The impossible art of oral history

Throughout my PhD years, I have consistently avoided conducting interviews. The reason I was giving was that my protagonists were either too dead or had already given too many interviews so that nothing new would emerge from an additional one, and anyway, what was the point of asking economists about their “worldview”? The true reason was that I was totally freaked out by the sole prospect of having to seat in front of a figure of the past, ask a few questions carefully crafted and wait for them to jump in.

When I began to work on MIT, it quickly became clear that this time I would have to face the necessities of oral history. While several of my narrative’s protagonists have been interviewed over and over, they had very scarcely been confronted with questions dealing with their home institution, with the daily organization of research, with the design of curricula, with recruitment, etc.

To overcome my apprehension, I set out to read, listen, and watch economists’ interviews. But historically oriented interviews are not so common. And the bulk aims at getting information on such and such contribution of the interviewee, or on his contribution to such and such school of thought. Only the list of questions prepared by Ross Emmett for his Chicago Oral history project echoed my intent to catch the daily humming and diffuse zeitgeist of an institution. And unfortunately, neither the audio/video files nor the transcripts are publicly available to date.

Then, I questioned those of my young fellows who were seasoned veterans of oral history, and who even unbelievably seemed to take pleasure at such ventures. Questions on the first contact, the unfolding of the interviews, the kind of questions to ask, the traps to be avoided, the different techniques for face to face interviews and email requests.

Their responses consistently stressed the importance of having the least possible influence/ imprint on the researcher interviewed, whether in the initial message sent, the attitude adopted, the open and scarce questions asked, the lack of comments made about the economist’ responses during the interview. It seemed important that the interviewee knew the least possible about our projects, our frameworks, the historical narrative we wanted to supplement or challenge. And of course, oral history was much much preferred to written contacts, even if I had to wait months or years for an encounter. These advice did nothing to soothe my fear and left me with a feeling of uneasiness, although I could not pinpoint its underlying cause.


Then, I screwed up my first interview. Because of an unexpected encounter with my “target” that I discovered would not be subsequently available, I had to ask unprepared questions without any record device and “over the counter,” or rather over a plate of cheese and pasta with two hundreds persons and a pianist filling the background with laughters, murmurs and worn out jazz standards. My questions lacked the most basic diplomatic veneer (So black and glossy/ On my word, sir,/
With voice to match/ You were a bird, sir/
Well fit to be the Phoenix of these days….), and anyway I couldn’t even hear half of the responses.

The following week, my brand new -and still unused- recorder got stolen from my suitcase during my hectic trip back to Europe. A sign, for sure.

These trials and tribulations at least brought the reason for my uneasiness to the fore. The underlying thread of all the tips I received was that the economists interviewed should truly be considered as objects of study. But I did not see them as objects, I saw them as witnesses. As partners. I did not want to hide my intentions, my research, at least not in the second part of the interviews. In case I wouldn’t get substantive answers to my questions, I wanted to be able to confront the interviewee with his history, to put the copy of a 1957 letter from Solow to Fisher on the table and tell him : here’s what he (you?) was writing at that time. I wanted to be able to say “Emmett has shown in recent research that the workshop system was essential in building a common intellectual ground for the Chicago School, what about MIT ?”, and I wanted to be able to consider the response (in this case “Workshop only came late to MIT because Samuelson was opposed to them. He thought the worskhop system was the end of economic generalists”) worthy of consideration, even if biased. And they were telling me I shouldn’t.

Now I’m sitting at my desk, gloomily looking at the stack in front of me: the oral history reader, a book on the voices of the past, a few articles (list in Mata and Lee 2007). I wonder whether after swallowing these hundred pages with like a bottle of Lagavulin, to give me courage, after buying a new recorder and giving a first set of interviews, I’ll be back into the ranks of wisdom, I’ll agree with them. And from time to time, the possibility that the situation is even worse crosses my mind. Maybe deep down I don’t consider the interviewee as a witness, but as a suspect? In this case, will this literature and a baptism of fire will make me a good cop, will turn the Harry Bosch in me into an Adamsberg?


Rudolf Modley (?)

There is a frequent bias in the history of science – and the history of economics alike. We are mainly interested in people who have published, and particularly in people having published in the main field we are interested in. People having greatly contributed to the development of departments – think of Aaron Director and Gregg Lewis at Chicago, for instance – or operating at the crossroads of disciplines are often neglected. When my co-author Loic Charles and I began to be interested in the history of visualization in the interwar social sciences in general and in the dispersion of Otto Neurath‘s pictorial statistics in the US in particular, we quickly found that one man was particularly influential in these developments: Rudolf Modley.

Modley, a former student of Neurath in Vienna, moved to the US in the early 30s, where he was appointed as curator of social sciences at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, under Waldemar Kaempffert (Neurath’s cousin). Modley, after experiencing numerous difficulties, created a flourishing business in illustrating magazines, newspapers, official reports and pamphlets with Neurath-like Isotypes. The name of his corporation, Pictograph Inc., could be seen anywhere in these different medias. As Loic and I put it in our paper: “the American reader was [then] more likely to encounter Modley’s version of [pictorial statistics], rather than the original [Neurath’s]”. One could dismiss Modley as someone who’s only responsible for the little men and women we find on our bathroom doors. After all, Modley’s pictorial statistics was almost completely stripped of the theoretical and political contents Neurath would attach to it. Neurath himself was quite critical of the way his former disciple used his method. On the other hand, social scientists were very interested in Modley’s enterprise. In the course of our research, we have encountered some important names of social scientists of the period (including economists) who were quite eager to participate in the diffusion of Modley’s little men. On the whole, Modley is one of the central characters in the Americanization of Neurath’s visual method, namely its transformation from a tool of conceptualization into a tool of illustration and consequently, its move from social sciences to propaganda and finally, to graphic design.

Though he was the object of only one scholarly article (Crawley 1994) and was briefly mentioned in another one (Lupton 1986), Modley has lately attracted more and more fans on the internet. You just have to google his name to find several blog posts and websites devoted to his use of Neurath’s method. By contrast, when I began being interested in Modley while finishing my PhD dissertation in late 2007, there was almost nothing to be found on the internet. Meanwhile, websites devoted to pictorial statistics are flourishing (see examples here or here). Loic and I would like to take advantage of this recent proliferation and try to gather as much information as possible on Modley from all those contributors. In particular, if some people do know whether some archives exist and if so, where they are located, that would be highly useful for further research. Besides, we would be curious to know the various background of those who have contributed to disperse Modley’s pictures on the internet and how they got interested in his work in the first place.

Craufurd Goodwin

Harro Maas and Tiago Mata (our buddy in this playground and elsewhere) have interviewed Craufurd Goodwin (and also E. Roy Weintraub, Neil De Marchi and Paul Dudenhefer), James B. Duke Professor of Economics at Duke University, about his leadership in the field of history of economics and about the 40th anniversary of his editorship of HOPE — this week there will be a conference at Duke celebrating all this. Harro and Tiago have produced a very nice video, in two parts, with excerpts of that interview that will surely interest historians of economics, fans of Craufurd, and friends of the Duke group in general:

Paul Samuelson Memorial @ AEA 2010

Paul Samuelson (from

There was a memorial session to Paul Samuelson that was added to the program of the ASSA/AEA meetings in Atlanta. The session was presided by Robert Hall (Stanford University) and had as speakers: Robert Solow (MIT), Peter Diamond (MIT), Avinash Dixit (Princeton University), Robert Merton (Harvard University) and James Poterba (MIT). Both Kenneth Arrow and Stanley Fischer were invited but could not attend. Nonetheless they wrote some remarks that were read by Bob Hall at the session.

Solow was the first to speak and started by posing the following question: who was the most influential economist of the last 70 years? He then argued that this is an ambiguous question. If it refers to the world of politics, newspapers and media, the answer would be Keynes, Friedman, among others, and Paul Krugman in the future. If the question refers to how economics operates and what we do, the answer would undoubtedly be Paul Samuelson, he continued.

Solow then went on and talked about many sides of Samuelson, about his broad interest on economics (he was, to Solow and other panelists, the last generalist in economics), about his understanding that the role of economic theory is to make business journalism better, and other things. Two things are worth mentioning here. First, Solow argued that Samuelson abandoned several areas of economics because he saw them going in the wrong direction and becoming uninteresting. Solow took the opportunity to implicitly raising his criticisms to modern macro by observing that Samuelson abandoned macroeconomics for this reason. Second, Solow said that the Great Depression was really an experience that marked his and Samuelson’s life very much, and made them question the stability of a capitalist economy. This made them become, in Solow’s own words, “cafeteria Keynesians“: those who say “I’d have a little bit of this, and a little bit of that” and “No, thanks, not that”.

Peter Diamond reinforced the role played by Samuelson’s Foundations in his training as an economist, and also praised Samuelson’s overlapping-generations model. He mentioned that as a graduate student at MIT he had both micro and macro with Samuelson because in that year Solow (who usually taught macro) was away.

Other panelists talked about Samuelson’s outstanding intelligence and his habit of working hard, but also of playing tennis regularly in the afternoons, about the fact that he raised 6 children and about his unique habit of calling people and start talking about economic models and ideas without even asking either how the person was doing or if the time was appropriate. Samuelson was praised as a teacher (who was good at showing the subtleties of an issue but not very good in teaching the basic ideas), as someone who understood that mathematics was a powerful language, and as a giant on whose shoulders the current generation stand.

Relevant to historians, two of the panelists repeated two stories already known to some of us. The first was told by Dixit: that Samuelson liked telling stories about economists (like Smith, Marshall, Fisher, Keynes, Joan Robinson…) during his lectures and that he had a special affection for Frank Ramsey. Dixit said that in a class Samuelson told the students that Ramsey has learned German in a week, by reading Kant using a dictionary (with my apologies for self-promotion, details on this apparently false story can be found in my article on Ramsey published in HOPE). The second was by Poterba who mentioned that Samuelson had made a very important contribution to the theory of optimal taxation in a memorandum to the US Treasury in 1951, in which he explained and recast Ramsey’s result of 1927 and which was later published in the Journal of Public Economics (1986) as a historical document.

All in all, it was a very interesting session.

P.S.: AEA members ca watch this and other recorded sessions online at the AEA website. If you want to read Krugman on Samuelson, check his blog.

How did Lord Keynes die?


The history … I have to tell you [is] this. You can put it on the record or off, whichever you want, it’s kind of amusing and you’ll enjoy it.

I went back in October of ’46, and the first thing I did when I got back to Washington for any period of time I had been back and forth all the time in between was to get my teeth fixed at the dentist. And the dentist was a great guy. He filled teeth with gold and he believed in the gold standard and these fool economists who wanted to get off the gold standard were silly, because all this meant was the price of gold went up. Anyhow, he’d get me there to fix my teeth and read me a lecture on the gold standard. He said, “Mr. Blaisdell, you know Lord Keynes?”

I said, “Yes, I know him.”

“Well, you know, when he was here last time?”

And I said, “Yes, I know, I know very well.”

He said, “Well, he has trouble with teeth and continuously failed to fix them. I looked at him and I [the dentist] said, ‘Lord Keynes, I think we’d better take this tooth out. It should be extracted. It’s causing you trouble.’ And Keynes said, “No.”

He said, “Well, Lord Keynes, really, it’s infected. It’s a bad abscess, and I would advise you to have it out.”

And Keynes said, “No, please drain it, I will have it taken care of when I get back to London.”

Said the dentist, “I told Lord Keynes, ‘You let that tooth go and in six weeks you’ll be dead.’ ”

And, by golly, in six weeks he was dead.


[Oral History Interview with Thomas C. Blaisdell, Jr. , pp.42-44. Retrieved from The Truman Library.]


This is an excerpt from a very revigorating conversation between five young scholars, on the 6th June 2008 in Lisbon, in a bar of the Alfama area.

Jean-Baptiste Fleury : Don’t you think it’s exciting to be standing at the turning point of a field, trying to set its future?

Tiago Mata : I’m sure there are some people in Harvard who are feeling the same way right now.

Jean-Bapstiste Fleury : Well, I wish I was in Harvard, then.

Choosing to remember

Kathryn Harrison writes in the New York Times a review of Laurel T. Ulrich’s Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History. Having not read the book – a three part historical essay about women’s reflection on history and its male biases – I was interested by a quote mid-way in the review. Ulrich writes that history “‘isn’t just what happens in the past,’ but what we choose to remember.”

Having collected and used oral histories, this passage speaks to me. It suggests that history may be a cognitive science of sorts. We want to find out how the record is made in the minds and in the library shelves.