The Audacity of Hope: Economic History Today

Peter A. Coclanis, January 2010

It’s been a long time since economic history has been a hot field. Arguably the most dynamic scholarly terroir in the profession in the 1970s, economic history cooled off in the 1980s, experienced an even greater chill in the 1990s, and was frozen out of most scholarly conversations and debates altogether for much of the first decade of the new millennium. As a result, many practitioners, both in history and in economics departments, despaired about its future, none more so than this writer, who, over the course of the past decade or so, has frequently nattered negatively about the field’s trajectory and prospects.1 Over the last few years, though, things may finally be changing. After 25 or 30 years out in the cold, economic historians are being allowed to reenter, and, in some cases, even encouraged to reenter the scholarly tent.

The Historical Background

In the mid-1970s, the “new economic history”—characterized by a high degree of social scientific formalization, the explicit use of economic theory as a source of generalization, and the systematic employment of quantitative methods in the manipulation and organization of evidence—was at its peak. From its beginnings in a small number of economics departments in the mid-to-late 1950s, the so-called cliometric revolution increasingly transformed the study and practice of economic history in the 1960s and early 1970s. The field, once the preserve largely of scholars trained in history departments, who preferred facts to theory, inductive to deductive reasoning, description to analysis, and interpretive complexity to explanatory parsimony, became dominated more and more by scholars emanating from economics departments, backed up by small phalanxes of younger historians newly trained in quantitative social science history (QUASSH, as it is sometimes termed). Full of enthusiasm and fortified by computers, these “new” economic historians practicing cliometric history began to reexamine, remeasure, reinterpret, and rewrite much of our economic past. To be sure, the traditional approach to economic history endured, particularly at smaller schools, but the majordomos in the ’60s cohort of cliometricans—a remarkable group that included Lance Davis, Robert Gallman, Richard Easterlin, William Parker, Stanley Engerman, and the 1993 Nobelists Douglass North and Robert Fogel—increasingly carried the day.

In so doing, economic history became exciting, or at least increasingly visible and, dare I say, respectable in departments of history during the 1970s. Never a broadly popular field in such departments, both because matters economic are often considered too dry by the humanistic faculty and students to whom the study of the past generally appeals, and because formal methods and quantification, even of a rudimentary sort, pose significant barriers to entry to many, economic history had earned a place at the table in many departments by the middle of that decade. According to data compiled by the AHA, for example, almost 55 percent of departments listed in that organization’s annual Directory of History Departments, Historical Organizations, and Historians housed at least one member with a specialization in economic history, and in that same year over 5 percent of scholars reporting listed economic history as their specialization.2

It should be noted, though, that, even then, a certain amount of tension existed within the field between people trained in economics and those trained in history. The divide was related to disciplinary cultures—in terms of methods, approaches, conventions and protocols, performance practices, and maybe even in the practitioners’ preferences, sensibilities, and worldviews—as much as to anything else.

The Disciplinary Divisions

To some extent, such feelings and the behavioral concomitants associated thereto can be attributed to disciplinary rivalries. By and large, though, the differences between the two traditions came about because historians and economists tend to come at economic history from somewhat different angles and work under different discursive protocols. These differences are highlighted in a reduced, but hopefully not reductionistic way in Table 1 below.

Table 1. Approaches to Economic History



Inductive Deductive (or Baconian inductive)
“Facts” privileged Theory-driven
Personal/individual people and individual institutions emphasized Impersonal market forces and impersonal institutions stressed
Contextual Universalist/absolute
Implicative Explicative
Narrative Analytical
Parallel stories Patterns
“Thick description” sought Parsimony prized

Such differences are real enough, and have been compounded over the years by other factors. Performance practices in economics and history differ dramatically, with boldness and assertiveness characteristic of the former, and caution and deliberation characteristic of the latter.

Then, as stated above, there are matters pertaining to preferences, sensibilities, and worldviews. Generally speaking, economists doing economic history—or historical economics, as many practitioners trained in economics prefer to call the field—have (until recently at least) had faith in the efficiency of markets, even if history has sometimes led economic actors down the wrong “paths,” as it were, while many historians doing economic history, even in the 1970s, tended to see market failures as common, if not the norm in capitalist economies. So while economic history was in fact at its peak 35 or so years ago, the “house” of economic history, even then, stood somewhat divided against itself.

Interest in economic history specifically and QUASSH generally remained relatively healthy in history departments into the 1980s, but by the middle of that decade things went south and remained there for two decades. Many factors were involved, including the so-called cultural turn, first and foremost. With this turn, which was often underpinned and reinforced by postmodern skepticism regarding the Enlightenment project—rationality, universalism, and scientific forms of empiricism—the epistemological foundations of economic history specifically, and historical social science generally, were called into question. Changing demographics in the profession played a role, too, as did a backlash by some traditionalists against the “quants” with their data sets, spreadsheets, and impersonal, and, ultimately, dehumanizing approaches to history. By that time, economic history wasn’t faring all that well in economics departments either. Ironically, methodological questions played a big role here as well, but in this case, economic historians were often accused of lacking sufficient theoretical rigor, proceeding nonaxiomatically, and producing ho-hum results with little contemporary relevance, much less predictive value.

The State of the Science at the Turn of the Century

And so, we find that by 2005, the percentage of history departments listing in the AHA Directory that included specialists in economic history had fallen to 31.7 and the percentage of historians listing economic history as their field of specialization had decreased to a little over 2. In other words, from one of 20 in 1975 to one out of 50 thirty years later.3 Moreover, this 30-year decline, broken down into five-year intervals, was linear, and analogous patterns manifested themselves in hiring, sessions at scholarly meetings, pages in journals, and so on in history and, alas, in the increasingly abstract, anti-empirical, presentist discipline of economics as well. Although the American Economic Association collects and compiles information somewhat differently—and changes the way it categorizes specializations more frequently than the AHA—the “declension” pattern identified in history held true in economics as well. According to economist Robert Whaples—a leading authority on professional matters such as this—there was a significant drop off between 1985 and 2005 in the number of AEA members listing economic history as their primary field of specialization: From 315 in 1985 to a little over 200 twenty years later.4

Although some economic historians became increasingly demoralized over time as a result of the decreasing numbers in, and visibility, if not viability of their field, fine work nonetheless continued to be done in economic history—by both economists and historians—throughout the 1990s and into the present decade. If none of these works made a professional splash similar to 1970s works on the economics of slavery/emancipation—Robert W. Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning, two-volume study, Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery (1974) in particular—hundreds of important articles, papers, and books in economic history, written by scores of scholars, on a huge array of topics, have appeared since 1990.

It is impossible to recognize here all of the outstanding work that has been produced by economic historians over the past two decades. That said, any short list of economic history’s most impressive achievements qua field over this period would at a minimum include: (a) the sizeable body of work that has emerged in the field of anthropometric history, that is, the study of human height and stature in order better to measure living standards in the past; (b) scholarship, falling under the rubric of the “new institutionalism,” exploring the manner in which institutions, broadly conceived, have shaped and conditioned, if not determined economic growth patterns over time and across space; (c) studies relaxing various traditional neoclassical assumptions—such as perfect information, perfect rationality, and the unimportance of history— to develop more realistic ways of studying and interpreting human behavior and economic outcomes in the past; (d) work drawing upon economic theory in innovative ways—game theory and so-called endogenous growth theory, to cite two examples—in analyzing a range of historical phenomena.

Scholars working in these areas—most, but not all of whom are housed in economics departments—have examined all kinds of historical problems, questions, and issues in various historical periods in virtually every part of the world. The physical stature of pre-Columbian Indians; the size of horses during the Industrial Revolution; the search for “credible commitments” during the Glorious Revolution; the origins and persistence of the odd QWERTY keyboard on typewriters; broad economic/social development patterns in Spanish and British America; the relationship between reputation and contract enforceability among Maghribi traders in the medieval period; information asymmetries and the origins of the task system of slave-labor organization in the South Atlantic rice industry; the reason business firms in the 19th century chose one organizational form over another; and the tangled, but largely biological “roots” of productivity growth in American wheat farming are just a few of the subjects studied by economic historians employing such approaches.

And in my view this is just the beginning. As new developments in the fields of health economics, finance, economic development, environmental economics, macroeconomic growth theory (particularly topics relating to innovation and investment using long-run data), and evolutionary and behavioral economics (including, most notably, evolutionary game theory and behavioral game theory) begin to percolate—some would say down, but I say up—to economic historians, work in the field will likely move in other exciting directions.

What about within confines of history departments? Here, methodological innovations and breakthroughs have been less apparent, but historians have maximized their comparative advantage—contextual breadth and deep research—to excellent effect in a number of areas. Over the last two decades, numerous historians have deepened our understanding of American economic history, for example, by using the social gradients of race, class, and gender to complicate the so-called master narrative informing our past. Some of the best work in this regard has been done in the allied field of business history, most notably, as historians have “engendered” the corporation. A number of excellent biographies of “robber barons” have also appeared in recent decades, and another key development in business history has been the array of strong, albeit respectful challenges made to another master narrative: the Chandlerian view of the evolution of American business, particularly the rise of Big Business. And more and more comparative business history is appearing each year.

What else? As a result of the efforts of many other fine scholars, we also know much more than we did previously about the diverse ideological traditions that have played parts in shaping economic history over the centuries, in the case of the United States, traditions ranging from associationism to the Scottish Enlightenment, and from paternalism to producerism. I should also mention the study of consumerism, consumption, consumers, and the hard-to-pin-down “consumer revolution.” Finally, historians have been doing a great deal of important work on the role of “the state” in American economic history, especially on the build-up of the American state’s “capabilities” beginning in the mid- to late 19th century. Such scholarship, interestingly enough, draws heavily on work done in certain branches of the terribly fragmented discipline of political science, but (until recently at least) much less so from the work being done by the new institutionalists in economics. In this regard, though, it should be noted that our current “Great Recession” has sparked renewed interest amongst both historians and economists on previous periods of severe economic distress—the depression of the 1870s and that of the 1930s in particular. These scholars have been especially interested in the state’s role in establishing rules and regulatory regimes to deal with profound economic difficulties.

One should note that much of the work referred to above has not been done by scholars trained in economic history or self-identifying as economic historians, but by self-styled business historians, social historians, political historians, women’s historians, biographers, and so on, as well as by scholars in altogether different disciplines.

Before ending this section on the exciting work currently being done by economists and historians in the field of economic history, I would be remiss not to mention the creation of important new data sets—the impressive millennial edition of the Historical Statistics of the United States and the wonderful (and recently revised and reformulated) Voyages: Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade database/web site come immediately to mind—and the terrific infrastructural support provided via EH.Net, the Economic History Association’s web site cum set of electronic mailing lists. And, lest we forget, the abiding importance of empirical work (particularly the construction of time series and long-run data sets) done for many decades—and continuing to be done—by scholars working under the auspices of the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Crossdisciplinary Currents

Economic history and, perforce, economic historians have in recent years also looked toward historically oriented work in allied social sciences for inspiration, and have employed methods and tools such as social network analysis (SNA), event analysis, and recursive and spatial-effects regression modeling in their own work. In so doing, they have helped at times to generate further developments in methodology, the robust form of applied rational choice theory known as the analytic narrative, for example.

What about the humanities? Has work in the humanities much affected economics generally and economic history specifically in recent years? The short answer, obviously, is not nearly so much as have the social sciences, but, as always, there are exceptions to this generalization. Deirdre McCloskey, for example, has drawn heavily from rhetoric and literary theory in a number of interesting anti-Popperian studies over the past two decades, Phil Mirowski’s work on the uses (and dangers) of metaphorical thinking in economics, and literary critic Mary Poovey’s probes into business history, political economy, and economic history have proved both provocative and illuminating. A few years back, Franco Moretti, a professor of English and comparative literature at Stanford University, published an extremely ambitious and interesting little book entitled Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History (2005), based on a three-part article in the New Left Review, wherein he tried, through a method combining quantitative history, geography, and evolutionary theory to recast the entire way scholars view the production and dissemination of literary works, even as he attempted to unveil hidden semiotic structures and patterns informing the same. In some ways, Moretti’s intellectual project dovetails with, or at least complements that of scholars such as Robert Franzosi, who, in From Words to Numbers: Narrative, Data, and Social Science (2004), employed tools such as story grammars, relational data models, and network models to organize and interpret historical information.

In somewhat the same vein I’ve often thought it would be interesting to test whether cultural change—whether in production, distribution, or style—in such fields as literature, music, art, architecture, and foodways can be linked closely to phases in economic cycles of various lengths, that is to say, to the Juglar, Kuznets, or Kondratief cycles, for example. And there is still a need in my view for economic historians to go further still, and to subject economic history to the type of formal analysis undertaken for history more generally by Hayden White in Metahistory and other works. That is to say, to analyze how economic historians gain different kinds of “explanatory affect,” through strategies that White, drawing heavily on Northrop Frye and Kenneth Burke in particular, calls formal argument, emplotment, and ideological implication.

Where Are We Going?

Much good work, then, is being produced in economic history, a field which at long last is starting to get noticed again. A few years ago I wrote a piece in which I stated that despite the high quality of the work being done, economic historians were “for the most part off in the corner counting by themselves.”5 This situation is slowly changing, not least because with the “cultural turn” a bit spent, other fields, including economic history, have begun to reclaim territory nearer to the center. Two cases in point: Kenneth Pomeranz’s comparative study on the economic history of Europe and China, The Great Divergence, published in 2000, has fundamentally reshaped everyone’s thinking about world history during the so-called early modern period, and, more recently, in his controversial 2007 book A Farewell to Alms, Gregory Clark has provoked a sharp debate about the origins in 18th- century England of industrialization and modern economic growth. And ever since the world economy began to crash in 2007, economic historians in history departments have come to be seen as valuable resources rather than as rarae aves.

Much the same holds for historians in departments of economics. After decades pooh poohing, if not altogether dismissing empirical work as quotidian, same-old, same-old stuff, the economics profession in recent years, mirabile dictu, has also begun to appreciate the value of deeper, historically grounded analysis, for which we can in part thank scholars such as Angus Maddison, Jeffrey Williamson, and Kevin O’Rourke. The fact that applied economists such as MIT’s Daron Acemoglu are, more and more, incorporating historical data into their analyses illustrates this point.

My cautious optimism about the state of economic history is supported by other “empirics” as well. Top-flight journals in economics such as the American Economic Review and the Journal of Political Economy are publishing more historical work. A few years ago the Organization of American Historians added the classification category “economic” to its annual survey of members (whereas formerly it only included the designation “business”), and while the number of AHA members whose specialization was economic history fell from 288 in 1992 to 202 in 1999, the number is now up again, reaching 230 in 2009.6 Historian Niall Ferguson’s multipart series on PBS, The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World (based on his 2008 book of the same name) ran during the summer of 2009, and, finally, the evidentiary pièce de résistance for my argument that economic history may be beginning to break through: On June 21, 2007, some of my frequent collaborator John Komlos’s anthropometric findings were profiled in a hilarious segment on the smash hit program, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart ( Need I say more?

Peter A. Coclanis is associate provost for international affairs, director of the Global Research Institute, and the Albert R. Newsome Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He would like to thank Robert B. Townsend and Paul Rhode for their help with this piece.


1. Peter A. Coclanis, “The Puzzling State of Economic History,” Historically Speaking 1 (March 2000): 1–2, 4; Coclanis and David L. Carlton, “The Crisis in Economic History,” Challenge: The Magazine of Economic Affairs 44 (November–December 2001): 93–103; Coclanis and Konrad H. Jarausch, “Quantification in History,” in International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, ed. Neil J. Smelser and Paul B. Baltes, 25 vols. (Oxford: Elsevier Science, 2001), 18: 12634–38; Coclanis, “Essi Est Percipi: The Strange Case of Early American Economic History,” Journal of Southern History 73 (August 2007): 589–602.

2. Robert B. Townsend, “What’s in a Label? Changing Patterns of Faculty Specialization since 1975,” Perspectives 45:1 (January 2007), 7–10, esp. 7–8.

3. Townsend, “What’s in a Label?” 7–8.

4. Private communication, Robert Whaples to Peter Coclanis, March 15, 2005.

5. Coclanis, “Essi Est Percipi,” 590.

6. Private communication, Robert B. Townsend to Peter Coclanis, July 22, 2009. We need not get overly euphoric about these numbers, because while absolute numbers are up, a smaller percentage of total members specialized in economic history in 2009 (1.6 percent) than in 1999 (2.0 percent).