What is Economic History?
History with the people left out? Arid quantification? Aggregate History? Or study of the essential motivating force of society? What is economic history? Six historians answer?
It is not difficult to concoct brief definitions of economic history; but nor is it very rewarding. It is easy enough to say that it is the study of the economic aspects of societies in the past; the history of the economic use of resources land, labour and capital; or the examination of the past performance of economies. One can try to impart a less impersonal flavour by claiming that it is concerned with how people lived most of their lives, how many were born and died, how they earned and spent, worked and played. Such variants, however, reveal little more than the definition which once said simply that it was the sort of history which required a knowledge of economics (which is true); though they are an advance on that which defined an economic historian as one who wrote as little history as possible for as much money as possible (which is fun but untrue).
None of these indicates in what ways economic history is significantly different from more orthodox varieties of history. And that is what matters. Because economic history asks economic questions – be they about the demand and supply of goods and services, about costs of production, levels of income, the distribution of wealth, the volume and direction of investment, or the structure of overseas trade – it inevitably deals with large numbers, with aggregates. This does not mean that it deals only with aggregates – but more of that anon. Insofar as it does it has to contend with the task of identifying and measuring forces normally outside the conscious control of single, individual actors. This causes much trouble to traditional historians. They, it has been recently said, 'reject the concept of forces as identifiable agents creating or conditioning historical events' (G.R. Elton in R.W. Fogel & G.R. Elton, Which Road to the Past?. 1983). If economic historians took that line it is difficult to see how they could possibly enquire into such respectable historical topics as, to give a few local examples, Tudor inflation, Victorian population growth, or the long-running deficit on Britain's visible balance of commodity trade. Because economic history asks these sorts of questions about these sorts of topics certain other consequences follow. First, those who tackle such problems must have some competence in the statistical handling of measureable variables. Second, they need to understand and be able to use the relevant body of economic theory.
At this point difficulties arise for the economic historians themselves, about such definitions of method. For it is by no means clear what are the relevant, or at any rate useful, bits of economic theory. Economists come and go, usually in happy ignorance of history, and so do their theories. The latter are based upon assumptions which may or may not be true for a particular historical place or time. Over large stretches of the historian's territory quantitative data suitable for the testing of models based upon such theories are often either defective or merely non-existent. Furthermore, the historical economic phenomena to be examined have no existence independent of the social, political, cultural, religious and physical environment in which they occurred. Therefore economic history has both to make up its own theories for testing and also to ask other sorts of questions and use other sorts of methods. It may draw upon different social sciences, for example social anthropology, but pertinent answers are commonly to be found by using the traditional methods of historical scholarship. At these crucial points economic history deals with individuals and groups in society. It concerns itself with particular businessmen or companies, with those who influenced or carried out economic policy, with pressure groups or administrative entities: thus, with Edward III or Lord Nuffield, with Peel or Keynes, with the medieval manor, the economic views of Protestant Dissenters, or with the TUC. In seeking answers to historical questions in these areas the use of counterfactual propositions involving economic models and statistical manipulation is of very limited value, when not either inappropriate or even impossible.
To conclude. Economic history has many affinities with what the eighteenth century called 'philosophical' or 'conjectual' history. Which is not surprising as Adam Smith practised that sort of history while laying down the bases for the study of what he and his contemporaries called political economy and what we have come to call economics. Today the pursuit of economics might well benefit from more of Smith's awareness of history. Economic history itself, however, cannot proceed without using the divergent techniques of both the economist and the historian. And that makes it no soft option.
This question was much easier to answer a generation ago than it is today. Few people then doubted that economic history included social history as well. Economic changes did not occur in isolation but were related to their effects upon mankind. There were specialists in the economic history of earlier periods, such as Eileen Power and R.H. Tawney, but most interest was focused upon the industrial revolution and its effects. This was popular with evening classes as well as at university, where it was usually taught as a subsidiary subject. Students devoured the writing of the Hammonds and G.D.H. Cole who made the most of what they saw as the disadvantages of unfettered private enterprise. To this extent the subject provided ammunition for those in favour of the welfare state. Others, notably Clapham and Ashton, interpreted industrialisation in a very different way. Stimulating debates arose. After the war the subject grew rapidly. University departments were formed. More research was set on foot.
More research, however, meant more specialisation. The subject began to fragment as particular areas, such as population growth, finance, transport, towns and individual businesses came to be more carefully investigated. Specialised groups and specialised journals appeared. Much of this new work was above the heads of undergraduates, let alone evening students. There was more and more reading to be done. In any case, the welfare state had arrived and new concerns were at hand, not least the means to maintain it.
During the 1960s, while the going got harder, an epidemic of econometric history spread from the United States, where economic history is usually taught in economics departments. This appealed to those economic historians in Britain who had been trained primarily as economists; but not to those whose background was in history. Even many of the former, however, came to see that the newcomers often showed scant regard for the reliability of the numerical sources on which their work was based, and, indeed, often did not relate it to more traditional sorts of evidence.
On the whole, the New Economic History further diminished the subject's broad appeal. Those who were interested in its more social aspects, presented in easily comprehensible form, tended to gravitate to political history which in the meantime had absorbed these more attractive features of the economic historians' researches. The numbers of 'O' and 'A' Level candidates in economic history, and the membership of the Economic History Society, which had all been growing impressively in the 1950s and 60s, then levelled off. With the subsequent change in the economic climate and the greater appeal of subjects such as social studies at school and law and accounting at university, economic history has been obliged to take serious stock of itself. Specialised research continues but the results selected to appeal to a wide modern audience is giving the subject a new look.
Economic history can still claim to deal with the fundamentals of the past in a way that no other branch of history does. It still provides not only the good mental training provided by other sorts of history, but also the best means of gaining a deeper understanding of the present and present problems. The training is such that its graduates do not go at a disadvantage in the job market and some soon do very well for themselves. But, to maintain its wide appeal, economic historians are appreciating that they need, today as in the past, to present such basic economic matters as wage and price movements, rates and levels of unemployment, imports and exports, into language which those keen to learn can readily comprehend; and, at the same time and more important, to show how people in different sections of society have been affected by them. In practice, this means a greater switch to the social aspects: not the old rag-bag that used to pass for social history but something built up logically upon basic economic foundations. Given this approach, it has been possible to construct new courses dealing with such topics as the growth of leisure and its manifold effects; industrial relations (not just trade union history), and business history: the study of the units, not only in manufacturing industry, which, collectively, generate economic wealth. An economic foundation, too, provides the most useful starting point for any study of the women's movement. Here, as in other interpretations, there is much to be learned from other subjects such as sociology and psychology. Just as the political historians have benefited from many of the economic historians' researches, so the economic historians, in their turn, will gain from findings in other subjects.
In developing these new initiatives, more attention is being paid to the twentieth century. We are all much more interested nowadays not in the great industrial revolution but in Britain's miserable performance since 1945. This is now seen both in terms of these post-war decades and in a longer historical perspective. It is seen, too, in terms of the living conditions of various sections of society, where the post-war years have been far from miserable for most people. Britain's dismal performance has been comparative and here the growth of other countries is being more actively studied, not only Europe, the United States, the Commonwealth and the growth of an interconnected international economy over the past century – all long featured on economic history syllabuses – but also Russia, Indian and Japan and the growth of Third World countries.
The 'modernisation' of the subject is being much aided by new historical sources. Careful interviews of elderly people, conducted by historians who have gained a good background knowledge from more traditional evidence, can fill many gaps and much enrich our understanding of ordinary folk's social conditions and personal priorities, so often distorted by the writings of leaders and activists. Film and photographs are also available, and now videotape. The promising future of this form of economic history presentation can be glimpsed from the first, tentative ventures on television. The large, keen audiences of the pre-war evening classes are still there to be attracted to the subject.
In the end, history is all of a piece. The different branches approach it from different points of view. Economic history claims that its approach is more fundamental than the others; but for more general appeal, it must continue to relate to current interests as it did earlier in the century with such success.
A cynic might be inclined to enquire 'what was economic history?', for the subject is, institutionally at least, in retreat. Both at Nottingham where I graduated, and at Durham where I held my first lectureship, the Departments of Economic History have merged with History; this is a trend of which I am part for I moved to my present post in the Department of History at University College London to teach social and political as well as economic history, to both economists and historians. The increasing loss of institutional status is largely explained by the coincidence that many professors appointed in the heady days of expansion in the 1960s have retired at a time of cutbacks in the 1980s; but for all that the process does have an intellectual justification.
The initial separation did have its rationale, for many history departments had become introverted and narrow, pursuing the increasingly marginal returns of a particular type of high political history. This was certainly why I opted to read economic history in the late 1960s. This justification can no longer be argued, and many historians at University College and in the University of London have researched in the field and published in the Economic History Review without any formal connection with the subject. A separate identity is no longer required to protect a neglected area of enquiry and, on the contrary, it is now Departments of Economic History which have become introverted and narrow, pursuing the increasingly marginal returns of a particular type of economic theory. Institutional separation has led to intellectual isolation, and the subject is too important for that.
Economic history is still too dependent upon a theoretical underpinning which makes assumptions about behaviour in the past which were not necessarily present at the time. The dominant concern is the allocation of scarce resources of land, labour and capital, and whether this was done in a manner which produced the most rapid rate of economic growth; the process is usually seen as value-free and lacking in conflict. British industrialists in the late nineteenth century, we are now told, should not be damned for neglecting new techniques of production which were developed in Germany or America, for they were using their resources of labour and capital in a way which produced the highest rate of economic growth which was feasible. The motor of historical change is the movement of resources in response to their relative price: if skilled labour is cheap relative to capital, it pays to maintain handicraft methods of production; and if capital is cheap relative to skilled labour, it makes sense to adopt mass production. But was this really how the societies operated? It depends upon whether the skilled labourers were unionised, and whether their organisations were brought into the political system: the relationship between the 'labour aristocrats' of British industry and the Liberal party was very different from the situation in Germany or America. It also depends upon whether the employers wished to wrest control of the shop floor from the skilled men and their unions and to erect a new system of discipline and labour relations. The American employers were more willing to adopt the necessary aggressive response than their British counterparts, for reasons which have much to do with their relative social standing and political freedom. The narrowly economic soon gives way to the political and the social.
My own recent work on housing in Victorian cities has followed precisely this approach of integrating economic, social, and political history. Of course, it was necessary to analyse the operation of the land market, the structure of the building industry, the source of funds, the course of the building cycle. It was clear, however, that social and political questions were raised. The building cycle entailed periodic gluts and shortages of houses which changed the balance of power between landlords and tenants as they tussled over the level of rents and the collection of arrears. But their relative power might also be determined by the legal system which might give security to the tenants or ease of repossession to the landlords. This was essentially a political question, depending upon the ability of landlords to mobilise and to influence the major parties, and their relationship with other interest groups. The political analysis must then be brought to bear upon the economics of housing, for the failure of the landlords to secure redress of their grievances, as the burden of local taxation mounted and the tenants won greater protection, eroded the profitability of investment in housing. This might in turn force the state to intervene to provide public housing. Any attempt to separate economic, social, and political history would have produced an incomplete picture.
I am not arguing that economic history is unimportant; on the contrary I believe that it is an essential part of any understanding of the past, provided that it is not treated in isolation. It is now 'mainstream' historians who have the more eclectic and imaginative response to the past, with their willingness to bring a variety of methodologies to bear. Economic historians can only lose by cutting themselves off in separate Departments or courses. Students may still take A-level papers or undergraduate degrees in economic history without being aware of the wider political or cultural context, which is not only limiting for them; it also has the unfortunate consequence that teachers of history are encouraged to minimise the economic history component of their courses. How is it possible to understand the development of modern British political history without considering, say, the emergence of the business corporation and a managerial class, or the impact of work practices upon the structure of the working class? Anything which permits historians to exclude such themes must be avoided, and this must rest upon a willingness of economic historians to move from their introverted concerns to a full engagement in the wider debate.
Historians, like politicians, often think that the purpose of economic life is production. It is not; we make and sell not as an end in itself but in order to consume. Through the centuries, men and women have worked for themselves or for others in order to exchange what they have produced for goods and services which they desire.
It follows that the primary aim of economic history is to describe their success in this task and to analyse the different means which they have used. In practice, since no economic system yet devised and put into practice has succeeded in eliminating poverty and disease from the population of the world, the economic historian has the sad task – like that of the 'dismal science' of economics – of describing various levels of failure.
Given this task, it is no accident that the most sustained controversy in British economic history, paralleled in the history of other nations, is that about the standard of living of the population during industrialisation. The standard of living, the level of success or failure which people achieve in fulfilling their desire to consume, is the fundamental measure of the efficiency and equity of an economic system such as slavery, capitalism or communism and of the level of resources and technology which the people of that system have available to them.
Because the standard of living is so fundamental, it is important that we should measure it well. Economic historians have tended to seek simple solutions to this problem, measuring for example the value of national income
per head. While such monetary measures are valuable components of living standards, they are not the whole story. Individuals, and whole societies, have placed value on many things other than money incomes; they have valued good health, leisure, military display or long life and have been prepared to trade off such desires against higher money incomes. Moreover, most societies have been very unequal; economic power over men, machines and the results of their work has been in the hands of a few, so that average national income tells us little about the nature of life in a society.
The recognition that this is so has increasingly led economic historians into areas of political, social and intellectual history. The structure of political power and the legal system determine rights to property, to ownership of land and other resources and to the risks and rewards of economic enterprise. Social customs not only shape economic desires but also constrict economic activity, for example in concepts of what is 'women's work' and what 'men's'. Ideologies such as laisser-faire or monetarism shape economic policy.
The need to use new and more comprehensive ways of understanding human behaviour in the past also lies behind current efforts to integrate demography with economic history. The study of such basic decisions as whether to marry or to have a child cannot sensibly be divorced from the study of the resources of the household and the work and living patterns of the society. Health, the length of life and disease, and their interaction with the incomes which people can earn, are also important and the attempt to study them has shaped my own recent research; I am using measurements of the heights of hundreds of thousands of men in the past as a measure of their health, strength and standard of living.
My emphasis on the primacy of measuring and understanding living standards in the past does not rule out the study of production. The organisation of production – whether in farm, workshop or factory – and the technology which was used, has been the traditional subject of enquiry for economic historians. This is reasonable, particularly in the study of societies in which work was life, since there was little time or opportunity for education or leisure. Moreover, the genesis and achievement of technological change remains one of the greatest puzzles of economics and economic history. It is important, however, that the study of machines should not obscure the study of man.
If we are to study man, then we have to accept that we must study men and women in the mass. Although economic history has some heroes – inventors or traders – it is concerned essentially with the behaviour of groups, with generalisation and therefore with theory. Economic history is thus inevitably a social science, applying the methods of economics, statistics, sociology and demography to the study of the past. It is also an essential component of the study of contemporary society, a bridge in both directions between the present and the past.
Economic history can be thought of as a search for understanding of the nature of economic activity in the past. Such study is intrinsically rewarding but also can be useful in shedding light on questions of relevance to economic policy makers. Indeed it might be argued that economic history should be as much a standard part of the training of professional economists as is statistics.
Major practitioners of economic history at least since Clapham have recognised that inevitably there is a considerable element of quantification in the subject. In future, students familiar with the use of computers before they become undergraduates will expect and be able to develop skills in the quantitative analysis of historical events. What is much less generally accepted in the UK (though things are rather different in the USA) is that serious progress in economic history requires the skills both of economics and history. A prejudice of mine is that a joint degree in history and economics is a better preparation for the aspiring economic historian than the usual British approach of a degree in 'Economic History'.
These points can be developed by looking briefly at recent research in two important areas, namely, the growth of the economy at the time of the Industrial Revolution and unemployment in Britain between the wars. Our view of the Industrial Revolution depends greatly on the quantitative information available on the rate of economic growth. It is no exaggeration to say that the publication of Deane and Cole's British Economic Growth, 1688-1959 transformed the historiography of the Industrial Revolution. Recent developments have led to major refinements and modifications to Deane and Cole's work. The upshot of this research is to show that prior to 1820 the British economy grew slowly and that the British Industrial Revolution consisted of a rapid change in the structure of employment rather than dramatic productivity growth in the economy as a whole.
It is revealing then to ask on what this progress has been based. The answer is that it has depended on the use of a wide range of historical, economic and quantitative skills by many individuals. Thus, painstaking work with burial records and regression analysis enabled Lindert to show that Gregory King's England was less agricultural than used to be thought; detailed use of source material and national income accounting methodology produced Feinstein's estimates of capital formation; a sophisticated computer model involving back projection provided Wrigley and Schofield's convincing estimates of population growth in the pre-Census era; the theory of index numbers helped Harley to show that industrial production only grew slowly before 1815; and my application of the economist's techniques of demand analysis gave new results on agricultural growth.
Changing fashions in economic theory have led economists to new interpretations of the persistently high levels of unemployment in the 1920s and 1930s. Benjamin and Kochin have claimed that there was a high 'natural rate' of unemployment, much of which was voluntary and induced by over-generous unemployment benefits. Such a claim has obvious policy relevance today but has been strongly and effectively criticised by economic historians like Hatton.
The debate has several important lessons about economic history. First, a detailed knowledge of the period and historical sources is exceptionally useful in assessing the idea that unemployment was voluntary; a historian familiar with the evidence of much long-duration unemployment and with contemporary accounts such as that of Bakke has a head start. Second, such expertise is not sufficient because the telling criticisms of Benjamin and Kochin have also required econometric sophistication. Third, a marriage of historical knowledge and familiarity with modern economists' empirical work also serves to advance the discussion; in a recent paper I demonstrated the extent of long-duration unemployment, indicated that modern studies do not find evidence that such unemployment is induced by benefits and also pointed to the weakness of trade unionism in the 1930s, on account of which standard economic models would lead one to expect a much lower 'natural rate' of unemployment in the 1930s than in the 1970s.
In other words the expertise of an economic historian tends to produce better economic history than results from economists' unaided efforts; but the economic historian requires skills in economics, history and quantitative methods. Economic history can and should make a positive and important contribution to policy debates.
Africa's economic history is as long as the history of man, whose distant origins are now thought to lie in this continent. But the study of the subject is a very recent event, the product of the last twenty-five years, and is far from complete. Nevertheless, in the space of one academic generation there has been a scholarly revolution which has created knowledge where research was thought to be impossible, has generated bibliographies weighty enough to forestall simple generalisations, and has produced a panoply of PhD theses, journals, and monographs which together herald the attainment of professional status.
Two impulses have underlain this massive research effort. The first reflected the expansion of economic history as an academic discipline in European and North American universities, and brought to Africa a new wave of colonists who annexed dissertation topics rather than territory. The second impulse was the product of events in the wider world, especially the heightened awareness in the post-war era of the issues raised by decolonisation, and economic development in the Third World. The study of African economic history has thus been influenced from the outset by a particular interplay between intellectual enquiry and moral purpose. The past has been reconstructed to make it usable, perhaps to legitimate political independence, perhaps to uncover the long roots of underdevelopment. A sense of commitment can be a great asset, and can inspire work of the highest quality. It can also be used to load the evidence to suit favoured interpretations. Fortunately, there are checks, imposed by scholarly standards and by open debate, which ensure that prejudice and knowledge ultimately remain distinct, even though temporary confusions have occurred.
An awareness of the motives for studying Africa's economic past provides a clue to understanding the shifting research priorities of practitioners. The academic frontier has moved from West Africa, which received considerable attention in the 1950s and 60s, to East Africa in the 1960s and 70s, and to southern Africa in the 1980s, a migration which reflects the progress of the independence movements across the continent. Initially, the main aim of research was to correct the bias imposed by imperial history by reconstructing the history of Africans in their own continent. Consequently, stress was laid on the need to write the internal history of pre-colonial Africa. In recent years colonial history has returned to favour, partly because of its intrinsic importance, and partly because it can now be treated from a non-imperial perspective. The problems selected for investigation have moved from the history of precolonial trade to the history of production, principally agriculture but also pastoralism and handicrafts. As this trend emerged, historians shifted their attention down the social scale, from the story of great traders and policy-makers to the history of ordinary farmers and wage-earners. This history 'from below' has expressed itself recently in studies of the history of women (a sensitive subject, not least for African men), the history of disease and of climate, and the attempt to reconstruct long-run demographic changes.
Answers to these increasingly difficult problems have been determined by evidence, and evidence, unfortunately, is often thin and fragmentary for long stretches of African history. Yet the creation of evidence has been one of the most impressive achievements of African economic history. Written records have been discovered, and known sources sifted anew for data on economic matters. Documentary evidence has been supplemented by the ingenious use of archaeology, linguistics, botany, and oral tradition.
The youthfulness of the subject, the fortunate failure of any one school of thought to impose its dominance, and the diversity of evidence have combined to produce a generous definition of economic history, one which embraces anthropology and political history as well as economics. Economic historians of Africa, like their counterparts in Europe, are concerned with the analysis of choices and constraints in the allocation of scarce resources, and they bring some of the tools of western economic theory to bear on this issue: neoclassical economics has assisted the analysis of problems of supply and demand; Marxist thought has influenced assessments of exploitation. But the best work has been sensitive to the need to ensure that theory illuminates reality rather than obscures it, and has sought to allow Africans to speak for themselves without being subordinated to the mistranslations of alien observers.
The results, so far, have revealed facets of the African past which previously had been hidden, and have established a provisional chronological and thematic framework for future work. Present knowledge, though imperfect and conditional, has improved upon the mythology which preceded it. We now have a deeper understanding of the complexity of apparently simple economies, of the diversity of the seemingly uniform condition of poverty, and of the skill exhibited by Africans in organising their economic affairs. The challenge for the next generation of economic historians is to see how far our knowledge of the pre-colonial era can be enlarged. Only then may we discern long-run trends in the history of the continent before the coming of the Europeans (and perhaps even before the coming of Islam), and be able to view afresh the perennial issue of the impact of the western world on the development of the indigenous economy. Despite formidable research problems and occasional personal hazards, Africa thus remains a continent of academic opportunity.
As the erstwhile head of a now defunct university department of economic and social history this question assumes a peculiar piquancy, since it appears to cast doubt on the subject's claim to academic independence.
Any such claim must ultimately stand or fall on intellectual grounds rather than considerations of financial stringency or administrative convenience – neither of which are in fact compelling. The current crisis in economic history in British universities reflects the subject's hybrid character, for its precise nature, methods and scope, and its relationships with its parent disciplines of history and economics, have been controversial ever since it first emerged as a distinct species of historical study in Britain about a century ago.
Beginning as a protest movement against the orthodox political economists' excessively abstract, deductive and individualistic methods, and their laisser-faire policy views, economic history gradually expanded as an undergraduate, adult education and research subject, despite considerable scepticism and resistance from traditional historians and indifference on the part of the economists. Indeed, it became the only branch of historical studies to achieve separate honours degrees, departments, and professorships in numerous British universities. For a time during the post-1945 educational boom it even seemed to threaten the hegemony of conventional history as the interests of students and scholars shifted away from politics, diplomacy, wars, and the doings of rich and powerful persons towards the more mundane concerns of humbler folk. And in the cold war era the economic growth race between the super powers lent added urgency to studies of the 'springs of economic progress' – i.e. the nature and sources of modem economic (mainly industrial) growth and development. More recently, the rise of sociology and social history has satisfied part of the hunger for knowledge of the lives of ordinary people, while economic growth and development have become part – albeit a specialised and not very prestigious part – of the economists' disciplinary conglomerate. None of these changes has, however, weakened the case for economic history as an independent academic subject.
Given Britain's recent economic performance and current predicament, not to mention her future prospects, a knowledge of economic history is an essential ingredient in an adequate preparation for citizenship. However, to introduce considerations of public importance into ivory towers may appear unseemly, even vulgar, and unlikely to convince an academic audience. Fortunately there are also other more conventionally respectable arguments for a strongly independent study of economic history. Much of the relevant subject matter – e.g. trends in prices, incomes, output and productivity; technological innovations and their diffusion; economic fluctuations; changes in the distribution of income and wealth; money and banking; international economic relations; etc. – are too complex and technical to be left to historians untrained in economic analysis, and these topics are increasingly important as one approaches the industrial revolution and later periods. In dealing with very recent times the economic historian's interest overlaps with that of the 'applied' economist, who rarely makes his work readily comprehensible or appealing to laymen. More generally, most economists are preoccupied with current theories, techniques, and policy problems, and their inveterate 'provincialism in time' – to cite Lord Robbins' apt remark – is even more crippling in the present confused 'high tech' phase of their discipline than it was in former times, when economists were less numerous and less influential. This narrowness of vision and lack of historical perspective is a public menace, for too many recruits to the economics profession are despatched into the real world to treat its ailments like medical doctors operating without adequate anatomical knowledge or clinical experience. The study of economic history is by far the most potent antidote to the economists' current over-reliance on sophisticated theory and advanced techniques, especially if it is accompanied by a strong infusion of the history of economic thought, which reveals the extent to which current economic fads and fashions are merely variants on or unintentional regurgitations of earlier doctrines. There is, indeed, much more historical continuity in economic ideas and in economic affairs than is generally appreciated among practicing economists.
It is the link with economics, rather than with history, that gives economic history its distinctive character and intellectual force, and this demands a particular type of academic preparation and, in its higher reaches, a special type of mental equipment. At the risk of oversimplification, the central feature of economic history as an intellectual activity is its indissoluble blend of qualitative and quantitative elements. As Sir John Clapham said in his 1929 Cambridge inaugural lecture: 'it is the obvious business of an economic historian to be a measurer above other historians' (perhaps 'below' would have been a better expression, given the fundamental role of economic factors in history!) and to this end familiarity with figures' and grasp of basic statistical techniques, and their limitations, is indispensable. With the rise of historical demography in recent decades, which constitutes a crucial link between economic and social history, it is less true today that 'social history is economic history with the hard parts left out,' as C.R. Fay disparagingly observed in the 1930's. Here, as elsewhere, the inter-disciplinary nature of economic history stemming from its mixed parentage is particularly valuable in our age of educational overspecialisation. Economic history should be – as it often was in the earlier post-1945 decades – a required background element in the initial training of all social scientists. Without a sense of history our specialists and professionals are lost, and this is especially true of the economic aspects of the past.
As a parting shot aimed at the general historian, it should be added that the economic interpretation of history, preferably in a non-Marxian form, is still by far the least unpersuasive and most instructive of all comprehensive theories of the evolution of human society. But this is obviously too big an issue to be considered here.
T.C. Barker is Professor Emeritus of Economic History, University of London.
A.W. Coats is currently Research Professor of Economics at Duke University, North Carolina.Source: www.historytoday.com