Histories of everything

Yesterday was the Amsterdam-Cachan Fall Workshop, aka “research day,” in the history of economics. The venue was held in the seminar room of the Tinbergen Institute, neighbor to the Faculty of Economics of the University of Amsterdam. The room was nicely packed. Unbenounced to the participants there was a secret society infiltrating the event. Two of the presenters were members of this blog, and two more “kids” were in the audience. World domination is in our grasp.

Besides our two papers, there were presentations by David Gindis, University of Lyon 2, surveying a close and distant history of conceptualizations of the firm as a legal person/entity/fiction, and Chris Renwick, University of Leeds, giving the tortured history of sociology at the London School of Economics and its self design as social biology. Finally, Roger Backhouse gave a draft of his (and Philippe Fontaine’s) introduction to an edited volume on the history of Post-WWII social science. One should applaud this project for its originality and the wealth of the materials it was unearthed. (I learned, for instance, that psychology headed many of the interdisciplinary efforts of the social sciences!) Omissions are a disclaimer in such comprehensive histories, and Roger was rowing against a stream of criticism when the floor opened for questions.

I want to reject our academic navel gazing, and the belief that “the dynamics of academia is surely too complex to be captured in a book”, or an introduction to a book. It should be easier to write a history of post-WWII social sciences than a history of economics from Aristotle to the present. The project is feasible. The trouble is how to write it? How to structure your text to stack up the materials? One might structure the introductory survey in short segments. This is how the authors are drafting it, slicing sections suffixed “context” (too much “context” however endangers semantic spillage). The assumption is that academia despite its internal mutation and biodiversity was faced with the same environment. It is one way to strike sameness. But I would look for it at another level, thinking cohorts and generations. Imagine three generations, one coming of age in WWII, another in the Cold War, another in the 1960s, and follow that generation around. For each generation one could select a branch of social science (scientists) to describe. As one follows the travels of our Odysseus, one could remark on how other social sciences faired. The social science interactions would come out vividly from a microcosmic vantage point.

To conclude, I file my suggestion for the Cold War period, be the turtle…

Zotero and scholarship for historians

I just discovered (thx to Micha Werner) an excellent software for bibliography. So far, I had tinkered with an Excel sheet and the mail merge functions of Word, which advantageously replaced Endnotes for the use I had.

But ZOTERO, developed by George Mason University beats everything:

Minority Report, directed by Steven Spielberg (2002)

– excessively user-friendly (you can start using it without training)

– not exactly a software, but an add-on incorporated in your Firefox browser

– detects automatically and imports in a click the references displayed on the webpages you are browsing (like your search results page on J-Stor or Science Direct)

– allows you to tag, comment, classify, link, import and export all your entries (e.g., from and to Endnotes)

– integrated to Word

– formatting styles for journals available in rapidly increasing numbers

– and in a very preliminary beta test: allows you to host all your bibliographical files (pdfs etc.) on a distant server. So that you access all your bibliography + files from any computer.

– free licence.

Endnotes is seriously threatened! (Thomson Reuters, which develops it, tried to fight Zotero on legal grounds – and lost).

I have never heard of senior historians of economics sharing their experience on organizing their archives and bibliography, as if it was dirty kitchen work, not worth revealing.

But PDFs, pictures from the archives, stacks of photocopies, interviews, photographies, correspondence…, all of this has to be professionally, or at least seriously, organized. Above a couple of hundreds of references (not mentionning thousands), it becomes hard to manage it in DIY mode.

Gaston Lagaffe, a comic strip created by Franquin in 1957

There are nice tools out there to do it, and they would be worth advertizing to the students starting a PhD. It will become all the more relevant that the archives used by historians are diversifying: entries of blogs, websites, emails, videos, files in all formats, softwares… digital archiving is a technical business. Zotero has been developed by the Center for History and New Media at GMU, and that should be an encouragement for historians of economics to board the train.

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.



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.



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: http://caraf.blogs.com/caraf/2006/11/sfdhghgfdhgfhd.html)

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