A BIG question for history (of economic thought)

I thought that answering Ben’s excellent and stimulating question (in the previous post just above this one) could justify the opening of a new post.

His question was, are there any new BIG questions for history? I’d say that there is at least one great challenge for history: the entry into “e-history”. By that, I mean the renewing of methods and research questions in history, implied by the recent digital data floods: internet, digital personal documents, online journals, transactional data (e.g., mobile communications, data on financial transfers, etc.).

Wait, is it really a BIG question, or simply a new set of tools?

Well, let’s consider what happened to sociologists, when the realization came that digital data could be of importance to their field. The following quote will make this post awfully long, but it gives such a dramatic view on the issue that I can’t resist:

Our sense of this impending crisis has crept up upon us as we have gone about our work in recent years. For Savage, an early sign was in 2004 when he attended the ESRC Research Methods festival. With colleagues Gindo Tampubolon and Alan Warde he was enrolled in a session designed to popularize social network methods. He talked about an ESRC-funded research project which mapped the personal connections and ties of members of three voluntary organizations using social network analysis. The project had proved time consuming and intensive.

A lot of time had been spent finding three organizations prepared to participate, a postal questionnaire had been sent to 320 members in total, with a very high response rate. Many members had been interviewed face-to-face to ask detailed questions about their social networks. Thirty life histories had been conducted. The resulting intensive study of the members’ social ties was amongst the most detailed ever carried out in the UK (see Ray et al., 2003; Warde et al., 2005). During the Festival Savage talked to other participants interested in social network methods. It turned out that one enthusiast was not an academic but worked in a research unit attached to a leading telecommunications company. When asked what data he used for his social network studies, he shyly replied that he had the entire records of every phone call made on his system over several years, amounting to several billion ties. This is data which dwarves anything that an academic social scientist could garner. Crucially, it was data that did not require a special effort to collect, but was the digital by-product of the routine operations of a large capitalist institution. It is also private data to which most academics have no access. To be sure, we can cavil about its limits. It does not tell us what the callers actually talked about. We can emphasize our superior reflexivity, theoretical sophistication, or critical edge. Fair enough – up to a point. Yet the danger is that this response involves taking refuge in the reassurance of our own internal world, our own assumed abilities to be more ‘sophisticated’, and thereby we chose to ignore the huge swathes of ‘social data’ that now proliferate.

Sociology is simply not the same when you rely on panels and surveys from a small sample of a population, or if you rely instead on massive and exhaustive records of the actual social transactions performed by all individuals of a population (this now classic article from 2007, from which the quote is taken, sounded the alarm first). Will digital data transform history as dramatically?

Now, transactional data might not be of prime importance for historians of economic thought. But other forms of digital data definitely are. Many living economists will donate their archives not in the form of 200+ linear feet of boxes, but simply in the form of a one kilo external hard drive containing a few terabytes of data.

The method that we know and practice – go slowly and methodically through each file of a box in the archives – might still work (simply demanding even more patience, I suppose), but the volume of data will invite to different forms of historical analysis as well.

The future look of Duke's Economists's Papers Project?

Indeed, these archives, we might expect, will make new kinds of material accessible: more complete series of drafts leading to the published version of a given work, with preserved annotations from all co-authors in the case they used the capabilities now afforded by most text editors. The underlying data in case of an empirical work, full correspondence with co-authors, detailed chronology / calendar of the work on a publication, all will become potentially available to the historian. But also drafts of grant applications, full bibliographies chronologically indexed by date of their entry in the database (now a common practice, which will be so useful for historians!), lecture materials, administrative records, … should become routinely available to historians, very soon.

The archivist receiving Paul Krugman's complete works, empirical data, personal files, and correspondence, one day.

Correspondence, in particular, will be much better documented. Whereas we had to find two economists close enough professionally, but far enough geographically, to expect a letter correspondence between the two, now the communication by email will surely make available a much richer record of exchanges, even between two colleagues working on the same floor.
Same for archives from universities and departments, institutes, governmental organizations. It will surely encourage the development of mid-range studies, at mid-way between the “big picture” history and the biographical approach.

BIG questions will (actually, are) now on the table:

– geography of science (through geolocalization data and content analysis)
=> can we observe a phenomena of Americanization of economics?
=> is it possible to map the coming of Keynesianism to the US?
=> can we represent the impact of the European refugees in American universities from the 1930s onwards?
=> can the “travel” of a concept, and its derivations, be tracked in publications?

– interdisciplinarity (through scientometrics and content analysis)
=> what was the dynamics of of interdisciplinary contacts between economics and the rest of social and natural sciences? At the individual level? At the organizational level?
=> was the interdisciplinarity character of a research center or a deparment a fact, and in which sense?

– production of knowledge (through many methods, including network analysis and web mining)
=> what are the invisible colleges in the history of economics? Offline, and online?
=> trace back the precise genesis of a land-marking paper in a given field
=> trace back a very rich biographical portrait of a given scientist

One might object that these questions are not new. True, but a new question is most often a classic one, asked in a new way. Look at the abstract of the communication by Esther Duflo, cited by Ben in his post: her big question for development economics is all about suggesting different empirical methods for classic questions. Same for history of economics and the new methods from e-science, I’d say.
I do not pretend that the questions and methodological innovations brought by e-science should replace our existing practices. Neither do I claim that they will develop easily. They have begun to raise serious issues for librarians and curators, be it the delineation between private and professional documents contained in the digital files donated by a scholar, or the question of the preservation of digital files coded in file formats no longer used after a few years or decades. Even the “simple” question of the communication of these documents to the visiting or online historian appears to be a difficult one in practice. But they will have an impact – each of us can realize that – users as we are of emails, text editors, blogs, etc.
So what? If we agree on the above, then one important consequence emerges, I’d argue. PhD students, and all of us, ideally, in history (of economic thought, and else) would benefit from a training in the methods to address this new empirical material. Yes, it means learning a bit of programming and computing science. A New Year’s resolution for 2011?