I won’t be attending the forthcoming conference of the Canadian Network in Economic History due to the issue of timing. (The conference is taking place in Halifax in early October). There are some really interesting papers on the program, so I really wish I could go. The keynote address will be given by Joel Mokyr (Northwestern University) and is on “Culture, Growth, and Cliometrics”. From the sounds of it, Mokyr will be asking what role culture plays in promoting economic growth, which is topic historians have been debating since Max Weber published his famous thesis regarding the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism.
I feel very ambivalent about the culturalist approach to studying why some countries do better economically than others. Clearly culture matters somewhat (as Mokyr’s research on the economic impact of the Enlightenment shows), but so do other factors, including institutions and, to be frank, exploitative extraction of wealth. The economic historian Greg Clark had this to say about cultural approaches to understanding the origins of economic growth: “my reaction… is one of intellectual schizophrenia. I simultaneously want to endorse his promotion of culture, and to run screaming from his lethal embrace. As an economic historian who studies economic growth in the long run, I agree completely that the banishment of culture from much of the consideration of wealth and poverty by modern economists has left us with untenable theories of growth… yet attempts to introduce culture into economic discussions so far have been generally either ad hoc, vacuous, blatantly false, or void of testability.” (For the original context of this quote, see here).
Clark’s feelings on this issue are similar to my own.