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 (

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.

Blogging for what? Blogging for whom?

Browsing the net may not be the most productive thing you can do to improve your resume, but it is often amusing and it can be very useful to accelerate and improve one’s research. So I was browsing when I found this nice post on a fellow blog:

From this on, I had a look at Ben Cohen’s two short pieces (links are below). These posts and an exchange of mails we had with Tiago and Yann last week made me wonder about the reasons that lay behing my own commitment with this blog and the reason I feel it is an interesting scholarly-related task. Some like Ben Cohen believe that the main thing about blogs is that they provide for a larger audience and with a new pedagogical device. It is certainly true, but I must say that I did not realize this in the first place nor that it says much about my participation to the history of economics playground. I feel much closer to Will Thomas’s points 1, 2 and 4:

– The blog is a way to articulate more thoroughly the actual perspectives on the history of economic thought than what can be done in a journal or in a volume. In the blog, you can have something closer to a conversation than in the latters. It is much more open than a journal article or even a conference paper, in particular I encourage Phd doctorant to submit comment and queries to our respective post. On the other hand, it has the advantage of being stocked whereas a conversation is ephemeral.

– The blog is a way to speculate about one’s own research and one’s perspective on the discipline.

– The blog is a space where one can criticize the actual state of the art in History of economic thought as a way to create an alternative academic/scholarship culture for HET. This is an aspect that I feel is especially important for a blog managed by young researchers.

– The blog is a way to create links between those who post, comment and read it. Between those who post, it provides a sort of “My generation” effect which is important not only psychologically, but also because of the extention of one’s web it may result in new opportunities of cooperation and mutual exchanges. For example, I am not sure I would have begun cooperating on projects, at least as rapidly, with Tiago and Yann if the blog had not existed. But the blog is also a way to socialize with others either outside our generation or outside our community through comments or various exchanges (I read your blog, you read mine, we both benefit from it; e-mails etc.). Here again, the fluidity of the blog permits freer exchanges than conference sessions and journals and it is easier to get in touch with discipline outsiders through the blog than through an academic setting of sorts (departements, conferences, etc.).

– On a final note, I mention that I believe that blogs such are ours should be first and foremost aiming at a scholar-related audience.

Workshop: History of economics as culture (Histoire des savoirs économiques)

This is to announce that I intend to organize on the behalf of the H2S (History of Social Science) group a one-day workshop called “History of economics as culture (Histoire des savoirs économiques)” to be held Friday 6 February 2009 in Paris (exact location to be disclosed later). The intention is to bring together scholars from different disciplines to discuss from an historical vantage point, the place of economics in our culture. Below are some suggestions of topics that exemplify what is at issue:

– To consider the interactions betwwen art, literature and economics;

– To discuss the interactions between cultural or artistic objects such as magazines, books, maps, photographs, paintings, graphs and economic thinking;

– To consider economics as part of culture (political, commercial, scientific, etc.) of past (including very recent past) societies.

The workshop will comprise of 5 or 6 papers containing genuine unpublished research. I have already solicited a few papers but I have room for two or three more papers. If you have an interest in these topics, please send me a proposal or no more than 500 words (in English) or a draft paper of what you want to present before the end of november at this address: Preference will be given to non-economists ‘ proposals.

Finally, for those who are interested by the topic but will not be able to submit a proposal this year, it is my intention to make this workshop an annual gathering so keep in touch.

Every social scientist his/her own historian?

In the last issue of Modern Intellectual History, one of the journal that I encourage you to look at from time to time I stumble upon an interesting review article by Daniel Geary. In this piece, he makes a distinction between “discipline history” and “intellectual history”, a distinction he borrowed from an earlier and interesting piece by S. Collini (the link is below). According to Collini, “discipline history… offers an account of the alleged historical development of an enterprise the identity of which is defined by the concerns practitioners of a particular scientific field”. It is clear to me, and I assume to most of my readers, that a large portion of history of political economy or of its variants, history of economics and history of economic thought, is still discipline history. Collini (and Geary) contrasts this with “an approach which attempts to treat the history of the social sciences as part of a wider intellectual history”. I have always found the preoccupations of intellectual historians not so different from those of historians of science narrowly defined (that is excluding sociologist and philosophers of science).

There are however some interesting twists. First, though there was an early version known in the US under the label “history of ideas” (and linked to the Journal of the history of ideas), intellectual history in the modern sense is very much linked to the English context (although one of its founding father, Pocock, is an american). It blossomed in Cambridge (Quentin Skinner, Istvan Hont) and Sussex University (Donald Winch, Knud Haakonssen), among other locations. Second, modern intellectual history has originated to a large extent from the refounding of the history of political ideas/thought in the 1970s and 1980s. This may explain why it had, from the beginning, a deep interest in political economy (most notably in Smith and the Scottish enlightenment), and very few institutional links with historian of science. Third, while historians of recent economics have been more  open to history of science (broadly defined) as a heuristic model and to historians of science as people with whom to interact, historians of earlier periods, in a nutshell pre-marginal revolution, have been more likely to talk with and be influenced by intellectual historians. I wonder why.

The Icon

Last night, I was watching TV with my beloved wife. It was one of these police procedural TV shows I like to watch although they kind of all look alike. This time it was the one called “Cold case”. It is made on the idea of a special team from the Philadelphia police department who specialized in investigating unsolved murders (cold cases). The plot is usually constructed on murders which epitomized moments or eras of American or Philadephian history. This time it was about a young guy, about to begin a career in rock’n’roll music in the second part of the 1950s, who got murdered while he was recording his first song. The historical moment referred to in the episode is the end of Eisenhower era, when the craze about rock’n’roll music was signalling the coming liberation of women and sexuality, the end of segregation, in a way the advent of a major revolution in social and moral values in the US (at least this is the interpretation the plot suggests).

However, the character that is the purpose of this post is not the young rocker, but the mother of the family he lives with. “An intelligent and beautiful woman” (says a character in the show) in her mid-30s, she is the image of the perfect Eisenhower-era mother: she cooks, she takes great care of the house and her husband, she has a lot of social activities but do not work, she is beautiful and bright but discreet, in a word she has sacrified the best of her for her family and in particular her husband success. The climax is reached when the would-be rocker goes back home the night he will be murdered to find this perfect mother sad and moody: her husband is not home, he is having sex with his lover, an african-american girl (by the way have I said to you that he was a gross racist?). During the scene, she is restlessly turning the pages of what we can guess was her favorite university book (she had been an under-grad, but then quit to get married), a memory of a time and possible independent life forever gone, now that she is caught up in a lousy life with a lousy husband. And guess what is the book that epitomizes the opportunity of an independent life for the post-1945 war generation of women? Yes, none other than Samuelson’s Economics!

And then the story moves on (I skip the details, you will have to see the episode to know who was the murderer…) to one of the final scene after the crime has been resolved and the mother, who is now something like 80, is relieved because the murderer has been caught (and besides the lousy husband has been dead for 12 years). We now see her in her contemporary home taking the same book, the one she has saved from the other life she never lived, and she turns the page over and over (the scene has a flashback when you see people in the same scene as they were at the time of the murder and now – this is the visual gimmick of “cold cases”) with a nostalgic smile on her face.

The show made me realize that Samuelson’s Economics is not only part of the culture and history of the economist’s profession, but may or should be seen as a piece of American popular culture and history. We should treat economics not only as an intellectual endeavour, a discipline, but as a part of our past and contemporary culture.

What does it take to create a sub-discipline?

This question pops up in my mind while reading an article in which the author, Frances Woolley, assesses the impact of Feminist economics on the economic profession after 10 years (

According to the abstract: “This article provides a partial assessment through a consideration of citations of the journal Feminist Economics, describing its impact on mainstream economics, heterodox economics, and other disciplines.”

What I find interesting is the conclusion that, measured through citations of the journal in other economic journals, the impact of feminist economics has been marginal on the economic profession as a whole. On the other hand, I think that few would contest the fact that feminist economics has established itself as an emerging sub-discipline in the last 10 years. The explanation of this apparent paradox is that a few individuals deeply committed to the feminist economics research program (for example, most of them are or have been in the editing commitee of Feminist economics) were able to attract enough attention and interest to launch and sustain it. In this regard, one may say that it took very little to create a new sub-discipline.

One issue raised by the article is the fact that, since most of the works devoted to history of successful and unsuccessful economic sub-disciplines have insisted on the content rather than on the context, we know very little on the institutional process that leads a research program to emulate a new sub-discipline. It is a shame since, in the present situation of the history of economics, this kind of knowledge could be quite useful to better undestand our options and our likely institutional future if any…

Post-Scriptum: Frances Woolley’s article has prompted an interesting comment by Fred Lee in a later issue of the same journal (, who argued that Feminist economics was not so much a new sub-discipline but a specific research program integrated in an existing sub-discipline (heterodox economics).

Can you see economics?

Most of our works as historians of economics took for granted that there is a clear line between material elligible as economic ideas and theories and what is not, what is a fact of the history of economics and what is not. As a consequence, our community have considered exclusively or almost exclusively facts that belongued to the culture of writing (and even more narrowly to the scholarly writings): texts, correspondence, etc. As a consequence, we know very little about the impact that other means of communication like cinema, TV, pictures to take a few examples might have on the economic conceptions of people (including economists, including us!). Another way to put it is: could we interpret movies, pictures, work of arts, etc., as (at least some of the time) carrying economic knowledge, concepts, even theories?

The immediate cause of this post was this picture taken from a book I recently bought (and read).

This famous photography was taken by Dorothea Lange as part of the Farm Security Administration 1930s project of providing a pictorial history of the United States in the economic depression. The original caption of his picture was the simple and descriptive: “Plantation Overseer and his fields hands, near Clarksdale Mississipi 1936”.

However, in the book I have, the co-authors (including Roy Striker who headed the project back in the 1930s and was trained as an economist) introduced the picture with a text in bold and big characters placed on the top left of the page (the picture is in the middle and caption is placed underneath in small characters) which reads:

There are pictures that say labor
and pictures that say capital
and pictures that say Depression.

My questions are: Do you think that there are pictures that say such things? Moreover, can we think of this particular picture as saying capital? And finally, can we see economics?

PS: I say that because most of the readings of this picture are linked to race inequality rather than social/economic inequality (see for example:

By the way, the book title is: In This Proud Land, it was first published in 1973, I warmly recommend it to everyone.

The politics of science and all that…

The CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique – National Center for Scientific Research) has just published in June 2008 his revised ranking of journals in economics (it is important to note that, in principle at least, only the journals that are publishing mostly in the economics area are ranked). This ranking is significant since most of the French universities and research institutions in economics are using it as their principal tool to assess the quality of candidates. Journals are set in several sub-fields, such as for example “Agricultural, Environmental and Energy Economics” or “History of Economic Thought, Economic History, Methodology”. The ranking is set in 5 categories: category 1* is for top general journals (like AER), category 1 is for top journal is each sub-category (HOPE in History of economics), and so on to category 4. The ranking is made by the economics section of the national commitee of the CNRS after a long process of expertise and reporting by both French and international scholars.

What is odd is that this ranking, first published in 2004, had already been revised in October 2007. We were not expecting another round of revision before 2010. Why things went differently this time? This is where it gets interesting. The ranking of 2004 was the first of its kind. Some publishers and chief-editors might have been at that time unhappy with the ranking of their journals, but since nothing had never been done that looks like it, they had very few arguments to induce the national committee of the CNRS to modify ex-post the ranking, so it went unchanged for three years. The ranking of 2007 was a very different thing: while several journals did not move rank, some were upgraded, some were downgraded. The first ones were quite happy about the changes while the latter were sore. What they did is quite simple, they campaigned to have their journals restored to their “natural rights”. The consequence was that several of the downgraded Journals from 2007 were reintalled in their previous categoryin the June 2008 ex-post revised ranking. Moreover, the experts chosen by the CNRS to make the 2007 ranking were not associated with the ex-post revision, which was obviously implemented at a higher and more political level.

In the HET category, the European Journal of the History of Economic Thought (from category 1 to category 2) and Les Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales (previously category 1, moved out of the ranking) were among the losers in October 2007. They were both reinstated in their previous rankings thanks to active campaigning from the European Society for the History of Economic Thought (for the EJHET) and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (for the Annales). It is interesting to note that in either cases, these institutions are not formely linked to these journals, although they have a long history together. Moreover, these two institutions have chosen to campaign for their champion at the expense of other likely candidates: the Journal of the History of Economic Thought (which stayed in category 2 in all rankings, the Revue d’Histoire Moderne et Contemporaine which never integrated the ranking).

Using the tools of the historian of economics, this can be subject to two rough interpretations. First, the EJHET more focused program of research on HET as contributing to economic theory or at least interacting closely with recent economics is better science than the more open (in particular to SSK and contextual history) approach devised by the JHET. Second, Georges Stigler was wrong and the inner scientific quality of scientific programs says very little of the actual reasons why some individual or group of theories and scientists (and journals in this case) gets more scientific credit than others (I like this one better).

Footnote: the issue of the CNRS ranking of journals is of particular pertinence to the participants of this blog since it influences the choices of young researchers in submitting to one or another journal as well as having a differential impact on the careers of those who are publishing in the EJHET versus those who are publishing in the JHET (or any history of economics’ journal).

Here you can find the three different rankings: