Economic History

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Economic history is the study of how economic phenomena evolved in the past. Analysis in economic history is undertaken using a combination of historical methods, statistical methods and by applying economic theory to historical situations. The topic includes business history and overlaps with areas of social history such as demographic history and labor history. Quantitative economic history is also referred to as cliometrics.


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Development as a separate field


Treating economic history as a legitimate separate academic discipline has been a contentious issue for many years. Academics at the London School of Economics and the University of Cambridge had numerous duels over the separation of economics and economic theory in the interwar era. Cambridge economists believed that pure economics involved a component of economic history and that the two were inseparably entangled. Those at the LSE believed that economic history warranted its own courses, research agenda and academic department separated from mainstream economics.


In the initial period of the subject's development, the LSE position of separating economic history from economics won out. Many universities in the UK developed independent programs in economic history rooted in the LSE model. Indeed, The Economic History Society had its inauguration at LSE in 1926. However, the past twenty years have witnessed the widespread closure of these separate programs in the UK and the integration of the discipline into either history or economics departments. Only the LSE and the University of Glasgow retain separate economic history departments and stand-alone undergraduate and graduate programs in economic history. The University of Warwick now has the greatest number of economic historians working in an economics department anywhere in the UK, but has virtually no PhD students specializing in the subject. The LSE, Glasgow and the University of Oxford together train the vast majority of economic historians coming through the British university system.


In the US, economic history has for a long time been regarded as a form of applied economics. As a consequence, there are no specialist economic history graduate programs at any mainstream university anywhere in the country. Instead economic history is taught as a special field component of regular economics PhD programs in some places, including at University of California, Berkeley, Harvard University, and Yale University.


Relationship between economics and economic history


Yale University economist Irving Fisher wrote in 1933 on the relationship between economics and economic history in his 'Debt-Deflation Theory of Great Depressions' (Econometrica, Vol.1, No.4: 337-338): 'The study of dis-equilibrium may proceed in either of two ways. We may take as our unit for study an actual historical case of great dis-equilibrium, such as, say, the panic of 1873; or we may take as our unit for study any constituent tendency, such as, say, deflation, and discover its general laws, relations to, and combinations with, other tendencies. The former study revolves around events, or facts; the latter, around tendencies. The former is primarily economic history; the latter is primarily economic science. Both sorts of studies are proper and important. Each helps the other. The panic of 1873 can only be understood in light of the various tendencies involved ― deflation and other; and deflation can only be understood in the light of various historical manifestations ― 1873 and other.'


There is a school of thought among economic historians that splits economic history ― the study of how economic phenomena evolved in the past ― from historical economics ― testing the generality of economic theory using historical episodes. US economic historian Charles P. Kindleberger explained this position in his 1990 book Historical Economics: Art or Science?  The professional society for economic historians in Europe is called the European Historical Economics Society to reflect this emphasis. Most economic historians today, however, do not make this fine distinction between the two schools of thought and the term historical economics has gone out of fashion somewhat.


Closely related to the historical economics approach to economic history is that of cliometrics. This refers to the systematic use of economic theory and econometric techniques to study economic history. The term was originally coined by Jonathan R.T. Hughes and Stanley Reiter in 1960 and refers to Clio, who was the muse of history and heroic poetry in Greek mythology. Cliometricians argue their approach is necessary because the inclusion of history is crucial in formulating solid economic theory. Cliometrics is a type of counterfactual history.


Nobel Prize winning economic historians


Milton Friedman won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1976 for "his achievements in the fields of consumption analysis, monetary history and theory and for his demonstration of the complexity of stabilization policy". Robert Fogel and Douglass North won the Nobel in 1993 for "having renewed research in economic history by applying economic theory and quantitative methods in order to explain economic and institutional change". Merton Miller, who started his academic career teaching economic history at the LSE, won the Nobel in 1997 with Myron S. Scholes for "a new method to determine the value of derivatives".


Notable economic historians


·         Ram Sharan Sharma

·         Moses Abramovitz

·         Dudley Baines

·         Maxine Berg

·         Stephen Broadberry

·         Rondo Cameron

·         Gregory Clark (economist)

·         Thomas C. Cochran

·         Nicholas Crafts

·         Barry Eichengreen

·         Stanley Engerman

·         Charles Feinstein

·         Roderick Floud

·         Robert Fogel

·         John Kenneth Galbraith

·         Claudia Goldin

·         John Habakkuk

·         Eli Heckscher

·         Eric Hobsbawm

·         Leo Huberman

·         Paul Johnson

·         Charles P. Kindleberger

·         Paul Krugman

·         Timothy Leunig

·         Peter Lindert

·         Deirdre McCloskey

·         Joel Mokyr

·         Larry Neal (economist)

·         Douglass North

·         Karl Polanyi

·         Murray Rothbard

·         Graeme Snooks

·         R. H. Tawney

·         Peter Temin

·         Adam Tooze


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Economic History



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