Outlook poor for a once rich group

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History
October 29, 2004

Peter Wardley ponders why business studies is flourishing but economic history is languishing.

We consume goods and services far beyond the dreams of our grandparents. We enjoy the fruits of enormous wealth, largely a store of knowledge that has enhanced productivity immensely, but its causes and consequences are all too easily taken for granted. The past century saw economic change in excess of all that had gone before. Even among those who do not experience personally the high standards of living achieved in the developed world, few remain unaware of its potential and almost no one is untouched by its products. And yet the nature of this achievement, from which we benefit daily, is frequently underappreciated and its origins go often unremarked.

While the evolution of economic activity, that which Alfred Marshall called the "ordinary business of life", attracts the attention of academics from a wide variety of disciplines, it is the vocation of the economic historian to explain the factors that have accounted for the achievement of this abundance.

The story of mankind's productive endeavours is a vast enterprise and any attempt to capture it, even in summary form, can be described only as hugely ambitious. In 1894, when Macmillan published the first part of R. H. Inglis Palgrave's three-volume Dictionary of Political Economy , economics remained a unified field. The parting of the ways for economics, economic history and business studies might be discerned in the near distance, but this crossroads had yet to be reached. Palgrave, as editor, successfully assembled a comprehensive survey that brought together a host of erudite and authoritative entries. Internationally acknowledged experts provided succinct and pithy surveys of economic theory, historiography, legal definitions, quantitative methods, methodology and statistical data and numerous biographical essays.

It received an enthusiastic reception from professional economists and the reading public alike, though, inevitably, some entries were contested. Retrospectively, some of its reflections on the nature of and prospects for economics appear perhaps misguided, yet the eclectic nature of the Dictionary ensured that it was generally accepted for half a century as the discipline's essential reference work. Palgrave had established a standard against which subsequent publications should be judged.

Since then, economic histor-ians have not been served badly by reference works and those fortunate enough to have access to a series of editions have to hand a rich stock of material. The Encyclopedia Britannica , the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences , and, to cast the net more broadly, the exemplary Gran Enciclopedia Catalana all provide valuable material. A more specialist approach was demonstrated by Glen Porter's Encyclopedia of American Economic History , which included a survey of methodological developments, albeit with a deliberately circumscribed geographical focus.

It is a measure of the enduring influence of Palgrave's project that, first, the Revised Palgrave's Dictionary of Political Economy , edited by Henry Higgs, appeared in the early 1920s and then, in 1987, The New Palgrave: A Dictionary of Economics was published. The deletion of the term political economy was significant and some even questioned the intellectual succession and the commercial advantage bestowed by the eponymous title. Another indicator of change in the discipline was the inclusion by the editors of the New Palgrave , John Eatwell, Murray Milgate and Peter Newman, of but five entries specifically dedicated to a now-marginalised economic history. This paucity, however, was tempered by the seminal nature of these contributions and the inclusion of a generous allocation of biographical entries that reviewed the careers of academics easily recognised as economic historians.

Over the past half century, the discipline of economic history has run the full course of the product cycle. If its infancy can be dated from the era of intellectual excitement fermented in the late Victorian and Edwardian era, coincident with the "Old" Palgrave , its adolescence coincided with the growing popularity of adult education, especially the classes provided by the Workers' Education Association, which prospered in the challenging times of interwar Britain. After the Second World War, the subject prospered and grew to the extent that by the 1970s there was a score of economic history departments among the "pre-1993" universities.

Furthermore, economic history now had a strong presence in the new polytechnics and colleges. What had originally been largely the preserve of Manchester University and the London School of Economics had blossomed across the nation. The original interest in the unique conditions of the British Industrial Revolution became more generalised as memories of economic depression receded and prospects of world economic development came to the fore.

However, after a very short period of maturity, economic history was then to suffer an institutional blow from which it may never recover in Britain.

The election of Margaret Thatcher's Government, which heralded increased economic stringency in university finances, coincided with the onset of the retirement of many of the professors who, earlier in their careers, had established or nurtured the new academic centres. Both the age profiles and the relatively small size of economic history departments made them more than ripe for the picking by hard-pressed university administrators obliged to cut costs and rationalise ever-larger units of educational provision.

And cut they were. In Britain today there remains only one economic history department, at the London School of Economics, though degrees in economic history can also be taken at Edinburgh University and, upholding that city's long tradition, Manchester Metropolitan University. There is also a quasi-independent department of economic and social history at Glasgow University, though degrees in economic and social history are also awarded at Birmingham and Aberystwyth universities.

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History is silent on all these aspects of the discipline's history. Pioneers, including William Ashley, Arthur L. Bowley, G. D. H. Cole, Douglas Knoop and Thorold Rogers, escape its view.

No mention is given to the many scholars closely associated with its British heyday, including architects of the now-deceased departments - William Ashworth, W. A. (Max) Cole, Peter Payne and John Saville. The failure to include biographies of scholars of international standing, including, for example, Carlo Cipolla, Sidney Pollard and Brinley Thomas, can only prompt questions about the extent of coverage for those parts of the globe where English is not the native tongue. And here, to say the least, there is great scope for further development.

This is much less the case for the economic history of the US, where slavery, the economic impact of the railroads, industrialisation and the growth of the modern corporation and public administration all receive excellent coverage. However, this too is not unproblematic. Two-thirds of the entry on "Agricultural labour" rehearses the economics of slavery. In three of four separate sub-entries on the oil industry, each written by the same author, we learn that in 1930 Columbus M. "Dad" Joiner discovered the East Texas field. By contrast, the discovery of North Sea oil is reported briefly and without any assessment of its subsequent impact on the British economy.

While "Americanisation" does not appear as an entry, itsinfluence here is pervasive. This is in large part attributable to the impact of the cliometricians. First coined as a term of mild rebuke, cliometrics is defined here by Robert Whaples as the "application of economic theory and quantitative methods to study history". It has a third characteristic that not only separates its practitioners from most contemporary economists but also makes it a little more palatable to history undergraduates. To apply statistical techniques to test theory it is necessary to find data and this obligation has been undertaken amply, in a wide variety of contexts, by many of its advocates.

And yet there is an enigma here. Statistical information is in short supply. Furthermore, where it does appear it is often in the form of the newest series that best fits an econometric model. In particular, Angus Maddison's fabulous national income constructs for the 19th century, which feature an Irish population that steadily increases and an Imperial Germany that excludes Prussia, are preferred to more conventional sources that enumerate population, production and trade. This choice also reflects a more general rejection of political economy. Politicians, interventionist policies and non-market institutions tend to get short shrift. Winston Churchill appears only to contextualise Ernest Bevin's role as wartime Government Minister and not as the Chancellor of the Exchequer who implemented Sterling's return to the Gold Standard. Also absent is Inglis Palgrave. Perhaps a truly encyclopaedic gaze should capture such aspects of economic history.

Finally, to be authoritative, a reference work has to select not only the major themes but also be correct with the embroidering facts. Here the devil is in the detail. And entries faltering on this count have a corrosive effect. One entry begins: "The words child labor evoke the image of British novelist Charles Dickens's 'dark satanic mill'." However, this phrase was penned by William Blake and the objects of his ire were definitely not the cotton factories of northern England but, most likely, contemporary universities. The career of John Smeaton, pioneering 18th-century civil engineer, is well described, but his Forth and Clyde canal was hardly "the first British Canal to cross a watershed" as this had been achieved 1,600 years earlier by the anonymous architect of the Roman Fosse dyke.

If these examples illustrate a somewhat cavalier approach to literature and to pre-industrial history, my third example illustrates an expert's warning ignored. In The Dictionary of Business Biography , Theo Barker wrote that it was "one of the most remarkable coincidences of modern British business history" that Alastair Pilkington, pioneer of glass production by the float process, was "not related in any way to the St Helen's Pilkingtons". Heedless of this caution, in the Encyclopedia 's entry on the Pilkington family, the retirement of Alastair Pilkington as company chairman dates the end of family control in 1980.

Will this Encyclopedia make a difference? At the very time when high levels of mass consumption became a realistic prospect for most Britons, economic history lost its appeal as students found more attractive areas of studies, including, first, social history and, more recently, business studies and cultural and media studies. Although economic history courses continue to be taught, and research in economic history continues to be undertaken, almost invariably this is administered by departments of history. Will today's students be inspired by a recipe book so obviously catering for such foreign tastes? Despite its obvious and numerous strong points, I doubt it. I am afraid that Joel Mokyr and his enthusiastic collaborators are unlikely to foster enhanced excitement for what is now a decidedly minority taste in Britain.

Peter Wardley taught in seven departments of economic history and is now principal lecturer in modern economic and business history, University of the West of England.

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History

Author - Joel Mokyr
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 2,730, five vols
Price - £450.00
ISBN - 0 19 510507 9

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