel slightly uneasy about giving an account of the workshop since I organized the meeting.  I will try however to be as honest as possible.

gmdh02_00954There were six papers presented (the full program can be viewed here: – 2 in the morning, the others in the two afternoon sessions.  The Q&A was reasonably interesting and I think most of the presenters would benefit from it. The first paper was from Regis Boulat, a young French historian, on Jean Fourastié – author of several popularization essays on economic topics from the 1940s to the 1970s. The second paper was on Haavelmo and presented by Eric Chancellier.

In the afternoon, Evelyn Forget from Manitoba University (re)opened fire with a paper which discusses XVIIIth and XIXth century practices of translating scientific and economic texts in interaction with the problem of authorship and gender. She was followed by a very nice presentation by Peter Knight (American Literature – Manchester University) with a lot of interesting visuals on the place of the stock ticker in late nineteenth-century financial market culture.

gmdh02_009004After a short break, we listened to Roei Davidson (Communication department-Haifa University) who spoke about the role of the business press as an agent of economic culture. And, last but not least, we had the pleasure to attend to Tiago’s Mata very lively and thought-provoking presentation on the media history of the on-going financial crisis. I was then suppose to open a general discussion, but it was late and we were all tired so I call it a day and everybody packed and went home.

I will not comment on individual performances, although there was as usual great diversity in this regard, but rather try to summarize the different impressions I got from organizing and attending this workshop.

First, I was pleased by the general atmosphere that emanated from the workshop. In particular, the fact that non-economists did not feel the need to differenciate themselves rhetorically from the economists (or the reverse). I have seen too many economists’ conferences/workshops with one or a few other social scientists that displayed every signs of being very aware to be strangers in a strange land (or the reverse) to not appreciate that this was not the case here. Everybody simply presented his/her piece of research without any need to situate it into a specific disciplinary context. Hence the conversations were lively and tended to focus  on content rather than audience. I believe that the notion of culture had been crucial in this respect, because many social scientists can relate to economic culture or the culture of economists but feel estranged to economics per se.

This leads to my second point, which is the sentiment I have from this workshop, as well as from contacts I had prior to it with individuals that could not come,  is that history of economics as culture seems to be a worthwhile field of investigation for those historian of economics interested in interdisciplinary research – I am eager to know the feeling of readers of this blog on this issue.

My third point is a reflection on what I had in mind with the double title “History of economics as culture – Histoire des savoirs économiques”, for the English title is open to some interpretation and the French title meant something apparently quite different from the English – at least several participants questioned me on these issues. What I was interested in (and still is) was having a set of papers that cover two grounds:

1. To consider the possibility of a cultural history of economics, that is to study the interactions between the medium that conveys economic knowledge and its content, either intrinsic or perceived content.  To this category belongs I think Boulat, Davidson and Forget’s paper.

2.  To account for the interactions between economic knowledge in whatever form (text, media documents, objects) and specific cultures, be it professional, artistic or more general.  To this category belongs I believe Chancelier, Knight and Mata’s papers (though the latter can also claim to partly belongs to the former category). In this regard one of the things that I would have liked to be more prominent (only Knight’s paper deals somewhat with this aspect) was the representation of economic relationships and knowledge in the arts – literature and visuals arts being my most obvious candidates.

To conclude, I intend to repeat the experiment next year.

gmdh02_008885All the little men and women are appearing by courtesy of the Gerd Arntz web archives (