Reflections on the Cliometrics Revolution: Conversations with Economic Historians

May 22, 2008

In the autumn of 1957, a group of US and Canadian economic historians met in Williamstown, Massachusetts, to discuss major trends in the 19th-century American economy. At this meeting several presentations enthusiastically embraced the formalisation and analytical rigour already commonplace in mainstream neoclassical economics but largely absent in economic history. At subsequent meetings at Purdue University, the hugely controversial "Cliometric Revolution" was launched and consolidated. This new approach to research questions in economic historiography rejected the "measurement without theory" methodological style that characterised the "Old Economic History".

Cliometrics highlights the need for scholars to be precise and explicit concerning the key hypotheses to be tested, not only to avoid logical errors but also to connect historical investigations with neoclassical economic theory and quantitative analysis.

This fascinating and highly recommended volume contains interviews with 25 eminent economic historians who "participated, directly, or indirectly" in the development of the "New Economic History", although not all regard themselves as cliometricians. The interviews, conducted by fellow economic historians, took place over an extended period from 1990 to 2004. Together they form a "partial oral history" of 50 years of scholarly contributions covering a wide variety of issues, methodologies and techniques. As the editors note, these innovations were finally recognised in 1993 with the award of the Nobel Prize in Economics to Robert Fogel and Douglass North.

The list of participants is stellar. Consequently the volume provides a unique record tracing the evolution, controversy, strengths and weaknesses of cliometrics. It will appeal to historians and to academics and postgraduate students within the social sciences.

Following an excellent introductory survey by the editors, the interviews are divided into seven parts. The first two comprise conversations with scholars on both sides of the Atlantic whose work had an important influence on the emergence of the cliometric approach. Included here are interviews with Moses Abramovitz, Malcolm Urquhart, Anna Schwartz, Walt Rostow, Stanley Lebergott, Sir John Habakkuk, Phyllis Deane, William Cole and Robin Matthews.

The remaining five sections contain discussions with "the elders" (William Parker and Douglass North); "Cliometrics at Purdue" (Lance Davis, Jonathan Hughes and Nathan Rosenberg); "The expatriates" (Max Hartwell, Eric Jones and Charles Feinstein); "From the workshop of Simon Kuznets" (Richard Easterlin, Robert Gallman, Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman); "From the workshop of Alexander Gerschenkron" (John Meyer, Albert Fishlow, Paul David and Peter Temin). The volume is concluded with the reflective comments of Patrick O'Brien.

While all the interviews raise issues of substance, and each provides a different perspective on the origin and development of cliometrics, I was particularly drawn to the conversations with Rostow, Rosenberg, Fogel and North. Rostow highlights the need for historians to "deal with multiple variables" including political factors, describes the 20th century as "dreadful", and worries about the impending demographic time bomb resulting from falling fertility rates. When it comes to investigating questions of change through time and long-run development, North is no longer an enthusiast of the strictures imposed by neoclassical economics. Fogel talks about his more recent research on the much-neglected symbiotic relationship between technological and physiological development.

However, the comment that most attracted my attention is provided by Rosenberg, who noted back in 1994 that economists need to spend more time thinking about the dynamic historical process of economic change. In his view, the fundamental responsibility of the social scientist is to answer the fundamental question "How did we get here?"

In addition to the pioneering research of North, this question has, for the past decade, increasingly attracted the attention of some of the world's most creative and gifted younger generation of economists, most notably Brown University's Oded Galor and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Daron Acemoglu. This research is some of the most exciting in contemporary economics.

Reflections on the Cliometrics Revolution: Conversations with Economic Historians

Edited by John S. Lyons, Louis P. Cain and Samuel H. Williamson
Routledge
512pp
£80.00
ISBN 9780415700917
Published 13 December 2007

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