Economists writing history : American and French experience in the mid 20th century
If one considers the fortunes of economic history in the 20th century U.S., the 1940s, 50s and 60s stand out as a particularly vibrant time for the field and economists’ contributions to it. These decades saw the creation of the main association and journals - the Economic History Association, the Journal of Economic History for example – and the launching of large research programs – Harvard’s history of entrepreneurship, Simon Kuznets’ retrospective accounts, cliometrics for example. Why did American economists write so much history in the decades immediately following WWII, and why and how did this change with cliometrics? To answer these questions I use interviews with scholars who were active in the mid 20th century, their publications and archival material. The bulk of the analysis focuses on the U.S., yet it relies in part on a comparison with France where economic history also experienced a golden period at this time, though it involved few economists. Instead it was the domain of Annales historians. This comparison sheds light on the ways in which the labels “economist” and “historian” changed meaning throughout the period of study. Economists’ general interest for history is best understood as a part of an ongoing debate on scientific method, specifically about whether and how to observe and what constitutes reliable empirical evidence. These debates contributed both to draw social scientists to history, and change the way they wrote history. In the U.S. the mid 20th century surge in economist-history was principally due to the post-war demand for knowledge about growth and development. The sense of urgency that came with this task increased scholars’ willingness to work with estimated (as opposed to found) data. This was reinforced by American economists’ experience in war planning and ensuing spread of an operations research mentality among graduate students. The issue of whether or not to estimate became a new demarcation line between “historians” and “economists”. By the late 1960s, scholars who wanted to turn to the past to observe economies evolve over several decades, and let these facts “speak for themselves” had largely been replaced by researchers who used modern economic theory to frame historical investigation, and relied on quantification and estimation as their main empirical inputs.