As an economic historian by training, I’m always aware of the unique ground straddled by practitioners of the cliometric craft. We are economists by training and in terms of many of the questions we are interested in, but much of our research focuses on collection and analysis of primary sources.
The summer 2011 issue of Social Science History has a special section titled “The Past, Present and Future of Economics for History,” which was inspired by a session at the 32nd Annual Meetings of the Social Science History Association which featured an interdisciplinary exchange between the panelists – mainly economists who do economic history - and the more diverse audience. The essence of the debate was whether or not there could be more collaboration between historians and economists. Rob Whaples argued that involving historians in economic history was problematic not just because of their minimal understanding of economic theory but more importantly because of their actual hostility to the dismal science. Philip Coelho and James McClure argued that the divergence between historians and economists is fueled by the preoccupation of economists with models and theory rather than empirically testing new ideas with data and the fact that historians in general are not partial to the idea that universal models can describe human behaviour. At the same time, the historian view that economists are not empirical seems to be odd for an economist and may have more to do with what historians view as empirical work given their lack of statistical training.
All of this seems to me a puzzling situation. Economic history seems fundamental to understanding the evolution of economies and policy and yet its study has been deemphasized both in economics and history. The recent fiscal crisis seems to have highlighted the importance of institutions and their evolution over time but there has not been a spark in interest even in terms of student enrollment in economic history courses. I was always of the view that economic history was in the middle between economics and history and therefore should over time have more practitioners move to the middle ground. (See Figure 1).
But perhaps I am mistaken and am simply guilty of linear thinking. I was assuming some type of uniform distribution of interests across the line that provided an advantage to moving to a middle position. Perhaps economic history is not really a middle point on a straight line but a border area around the two disciplines with some overlap at the intersection between the two disciplines (See Figure 2).
Economic history is a border region for economists but historians who do economic history are also in the borderland of their own discipline. Thus, the interface between historians doing economic history and economists doing economic history is not so much the middle of a linear process but a small overlap of border areas surrounding two disciplinary cores. This would suggest the scope for interaction is limited indeed and depending on the direction the two disciplines move over time liable to shrink even further.