Inspiration from the past

Wandering the streets of New York I found myself at a street-side book vendor, and in picking up the Letters of the Younger Pliny I found a wonderful sentiment in the introductory quotation:

Familiar letters written by eye-witnesses, and that, without design, disclose circumstances that let us more intimately into important events, are genuine history; and as far as they go, more satisfactory than formal premeditated narratives.
-Horace Walpole to Sir John Fenn on 29 June 1784

I add to that, two definitions  from Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary (1906), which constitute my second purchase of the day:

History, n. An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.

Historian, n. A broad-gauge gossip.

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Getting younger and younger

In the last few, summer, months I have been an unreliable blogger. It is going to get worse. One good reason is that I have set up a new blog that requires my attention.

For 7 weeks in September and October, I teach a class titled generically “History and Methodology of Economics”, which I have ambitiously re-named as “the politics of economics.” The course reviews literature on the place and role of economists in contemporary society from an historical standpoint. Because one of my goals for the class is to develop appreciation for the multiple interpretations of which economics is subjected to, and to the multiple uses given to economic ideas in public life, I asked them to participate in a course-blog. This will be 10% of their final grade. Their task is capture commentary on economics or uses of economics in unexpected places, notably in mass culture.

observer

From my brief, hands in the air, survey, nearly none of the students had experience with the blogging form. So they are learning not only about the practice of observing economics in its historical drift, but also about expressing themselves in a blogging setting. I leave you here an invitation to visit, to comment and to encourage on “Observing Economics“.

Research methods as manipulating actors

Historians of economics are well aware of the non-neutrality of the research methods economists use. Or are they? Sure, we know that also research methods – statistics, experiments, field observation, armchairs, you name it – have their histories. And obviously, that makes them an integral part of how economics developed. However, in this reasoning the research method itself has remained a passive and neutral information producing device. Jan Tinbergen became famous for combining mathematics and statistics in a novel way, in which the resulting econometrics was and is understood as a tool that can be applied by anyone alike. Similarly, Fogel and Engerman applied a whole bunch of empirical methods to the history of slavery, in which their tools might have been inappropriately used or interpreted, but in themselves were have been understood as neutral. Despite being aware that the tools have their own histories, historians of economics have essentially maintained a view of research methods as neutral and passive.

            I want to contest this view. Research methods are not neutral tools, but actors that actively shape economists’ view of the social world. The exact same experiment makes Vernon Smith and Richard Thaler see two different social realities, and makes these two economists develop their own theories in diverging ways. It is not just that economists like Smith and Thaler have different economic views, and in particular it is not the case that their views converge because of the laboratory experiment, data collection, or field experiment. Quite the contrary, the experiment actively diverges Smith and Thaler’s economics. Research methods are not neutral and passive tools, but actively manipulating actors who need to be treated as such.

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: http://etherwave.wordpress.com/2008/10/24/blogging-as-scholarship/

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.

http://scienceblogs.com/worldsfair/2008/10/why_blog_the_history_of_scienc.php

http://hssonline.org/publications/Newsletter2008/NewsletterOct2008blog.html