Economic History in the AHR
Robert E. Wright, April 2001
To the Editor:
It's official! The American Historical Review no longer publishes economic history, at least as that term is currently understood by economic historians. There was no better way to prove that fact than President Wm. Roger Louis's citation—in his March 2001 Perspectives article, "A Revolutionary Proposal"—of Steven Topik's "When Mexico Had the Blues" (AHR, 105:3 June 2000) as an example of a work in economic history. I do not mean to criticize Topik's article in the least. I am certain that it is a fine example of whatever type of history it represents. But I do know that economic historians do not argue that "economics and semiotics overlap" or that "bonds are socially constructed" or that financial instruments "lived social lives." Likewise, David Engerman's "Modernization from the Other Shore" (AHR, 105:2 April 2000) is not a work of economic history. It uses the word "economics" but does not apply neoclassical economic analysis to historical problems. Again, I am not being critical of what I am sure is a fine article in its field. But economic history it is clearly not.
So, I suggest that instead of dipping apples into orange paint and advertising oranges for sale, President Louis and the AHR ought to admit that they do not publish economic history and point interested readers and authors to bona fide economic history journals like the Journal of Economic History, Business History Review, and Explorations in Economic History. That way, search committees can judge my 2 monographs, 2 textbooks, and 8 refereed articles on their own merits, and not toss my application aside because I have not published in the AHR or the Journal of American History. (The latter also falsely claims to publish economic history. Its readers, however, insisted that I supply "historical proof" that bond yields and bond prices are inversely related and that the quantity demanded of a good or service decreases as price increases. That is roughly equivalent to asking for "theoretical economic evidence" of the existence of the Articles of Confederation.) The AHR ought to be proud of what it has become and not try to portray itself as something else.
—Robert E. Wright