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….



On periodisation: unanswerable questions, questionable answers

From the excellent series on periodisation is this nice piece of reflection – hope to take my blogging and work to such heights eventually.

the many-headed monster

Laura Sangha

The many-headed monster’s mini-series ‘On Periodisation’ really struck a chord with our readers, prompting an outpouring of comments both below the line and on twitter. I have captured many of these in this Storify – thanks so much to everyone who took the time to offer their thoughts, and my apologies to anyone whose comments I missed, but it was hard to keep up!

Picture2The digested version is that comments tended to fall into three categories: those who were prompted to reflect on periodisation in relation to their own research; those who offered a transnational perspective; and those who added an interdisciplinary slant to the discussion. Whilst debates on this topic are a constant of historical research, social media has the benefit of creating a more diverse conversation which encourages broader perspectives and raises new complications. If the debate continues I intend to add to the…

View original post 256 more words

Arguing for history: If not skills, then what?

I was thinking about how i could blog about the Queens Uni (Belfast) VC idiotic comments on History – but this is simply the best blog i have read.


The quiet, leafy corner of Twitter where I spend increasing amounts of my time exploded this morning with responses to the following statement:

Society doesn’t need a 21-year-old who is a sixth century historian. It needs a 21-year-old who really understands how to analyse things, understands the tenets of leadership and contributing to society, who is a thinker and someone who has the potential to help society drive forward.

Non-academics may be surprised to learn that the author of the statement was in fact not a Trump advisor or even a random sentence generator, but instead the vice chancellor (president, for North Americans) of a major research university, Queen’s University Belfast. Meanwhile, historians on either side of the Atlantic will find the sentiment familiar and the source all too predictable. In light of my last couple of posts regarding the use of “skills” language to defend history and the humanities, Dr. Johnston’s…

View original post 641 more words

In the shadow of economics

I will get on to my point shortly, but here a sort of prologue for you:

When you leave a career to return to academia as a student, your friends and colleagues want to know why.

A few weeks ago I met up with a colleague who i havent seen for about a year, he had heard that I was leaving and wanted to know why. Over the last Bank Holiday weekend, I was at a wedding which acted as a mini-ten year reunion for my University friends – who also wanted to know why.

The problem with the question why, is that the person asking it often feels the need to follow-up your answer. inevitably when you tell them you are studying History, then Economic History and then explain your interest in the Elizabethan period, specifically monopolies and economic institutions; your friends follow up question often remains: why?

To boil down the variety of responses into a few of bullet points my friends are:

  • Generally supportive – not one has said don’t do it
  • of a belief that the world has ‘moved’ on from an earlier period
  • of a view that there is little to learn about an earlier stage in the economy

now, I have great friends but the responses have reinforced to me that expectation that research has to have some pre-ordained purpose, it must intend to fix things. The problem with that is that it undermines the brilliance of discovery.

When I undertook an PG Dip in Finance, i was taught Macroeconomics, International Finance and Public Finance, these where the basic building blocks of my diploma and i wanted to receive a basic grounding in how the economy works. I was taught about the price system, allocation of resources, the debate around fixed vs flexible exchange rates etc. All of it from a fixed canon that had evolved and yet hardly changed. I read Keynes, Greenspan and Friedman among others and at each stage learnt models which allowed me to ‘predict’ the economy.

Except it didn’t, learning this in 2011-13, in the shadow of 2008 crash seemed less of an enlightenment and more of regurgitation. However, it taught me a lot namely that there is always an orthodoxy of some extent and part of the problem is that expect too much from it. Now as i prepare for my MRes, I find that since 2013, when i finished the Diploma, the field of economics is enduring something of a reformation. Now, i know that using a historical event to explain a contemporary event is perhaps not quite of the standard i should use, but i really have no other way of explaining what appears to be happening.

This reformation will not lead to bloodshed, may lead to some (academic) persecutions but is unlikely to radically alter anything other than the practice of economics. But, economics is being challenged from within, its orthodoxy is facing its heterodox challengers face to face and new ideas and debates are happening.

To give a selective snapshot, the heterodox (or New Economics) position is summarised best by Eric Beinhocker giving an outline of what the position means and how its has developed. So far, I havent found a suitable overview from the orthodox position, however this article from Project Syndicate has had me read it time and again. Both pieces have me intrigued, but also slightly disappointed, the reason i keep using the term ‘reformation’ is because the authors on both sides appear to have the same dislike of the other. Both want to cast the other in a particular light and espouse the virtues of their ‘true path’.

Much like the Reformation this will be a battle of zealots and converts, with everyone just simply getting on with life; but it does seem to be an opportunity for me one day (hopefully) as a historian to make a contribution. This point was made perfectly in a BBC Radio 4 piece from April, one of the key points is the need to look at the role of economic history, there is a real need for historians to engage here – we shouldnt pick a side, but contribute to the debate.

On periodisation: two ‘early modern’ Englands?

Sorry for the lack of activity on the blog, currently writing a few pieces. Thought the following would be interesting as a stop gap.

the many-headed monster

Brodie Waddell

This is the fourth post in our new Monster Mini-Series on periodisation. Click here for the Series introduction.

Last week I had the privilege of attending Laura Gowing’s inaugural lecture on ‘A Trade of One’s Own’. She told the fascinating story of women’s changing relationship with London and its livery companies over the course of the seventeenth century.

It was a brilliant lecture in all sorts of ways, but what caught my ear was the way she implicitly divided her story into two periods. From my recollection, there were relatively few formal changes in the way the companies dealt with women over the course of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – yet Gowing showed that unofficial norms shifted substantially. Specifically, she showed that the number of women as mistresses and apprentices rose from the 1640s onwards and resulted in a new landscape in which – for…

View original post 754 more words

Contemplating approaches to History

I am currently off work. Two weeks ago i twisted my knee moving some boxes (of books) and have been sat at home.

During that last 14 days i have done the following: i have read, i have played Fallout 4 and i have watched a lot of Time Team the Channel 4 archaeology programme from yesteryear. Aside from my reflections on how Tony Robinson is clearly a synth (he never seems to age) i have been struck by the relationship between the discussions/arguments in my texts and some of the arguments in the programme and others i have watched.

Before i go on, i appreciate that Time Team isn’t necessarily an expression of best practice and in some ways is either dull or repetitive. My own love for the programme came from a time when all History documentaries where either the brilliance of monarchs or battles. Time Team gave me as a youngster an insight into how people lived, and whilst i always appreciated Phil Harding playing with a cannon, knowing where people came from even within the confines of an hour-long programme edited appealed to me.

As part of my general preparations for Keele i am currently reading a few texts which i feel will be useful ahead of my general historical studies i will have to do. As much as i would like to keep focused on reading Tudor Economic Documents, the MRes is an opportunity for a formal historical grounding which i lack.

So this is my current reading list:

  • History in Practice by Ludmilla Jordanova
  • In Defence of History by Richard J Evans
  • Rome by Michel Serres
  • Reason, Truth and History by Hilary Putnam
  • Historical Economics by Charles P Kindleberger

this is an entirely subjective collection of books that i have kept out of storage before i move house so i make no claims or judgements about them other than they interested me at the exact moment i had to make a selection, but they are important for a couple of reasons. Firstly, they represent my reading around the subject of History. Serres is a French Philosopher and somewhat off the wall, and Hilary Putnam is a (recently Deceased) philosopher from America. Secondly, Jordanova and Evans represent a view of History as it is in practice and praxis. Finally, with all of them i have varying ways of writing which interest me enormously.

As i have stated previously i am tend to look at History as both a discipline and as a subject. These texts help with this process and assist with the reflective practice which i get the feeling is central to my studies.

However, watching re-runs of Time Team has given me the chance to ‘apply’ some of the issues which seems to repeatedly arise from the reading. All of it stems from the epistemological, the ‘knowing’ of what the evidence is telling us as researchers. Often in the programme we will have some sort of disagreement which is either:

  • Archaeologists v archaeologists
  • Archaeologists v historians
  • Geo-Physical archaeologists v everyone
  • Archaeologist surveyor v everyone

And as it is a programme these disagreements are concentrated for the viewing public, but they also reflect the very obvious fact that it is possible to present the same evidence to differing groups and arrive at differing understandings. The debates and discussions, from the voracity of the evidence available through to the conclusions of what the dig means generally reflect the debates i am reading about in Jordanova in terms of the practical ‘doing’ of history.

But more subtly, the philosophical work is also being reflected. For example, Serres book ‘Rome’ is the first of his ‘Foundations’ trilogy and its broadly defined as a work of History looking at the foundation of Rome. Personally, i view Serres work as being a work with History, an almost literature based approach to explore the origins of structures and systems.

Crucially, Serres claims to have ‘no method’ as such he simply follows sources and resources and see what they tell him. Such an approach is perhaps difficult to understand but a version of it can be seen in how in certain circumstances on Time Team, when the evidence is different from expectation forces a change in approach either to open another trench or to review the assumptions held. Because of its condensed time scales, a process that would take place over a longer timeframe, is in fact condensed and that process itself relies upon what the evidence states rather than having the time to prove your point.

But i have also been struck at the question ‘why did they do that?’ Putnam, in his works used the example of an Ant which had drawn on sand a perfect portrait of Winston Churchill. Putnam’s work in part focuses on the intention of participants, the Ant didn’t intend to portray Churchill, it just did.

Whilst excusing the Mathematical improbability of that happening, the idea of intention behind someone’s existence is also interesting to see reflected in how i approach History. Looking at the evidence i assume a certain amount of intent on the part of the people i am studying and observing. The reality is however, i cannot be sure ‘what’ that intent is.

A recent re-run of Time Team looked at a cave where bones had been discovered. The debate focused on whether the bones were involved in a ritual process or if they had been dumped. On the last day, evidence was found for a causeway that lead up to the Cave, and based in part on the evidence of some of the people found in the pit being sick or even murdered, the suggestion was made that the cave was in part ritual because those people where ‘victims’ of social pressures and outcasts.

To me, the intention in that theory is separate from the evidence, but i found it fascinating to watch the episode when reading in Jordanova and Evans talking, in essence, about historians and their facts. Taken together, it presents a neat contradiction, between looking at what the evidence states and what we want it to. In fact, as Jordanova highlights, the complexities of causes and impacts across a wide variety of issues from economic and political have affected how we try to decipher the intent of the people we have collected evidence for.

Reading and watching at the same time, it seems that the methodological faults of Time Team are simply a neatly packaged version of the ones we already have in History. In fact they give a visual representation of how History has evolved in recent years, even if the debates can’t be resolved. Unpicking this will be fun.



Obama, History & Brexit

The President of the United States has suggested that the UK should remain in the EU because of a ‘post-colonial’ grudge. This nugget of insight has come from Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson.

Whether you have decided about the EU referendum, our national History is a key part of understanding the identities we create in forming our opinions. Thus, although i doubt the voracity of Messrs Johnson and Farrage statement, Obama having a grudge is a perfectly reasonable position for him to have. Likewise, if Mr Johnson wanted to invoke the great statesmen of our past, or even use Mr Obama’s campaign statements, he is doing a similar thing referencing a portion of his own historical experience to make a point.

However, if Obama truly held a grudge against the UK wouldn’t he encourage us to leave? With all of the economic uncertainty and the potential reduction in our world standing wouldn’t that be a worthy means of screwing the British as Mr Johnson presumes is the motivation, and one laudable bearing in mind the appalling way in which Empire’s tend to treat people who oppose it?

Obama’s statement on the EU is far from using his ancestry as a stick, and more a profound recognition that the world has moved on and changed. History shows us Empires rise, change and fall, but also that our institutions tend to evolve as well. America appears to be grappling with this same issue, following a long century of economic stability and strength, its reconciling the cost of its conflicts and its domestic institutions with the way the world has changed.

I doubt Mr Obama, whose stuggles to close Guantanamo Bay, is judging the British for the way it treated the Mau Mau rebellion, but if he did – he would be right (in my opinion) to do so.

Rather like the legacy of Guantanamo and the Mau Mau, this is an issue of recognising that the ability of nation states to project themselves on the world stage is undertaken through supra-national bodies.

It’s why Argentina and Spain are using the UN as a means to raise the colonial issues of the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar, and they have more reason than Mr Obama to propose Brexit. But it’s also the reason that these issues take longer to resolve, because no one nation has enough power to force its will on the others.

Far from a grudge, this is a friend warning his mate that he is about make a fool of himself at the party.