Is Economic History Making a Come Back?

13 04 2015

The Economist has used the recent Economic History Society conference as an excuse to publish a thoughtful piece on the current state of economic history. Back in 2013, Peter Temin published a working paper charting the rise and fall of economic history in the economics department at MIT, which is now probably the world’s most important econ department. The global financial crisis led to a chorus of demands for more research and teaching about economic history. The piece in the Economist asking for more economic history is one such example.

In order to investigate these, as well as the historical claims of economists over issues as varied as the impact of high public debt and the causes of inequality, the contribution of historians—who have in fact mostly stayed away from these debates—is desperately needed. Economic history may well be dead as a subject studied in independent academic departments, as it was at universities in the 1970s. But as a subject that is needed as part of the study of economics and the making of public policy, economic history is—and should be—very much alive.

I strongly agree with the normative statements in this Economist piece. However,  I am slightly annoyed that the author didn’t distinguish economic history from business history, which is indeed thriving in management schools and which is methodologically quite different from economic history.

More importantly, there is little evidence of an actual renaissance of economic history taking place in history departments.  It certainly remains to be seen whether all of this pent-up demand calls forth an increased supply of economic history, at least in economics departments. [Management schools are different kettle of fish and there is abundant evidence of a historical turn in management research and education]. Personally, I wouldn’t bet on a revival of economic history in econ departments, as young economists, or at least those who post in EconJobRumors, still appear to believe that treating a historical topic in a job market paper is career suicide. Two years ago, at about the time Professor Temin was publishing his paper, a prospective grad student posted the following query on EconJobRumors under the alias ca2F. I’m reposting it below because it gives a sense of how young economists talk about their career strategies.

Hey bros,

Prospective grad student here. I’m interested in Economic History (specifically economic history of developing countries). Is there any room for me in the discipline? Which universities could I apply to? should i go to history departments? I know this field is in decline but I want to revive it and take it to the next level. peace out.

Here is a sample of the replies:

Sup bro. Are you any good with clits and metrics? If so you’re gonna rock the cliometrics. Aight bro peace out.


Just want to point out this is douchey and makes it pretty clear you suffer from undergrad hubris and have very little understanding of the dynamics of the profession.

Four years ago, there was a discussion of the rankings of economic history journals on the same website. Here is a sample of the comments.

are you desperately trying to get tenured??? you the **** cares about economic history review???

which generated the following reply in the thread

I am already tenured in a top 50, thank you; hence, my ability and willingness to dabble in economic history. I asked about EHR because I am not sure where to send my paper if it is rejected by JEH and EER.

Here is a representative sample of some of the other comments:

Economic history belongs in the history department.


Good economic history work will not get labeled as such. Market yourself as growth/development or labor or whatever fits your particular research. Problem solved.


i highly doubt it is easy to find a job in econ history. Most depts cannot justify having more than one economic historian, but they can usually justify having multiple people in almost any other field.


Acemoglu shits on economic historians [The implication is that you want to defer to the wisdom of Daron Acemoglu, who is some sort of living god].


Historians, who look at economic history, suck ( e.g. Nial “asshole” Ferguson)

Economists, who care about history, rule (e.g. Barry “next Nobel” Eichengreen)

[AS: I would agree that Eichengreen’s books are superb on many levels. Enjoyable to read.]


My analysis of the Econ History field as that it’s very club-ish. That is, it’s a hard field to enter if you didn’t have a Fishback-like adviser.


Econ history journals don’t tend to rank as highly as other top field journals (e.g. macro) so that’s something to keep in mind if you are sending something there.

For the record, the journals the economists considered worthy of some respect were the Journal of Economic History, Explorations in Economic History, European Review of Economic History, and Cliometrica. Cliometrica was considered the fastest-rising journal in the field. Somewhat tellingly, the economists on EconJobRumors do not appear to think much about the Economic History Review, the journal of the Economic History Society.

Similarly, economic history is basically dead in history departments for a variety of demand-side and supply-side reasons. Historians who work on economic-historical and business-historical topics tend to migrate out to more lucrative fields. Moreover, demographic renewal in history departments means that the level of interest/literacy in economic historical topics in the historical profession is now quite low, which means that it may be difficult to get hired, rapidly promoted, etc.

If it were a stock, I would try to find some way of shorting economic history.

Is Business History Now Sexy?

7 04 2013

For the longest while, business history was deeply unfashionable in North American history departments. Indeed, many of the people doing research on business history migrated to other disciplines. That’s changing, as the New York Times reports on page A1 of today’s city edition. See here.

After decades of “history from below,” focusing on women, minorities and other marginalized people seizing their destiny, a new generation of scholars is increasingly turning to what, strangely, risked becoming the most marginalized group of all: the bosses, bankers and brokers who run the economy.

Even before 2008, classes dealing with the history of capitalism were starting to make their way back into the curriculum. The GFC accelerated this trend for a number of reasons, the most important of which, I think, the frequency with which journalists and policymakers compared the crisis to the 1929 stock market crash.

The article discusses the growing community of scholars who teach history majors about the history of business. Photographs of Julia Ott, Stephen Mihm, and Bethany Moreton are included.  These historians are members of the Business History Conference. Many scholars today identify with the label “history of capitalism” rather than “business history” and approach the study of the past with a set of assumptions very different from that of traditional  business history associated with Alfred Chandler. Fairly typical of the new type of business history is Bethany Moreton’s fascinating book To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise (Harvard University Press, 2009).This book is a cultural history of Wal-Mart that shows how evangelical Protestantism was used to justify the free market and to attack the cultural and political foundations of the New Deal. It’s about an alliance of Deep South entrepreneurs, largely female evangelical employees, and free-market ideologues. Moreton’s research combines an interest in business history with the study of gender and religion. It is also decidedly non-celebratory, in sharp contrast to some earlier works in the field.  Indeed, the book’s page on the HUP website notes that “The author has assigned her royalties and subsidiary earnings to Interfaith Worker Justice and its local affiliate in Athens, GA, the Economic Justice Coalition.” 

Business history, which has the company as its basic unit of analysis, should not be confused with econometric history, which is both far more quantitative and interested in macro developments. (I’m currently at the Economic History Society Conference and have been listening to presentations by both econometric historians as well as narrative business historians. It is fascinating watching the two groups in dialogue). However, my impression is that economic history is increasingly important in economics departments.   Business history of a type is also being re-integrated into the curriculum of many management schools. The Rotman School of Business in Toronto has committed to nurturing Canadian business history.