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Economic History

The Rise Of Cliometrics Or The New Economic History

At the turn of the 1960s a "new economic history," sometimes referred to as cliometrics or econometric history, emerged in the United States. The new approach involved the systematic application of economic theory and quantitative methods to economic history. It was facilitated by the existence of a large stock of quantitative data produced by various agencies, advances in computer technology that fostered the collection of large historical samples, and a new generation of economic historians keen to apply statistical and mathematical models and counterfactual arguments for more precise measurements of economic developments and relationships. The need for economic and statistical skills meant that cliometricians were increasingly recruited from economics rather than from history departments, and they tended to concentrate on topics with measurable variables and more recent historical periods on which adequate quantitative data was available. One effect was that fewer economic historians were located in history departments, whereas in economics departments their distinctiveness apparently dwindled.

Prominent among the new economic historians were Robert Fogel and Douglas North, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1993. Initially, they both focused on the effects of changes in the price of transportation—Fogel on the railroads and North on shipping—and on the economic impact of slavery on the American South. In both cases and on many other topics their results challenged and sometimes overturned conventional historiographical wisdom. For example, it was demonstrated that the economic impact of the railroads was minimal and the alleged stagnation of the antebellum South was a myth. Fogel later turned his attention to the complex connections between nutrition, health, and productivity, and North concentrated on studying the role of institutions and organizations in economic growth.

Cliometric history had its critics in the American academy. Some charged that because of its hypothetical models, which could not be verified, and "antiempiricistic" and "antipositivistic" methods, it was not history but "quasihistory" (Redlich). But unlike the situation in Europe, where Fogel lamented the new economic history was not initially practiced, it became increasingly dominant among American economic historians. However, the frontier of cliometrics did expand beyond the United States. Writing in 1978 Donald McCloskey enthused, "Cliometrics has at least begun in the histories of Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Australia, Japan, China, India, Russia, West Africa, Israel, Italy, France, Central Europe, the Low Countries, Scandinavia, Ireland, and England" (p. 25). In an extensive survey, Nicholas Crafts provided interested examples in cliometric history ranging from unemployment in interwar Britain to comparisons between Britain and the United States centered on the Habakkuk debate on technological progress, the Kuznets curve on patterns of income distribution, and demographic transitions.

Nevertheless, cliometrics moored firmly in neoclassical principles remained predominantly an American school and preoccupation. The distinguished British economic historian A. K. Cairncross implored the cliometricians to bear in mind constantly "the contrast between the sharp outlines of their concepts and the fuzziness of real life categories and between the certainties of their conceptual relationships and the uncertainties of the data" (p. 178). He concluded that in his view "there is scope for econometric methods of analysis, complete with models and counterfactuals, in some but not by any means all situations that economic historians encounter" (p. 180). From the 1990s, the call for a reunion between the old qualitative and the new quantitative economic history, between narrative and statistics, words and numbers, became louder. One prominent pioneer called for a "post–New Economic History" and urged his fellow economic historians to reintegrate themselves with other historians by changing their methods: "Historians are the synthesizers of social science. Our goal should be to help them to incorporate our insights into their developing syntheses. To do this we must make our models adaptable, more portable, and more human" (Sutch, pp. 277–278).

In an extensive review and prognosis of European economic and social history, Charles Tilly and colleagues proclaimed,

As we peer into the futures of economic and social history, our most general message is quite simple: it is time to de-economize economic history and re-economize social history. The de-economization of economic history should include the analysis of rights, power, coercion, state action, and related "institutional" factors; it does not entail the abandonment of economic analysis, but its broadening from a single-minded application of free-market models. The re-economization of social history should include new treatments of the interdependence among different forms of production and reproduction, both material, biological, and social. It should challenge the surprising recent tendency either to treat the three as separate spheres or to reduce all of them to artifacts of discourse. In this limited but crucial sense, we call for the revival of materialist social and economic history [italics in original]. (p. 647)

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