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Whither the Future of Economic History?

Paper Session

Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018 8:00 AM - 10:00 AM

Marriott Philadelphia Downtown, Meeting Room 308
Hosted By: American Economic Association
  • Chair: Robert Margo, Boston University

We Are All Ninjas: How Economic History Has Infiltrated the Economics Discipline

Claude Diebolt
CNRS and University of Strasbourg
Michael Haupert
University of Wisconsin-La Crosse


We look at the evolution of the economic history discipline over the past century and note its growth, decline, and acceptance as a tool, but less so as a separate discipline. We contend that this has not led to the end of the discipline, but its acceptance as a standard part of the lexicon.

Economic History in Europe

Joerg Baten
University of Tuebingen


The speed in which economic historians refocus their topics of study towards current general debates has increased in the recent past, given that the data collection effort is becoming more efficient. So, what could be the main topics of the future in economic history in Europe? Certainly the late 2010s are sadly characterised by a debate about violence. It is relatively easy to forecast that violence, even though it is only partially related to economic variables, will be one of the fields on which economic historians will focus. Moreover, the retreat of democracy and the rise of populist politicians will be on the agenda of economic historians. I also forecast that there will be growing interest in European economic history in countries and regions from which current migration is coming (and might be coming in the future). Not only the general public, but also the economic historians within the discipline are broadly interested in the welfare, health and education developments of these world regions.

Economic History and the Historians

Anne McCants
Massachusetts Institute of Technology


Of all the social sciences economics is perhaps the most likely to be characterized as a-historical. Core economic relationships -- say between demand, supply and price; or fundamental motivations — such as the preeminence of possessive individualism — are posited as remarkably stable phenomena across time and place. History, on the other hand, is the social science least amenable to generalizable rules of causation; indeed, some would argue that it is not a social science at all. What reasonable prospect is there then for a long or happy marriage of these two? What hope is there that a common topical interest – the economic behavior and outcomes of temporally distant societies – can overcome such fundamental differences of disciplinary temperament and orientation? I argue that neither discipline is well served by local practices that conform to these caricatures. An economics without contingency and context is no more useful as social science than are seven billion individual histories bereft of a framework by which to evaluate them. But economic history, done well, could model a path forward for the social sciences more broadly. The future of economic history is as promising as our commitment to hold the two disciplinary inclinations in fruitful and balanced tension will allow.

Economic History as Humanomics: The Scientific Branch of Economics

Deirdre Nansen McCloskey
University of Illinois-Chicago


The study of the economic past has largely dropped out of the majority of graduate programs in which it figured in Schumpeter's time (likewise the history of thought). The result has been several generations of economists locked into a narrow understanding of their science. In particular, economists scorn the humanities. Yet categorical and philosophical and historical studies are essential, it is easy to show, for a productive economic science--they are essential, after all, for physics and geology and biology, and all the more so for a social science. In Schumpeter's time and for a decade afterwards one could rely on the general culture of economists to supply the humanistic ingredient. Samuelson and Friedman were not scornful of wider learning. But since a naive positivism took over, young economists have been willing to be idiot savants. Time to get serious about a complete economic science. It is called "economic history."
Ann Carlos
University of Colorado-Boulder
Matthias Morys
York University
Roger Ransom
University of California-Riverside
David Mitch
University of Maryland-Baltimore County
JEL Classifications
  • N0 - General
  • B0 - General