The Mixed Blessings of Clio

The Cliometric Voice

Claude Diebolt (Bureau d’Économie Théorique et Appliquée (BETA), Université de Strasbourg) (cdiebolt@unistra.fr)

URL: http://ideas.repec.org/p/afc/wpaper/12-12.html

No abstract

Review by Anna Missiaia

Distributed by NEP-HIS on 2012-10-20, this is a short, dense, methodology paper by Claude Diebolt, the editor of the journal Cliometrica, tackles a well known issue among economic historians: the role of quantitative research in economic history (cliometrics) and its relationship with both history and economics. The so-called Cliometric Revolution has now come of age, having started in the 1960s with the work of Robert Fogel. It is safe to say that it has now conquered its space in the field. Diebolt offers us a retrospective of the field, and his vision of its future. The (sometimes harsh) debate is focused on the usefulness and validity of applying economic/econometric tools to the study of the past. He provides a lot of food for thought in this sense.

The paper’s main point is to highlight the usefulness of counterfactual analysis in history. The first example of this line of research that Diebolt discusses is the genre-defining work of Fogel (1964), reviewed here by Lance Davis over on EH.net. I think that Diebolt’s emphasis on counterfactual analysis is somewhat surprising; the shortcomings of this type of approach are now well known (see Leunig, 2010), and cliometric research today encompasses many other types of analysis that are as fruitful, from institutional analysis, to labour history, and historical economic geography.

I welcome Diebolt’s call for a shift in the economic history discipline at large from the “understanding side” to the “explaining side”. This implies that (quantitative) research should not limit itself to the description of historical phenomena, but also to the study of causal relationships.

Vermeer’s “The Art of Painting” (late 1660s), depicting a woman dressed as Clio, the muse of history.

The second part of the paper is devoted to the positioning of cliometrics with respect to both history and economics. Diebolt states that cliometrics is first and foremost a branch of history. It uses economic tools to provide historical answers, but it is not a mere application of economic models to the past. However, Diebolt recognises that cliometric research might also be seen as an auxiliary discipline with respect to economics. This last statement needs a clarification before the detractors of cliometrics start sharpening their weapons. The message here is that economic history could be a tool for economic theory building, not simply as a provider of empirical evidence for its models, but as a source of inspiration to theory. Ideally, there should be a mutual relationship in which cliometricians absorb from economists the latest theoretical and econometric advances, and economists get insights and ideas from the rigorous study of the past. Diebolt pushes the discussion forward, claiming that economic history could in future become a “full-fledged field of economic theory”.

Of the three main arguments about the “branding” of cliometrics, Diebolt’s mission to sell cliometrics as a field of economic theory seems to me the hardest. It is a difficult task to believe that cliometrics is, or ever will be, able to hold its role as a historical tool alongside the creation of a sort of unified theory of economic history. That aside, it would mean a reversal in the logic in what drives cliometric research. If cliometrics is meant to be part of history, as supported by the author, economic theory is just a mere tool used to provide possible answers to historical questions. Conversely, when history is used to prove the validity of an economic model, cliometrics becomes merely applied economics. I believe that the survival of the distinction between cliometrics as part of historical research and applied economics is most likely to be crucial for its future.

References
  • Fogel R., “Railroads and American Economic Growth: Essays in Econometric History”, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1964.
  • Leunig, T., “Social Savings”, Journal of Economic Surveys, Vol.24 (2010), pp.775-800
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2 thoughts on “The Mixed Blessings of Clio

  1. Pingback: Cliometria « De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum

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