Category Archives: Method & Epistemology in History

On the Status and the Future of Economic History in the World

by Joerg Baten ( and Julia Muschallik (


How many economic historians are there in the world? In which countries or world regions are they concentrated? Can we explain differences in the number of economic historians who are participating in world congresses, and which determinants encourage or limit participation propensity? Using an e-mail questionnaire, we analyse the global situation of this discipline. Overall 59 countries were available to be surveyed in this overview. We estimate the overall number of economic historians in the world to be around 10,400 scholars.

Joerg Baten and Julia Muschallik offer a worthwhile account of the state of economic history as a discipline today. Their effort to establish its distribution around the wold as well as estimating the number of participants in the field is significant and convincing. A number of interesting challenges had to be sorted to arrive at this estimates and cross checking by aggregating through annual conferences and journal publications reinforces the message. But perhaps these estimates could have been more convincing if they had considered the distribution and authorship of working papers distributed by nep-his or SSRN.

This paper opens a number of interesting debates. First, it has made clear we know little as to the actual emergence and evolution of the discipline around the world. There is thus an opportunity to report how and why economic historians became self aware, establish themselves as an area of knowledge and its teaching and research was adopted in different counties. A history of the discipline and its participants if you like.

Secondly, there is an issue about how they dealt with different “tribes”. Establishing the limits of your search always has to deal with “gray areas”. Baten and Muschallik argue that it is in countries with high degree of specialisation such as the US and the UK where business and economic historians can be identified as separate groups. But precisely because economic history combines methods and rhetorical styles of other disciplines, there could have been a bit more sensitivity in the questionnaire to those which feed from economic history and vice versa, namely to allow respondents to identify if they felt to the part of (or actually being active in) business history, marketing history, accounting history and increasingly some within critical management studies. Of course, if according to Baten and Muschallik economic historians are indeed something of a “luxury product”, then what are these other people/areas?

Thirdly, I found the link between the number of academics in a country and its GDP particularly interesting. Coming back to my theme above of a history of the discipline, this opens up questions such as why has specialisation taken place? Why and when did this happen? Is there collaboration or antagonism between these groups? But as mentioned, the line has to be drawn somewhere and answering these sort of questions was not their intent.

Finally, to items for further reflection: a) it will be interesting to see the extent to which, ceteris paribus, their predictions on participants to the World Congress in South Africa are on the mark. b) I was quite happy to see their estimates of total economic historians around the world at 10.5k people, specially as of today nep-his has about 6.5k unique subscribers.

PS Have a look at:

New Bloomberg Economic & Business History Blog, “Echoes”.

South African Agricultural Research and Development: A Century of Change

By: Liebenberg, Frikki, Pardey, Philip G. and Kahn, Michael

The 20th Century saw substantive shifts in the structure of agriculture and agricultural production in South Africa. Farm size grew, farm numbers eventually declined, and production increasingly emphasized higher-valued commodities, notably a range of horticultural crops. The real gross value of agricultural output grew steadily (by 3.32 percent per year) from 1910-1981, but declined thereafter (by 0.21 percent per year from 1982-2008). These long-run sectoral changes provide a context to present and assess an entirely new data series on public agricultural R&D (and related regulatory and extension) spending and associated scientist trends. South African agricultural R&D has been affected by a series of major policy changes. These are also documented and discussed here, along with the associated institutional changes regarding the conduct and funding of public agricultural R&D in South Africa. We reveal a number of disturbing trends, including an effective flat lining of the long-run growth in total agricultural R&D spending that took hold in the 1970s, an erratic path of funding per scientist, and a loss of scientific personnel in recent decades. Moreover, South Africa has lost ground relative to its competitors in international commodity markets such as the United States and Australia in terms of the intensity of investment in agricultural R&D. These developments are likely to have long-term, and detrimental, consequences for the productivity performance and competiveness of South African agriculture. They deserve serious policy attention as the 21st Century unfolds, with a firm eye to the long-run given the long lags (often many decades) that typify the relationship between agricultural R&D spending and productivity growth.

This paper highlights the importance of research into business and economic history outside of “Triad” countries (that is, the USA, Western Europe and Japan). More to the point, the need to rescue data relevant for economic management in sub-Sahara Africa (such as the South African export-led fruit, wine, and sugar industries which, the authors tell us, have kept a positive trade balance since 1910). This paper thus offers a first interpretation of a newly constructed long term series of South African agricultural data while focusing on productivity gains from agricultural R&D (in their science policy context).

A very rich and detailed study indeed. Although it would have been interesting to learn more about the changing nature of agricultural organisations themselves (and particularly the influence of say legacy institutions from the British empire to foster entrepreneurship and trade patterns), this paper is certainly worth a read.

Growth, Quality, Happiness, and the Poor

By Deirdre McCloskey

Real national income per head in Britain rose by a factor of about 16 from the 18th century to the present. Other cases, such as that of the U.S. or Korea, have been even more startling, historically speaking. Like the realization in astronomy during the 1920s that most of the “nebulae” detected by telescopes are in fact other galaxies unspeakably far from ours, the Great Fact of economic growth, discovered by historians and economists in the 1950s and elaborated since then, changes everything. And 16, if one follows William Nordhaus’ persuasive arguments about quality improvements in (say) lighting, is a very low lower bound: the true factor is roughly 100. As Maxine Berg has argued, changing quality of products was as important as changes in process. But the gain is not to be measured by pot-of-pleasure “happiness studies.” These are questionable on technical grounds, but especially on the grounds that they do not measure human fulfillment. They ignore the humanities, pretending to scientific precision. It makes more sense to stay with things we economists can actually measure, such as the rise of human scope indicated by the factor of 16 or Nordhaus’ factor of 100, or by what Sen and Nussbaum call “capabilities.” Of course, what we really care about are the scope or capabilities of the poor. These have enormously expanded under “capitalism”—though a better word is simply “innovation,” arising from bourgeois dignity and liberty. It is the Bourgeois Deal: let me alertly seek profit, and I will make you rich.”

In her paper Deirdre McCloskey makes a call for economist to discuss “things we economists can actually measure”. It was never so appropriate, I think. In this second posting I have taken a different approach to select the paper for discussion. As noted in a private exchange with Deirdre, as editor of NEP-HIS and the blog, I  filter contributions twice. Instead, she argued, lets look for a more “democratic” way of selecting papers for discussion.

After giving this some consideration (including a brief discussion with other people running NEP), I came up with the idea of going back and looking at past issues of NEP-HIS reports with the aim of selecting the paper that had the greatest number of downloads. How long back I had to go was not initially clear but, due to a hardware issue at NEP, the latest report from which download statistics were available was that of 2009-10-24. This sort of settle the issue or at least enabled me to start.

It so happened that in that report it was one of Deirdre’s papers that had the greatest number of downloads (90 downloads as of 2009-11-20, with the runner ups having 75 and 74 respectively). That is the paper quoted above.

Before proceeding to discuss Deirdre’s paper, however, let us consider some issues/differences between the selection of papers in the first two blog posts.  On the one hand, in the first blog, the I choose a paper at the same time that I was editing the report  the paper was being distributed. This is the “double filter” described above. So what? Well this action might bias downloads as the selection could influence people, who would not otherwise consider that paper, to actually download it.

On the other hand, on the second blog, the I chose a “recent” report and from it, the “most popular” paper as measured by number of downloads. As mentioned, the selection of the report and cut off date to measure the number of downloads were both arbitrary (but I am sure some of my friends at NEP/RePEc  will have a view as to how to “optimise” these). Anyway, such selection could equally result in greater number of downloads for that paper, for exactly the same reason as discussed above. However, such action will also add to and thus increase the difference between papers with few downloads (presumably of little interest) and the “most popular”.  I am under the impression that search engines tend to favour in their ranking pages (in this case papers) with higher number of previous “hits”. Probably you now get a feel of where I am heading, in the context of Deirdre’s paper above, selecting the “most popular” will increase the difference between “download rich” and “download poor” authors. Is that “fair”?

But it also strikes me that choosing “the most popular” download risks guiding this forum towards discussing “how many angels sit on the head of a pin”, that is, reinforcing “the main stream”. Always selecting papers for discussion solely based on the highest number of downloads will certainly foreclose the possibility that the NEP/Blog editor chooses a contribution which highlights an interesting and perhaps unusual area or a topic that is running through several other papers posted through NEP-HIS and which one in particular seems to summarise well.  Perhaps that is not the case and NEP-HIS subscribers will identify such “jewels”.

I am sure there are other ways to make the process of selection for papers to be discussed in the blog much more democratic and transparent. For instance, a voting system which is independent of downloads and in which subscribers directly express their preferences.  That sort of application will not even need an editor in the blog. However, NEP at the moment lacks such system as well as the resources in its infrastructure to do it (but as an “open platform” would be more than happy to support anyone who wishes to consider making a contribution!).

There is, of course, the possibility that people actually write to me as NEP-HIS Editor and suggest papers (from other authors) to be included in the discussion. I honestly don’t expect that to happen regularly but happy to entertain and action any and all such suggestions. That would still be the result of “editor’s choice”, though.

So perhaps a balance could be struck and every other week the editor selects a paper while the rest of the time, the “most downloaded” is chosen for discussion. What do you think?  Input here would be must appreciated.

Now lets talk about the paper, here I am acting solely as facilitator as you have “spoken”, please lets have your comments on the content as well….

Citation Success: Evidence from Economic History Journal Publications

By  Waldenström, Daniel (Research Institute of Industrial Economics (IFN); Di Vaio, Gianfranco (University of Perugia); and Weisdorf, Jacob (University of Copenhagen).


This study analyses determinants of citation success among authors publishing in economic history journals. Bibliometric features, like article length and number of authors, are positively correlated with the citation rate up to a certain point. Remarkably, publishing in top-ranked journals hardly affects citations. In regard to author-specific characteristics, male authors, full professors and authors working economics or history departments, and authors employed in Anglo-Saxon countries, are more likely to get cited than others. As a ‘shortcut’ to citation success, we find that research diffusion, measured by number of presentations and people mentioned in acknowledgement, boosts the citation rate.

As first posting  I have selected an impact measurement rather than a thematic paper. This to give a feel that even a somewhat “neutral” topic can be used to entice discussion. Also to comment on the sources and assumptions that the authors used for their “in discipline” study, namely traditional, in print, peer-reviewed journals. This as  in this first posting I am trying to make a statement about the much talked about role and future of on-line publications vis a vis “traditional” outlets, while building around two underlying ideas in the above article namely impact and boundary.

The main goal of the “Citation Success” paper is to assess the impact of publishing in top journals for economic historians. They composed a sample made out of 657 citations and 450 authors from 14 outlets in 2007. Comparisons for the same year with NEP-HIS would result in authors and citations many times greater in the on-line report than in the printed journals. Of course, NEP operates a “simple editorial” policy. Early on NEP’s “founding parents” decided not to influence content in anyway but to take contributions at face value and disseminate on the basis of potential interest. Whereas the 14 outlets selected by the authors of the study actively engage peers in shaping a contribution to suit the outlet’s particular audience.  Hence my first question, will blogging have any future to shape the future of printed and on-line publications?

As is the case in many other citation analysis studies,  major drawback of the paper is failing to consider books.  I will leave this aside for the time being. But promise to return in another posting.

I was also interested in how the authors conceived the boundaries of the discipline. The 14 outlets are firmly established in economic history. However, the membership of NEP-HIS and indeed its title (economic, business and financial history) suggest an important overlap with other areas of knowledge (and people outside Economic Departments) where there are learned societies and such as business, accounting and marketing which also have well established outlets (e.g. Business History, Business History Review, Enterprise & Society, Journal of Management History, Journal of Macromarketing, etc). My own anecdotal impression of pandering for membership of NEP-HIS is that growth for economic and business history studies is in business schools and, contrary to the author’s finding, not in history departments (where the interest is fast moving away from economics into other areas of the social science such as gender, social history or the arts such as politics and culture). The second question is: What makes  an economic historian and what should be the boundaries of the field?

Apologies then for such a long and self indulging comment. My aim has not been to criticise the authors of this paper but to use the contents as a platform for this blog  as well as present some of my views on what I think we need to do for it and indeed the discipline, to prosper.