Historical Economists v Economic Historians

Reading and ever growing pile of books and papers brings many joys, none of which is the constant biting that goes one between different groups. If it isn’t Dimmock repeatedly attacking anyone who defames his beloved Brenner, its Vries disagreeing with pretty much everyone.

Academic disagreement is to be expected, and it largely keeps the machine running, but it seems to be less about grease for debate, and more about bile to be hurled which i find particularly unpalatable.

The reason for my sudden outburst is because of a problem entirely of my own making: i am writing my first academic paper. Now i am very much enjoying the process (even if i am petrified that i am going to be laughed out of university when i submit it)and its one hell of a steep learning curve .

I shall not go into the gory details here about what i am writing but the emerging issue for me is that there is a considerable level of friction between what i call Historical Economists (HE) and Economic Historians (EH). Briefly, the former are economists which use historical evidence to underpin their concepts and the latter are historians obsessed with the economy and how it develops in previous periods.

To me these are different, separate approaches which often converge around key areas and set points. To me this suggests the opportunity to breach the gap between the two for a piece of good’ ol interdisciplinary collaboration. From HE we can get new theories and concepts to investigate and from EH we can get the evidence and the test of the new theories. A wonderful opportunity for cross learning that will create a tide to raise all vessels.

Alas, rather than Socrates parlour, its like that world war two cartoon of Hitler and Stalin meeting:


I am still not sure who is who, but you know its going to get nasty.  It seems that the objective is to prove the other side wrong, not just on technical points but on all matters – that the concept can be rejected if their is an absence of data.

Now, granted that appears to be a fair means of settling a debate, and it would work if the counter-claims made where not so shaky and based on  either a) a particular interpretation or b) the same period with its well know paucity of data and information. But because the counter claims are often based on the same set of data or issues the entire process becomes incessantly cyclical. Maybe i am just being a naive.

Part of the problem, it seems we have forgotten that one side are ‘economists’ and the other are ‘historians’; each is adopting the methods of the other but their fundamental conception will remain based on their training. I am not suggesting that we cannot disagree, clearly there is evidence and counter evidence, but i am suggesting that we should perhaps have little more comprehension as to what each side is trying to achieve.

HE’s are trying to build models which can tie in with the wider gambit of economics, and they are doing so to engage in a much wider battle about explaining the development of economics today based on the past. In contrast, EH’s are trying to understand the economy in previous periods, its linkages to what came before and after.

To be blunt i hardly expect either side to surrender, but there are rare exceptions where the insights of both sides are credited. Besley & Persson’s ‘Pillars of Prosperity’ is such an example looking at the contributions and critiques on both sides.

I am not looking for everyone to get along, it just would be nice when we remain aware of the limits of our own work and ideas rather than just pointing out the flaws in everyone elses.

Anyway – back to my bunker….