Theory and Historians

17 04 2012

“Historians vs economists” is the title of a recent post on The Economist’s Buttonwood blog. The post was occasioned by a hostile review of Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty by Dominic Sandbrook in the Sunday Times. Acemoglu and Robinson are economists who apply the NIE to a wide range of historical societies. Dominic Sandbrook has a PhD in history. Judging by his review, Sandbrook objects to the efforts by Acemoglu and Robinson to apply a broad theory of social change to a wide range of societies. Sandbrook  broadens his attack to include Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel and Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. Diamond is a biologist and Pinker is a psychologist and both apply theories derived from their respective disciplines to the study of historical human societies. As the editor of the Buttonwood points out, Sandbrook appears to object to people who aren’t trained historians writing works of history.

Now I have a lot of respect for Sandbrook. Personally, I think that his decision to give up his academic post at the University of Sheffield and become a freelance historian took a lot of guts. It paid out in the end because he ended up publishing lots of high quality popular histories. However, I think that he is totally wrong about this particular point. Sandbrook is fundamentally hostile to the application of social theory to the craft of history. Sandbrook writes narrative histories of the recent past that are filled with great observational detail. It’s empirical history at its finest.

Sandbrook’s approach isn’t the only way to write good history. In fact, I believe that the best works of history are those that engage with theory and use the historical record to test the veracity of the various theories of society that other social scientists have developed. (I suppose my attitude stems from the fact I did my PhD in a history department that was located in a social science faculty). Where would the sub-disciplines of economic history, business history, and environmental history be without the application of theory?



5 responses

17 04 2012

Judging by the few ungated quotes alone, Sandbrook does indeed overstate his case against Acemoglu et. al, though I doubt he ever seriously argued for a non-theoretical approach to history; his main issue seems to be with the tendency of some social scientists to shoehorn the entire human experience into some mono-causal grand explanation.

Your post reminded me of debates within the field of African Economic History sparked by one of Acemoglu et al.’s previous contributions (The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development). You may find this literature interesting – the critiques are, to my mind, devastating in a way that Sandbrook’s is not, but you should of course judge for yourself (sorry, no quick internet sources, only scholarly articles here, though some are available as working papers):

Austin, Gareth. 2007. “Reciprocal Comparison and African History: Tackling Conceptual Eurocentrism in the Study of Africa’s Economic Past.” African Studies Review 50 (3): 1–28.

Hopkins, A.G. 2009. “The New Economic History of Africa.” Journal of African History 50 (2): 155–177.

Fenske, James. 2010. “The Causal History of Africa: a Response to Hopkins.” Economic History of Developing Regions 25 (2): 177–212.

Hopkins, Antony G. 2011. “Causes and Confusions in African History.” Economic History of Developing Regions 26 (2): 107–110.

Jerven, Morten. 2011. “A Clash of Disciplines? Economists and Historians Approaching the African Past.” Economic History of Developing Regions 26 (2): 111–124.

Fenske, James. 2011. “The Causal History of Africa: Replies to Jerven and Hopkins.” Economic History of Developing Regions 26 (2): 125–131.

17 04 2012

The gated version suggests that Sandbrook is pretty hostile to quantitative social scientists trying to muscle into historians’ territory.

You are right that mono-causal explanations of the sort offered by Acemoglu et al. are a problem, but that’s not what Steven Pinker provides. His explanation for the decline in violence is multifactor.

For the record, I’m not persuaded by Acemoglu and Robinson’s theory, which seems like a warmed-over version of what Douglass North used to say. However, the problems with their simplistic theory do not legitimate going on a diatribe against the application of social science theory _in general_ into history.

Thanks for the list of sources!

24 04 2012
Stephanie Decker

If I can add one more title to the reading list: Gareth Austen’s the compression of history (I think in the Journal of Development Studies) which unpacks masterfully what precisely is a-historical about AJR’s approach in ‘colonial origins’.
The problem we have as historians is that we obviously come in different ‘flavours’ – but as we rarely discuss our theoretical and methodological rationales, many disagreements seem to become politicised. But beyond all of that, I think there is also a common understanding as to what is ‘a-historical’, even if we disagree on the usefulness social science theories in history.
Compare for example Ken Pomeranz’s ‘The Great Divergence’ to AJR’s ‘Reversal of Fortune’ – both deal with very long time periods, yet Pomeranz knows that few categories of human understanding remain constant over time. Hence he looks at changes in factors of production, which remain far more constant across human societies, instead of an inherently variable concept such as colonialism, which AJR use (a-historically).

26 04 2012

Thanks for bringing up Pomeranz! The point of my original post was not to defend any particular theorist, but to defend the application of theories in general to history.

15 11 2013

Of course some might say that an analysis of history based on infrastructural factors is a Marxist approach 🙂

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