Economic History

Economic subdisciplines: 

The subdiscipline of economic history has strong roots in the English historical school of economics, with scholars such as William Whewell, Richard Jones, Walter Bagehot, Thorold Rogers, and William Ashley. The English historical school of economics argued for an inductive approach to studying economies, and were opposed to the deductive approach used by various classical political economists, such as David Ricardo. In doing so, they made important contributions to the development of empirical and statistical methods. They were, however, largely unable to actually make the discipline of economics more inductive, especially when the deductive neoclassical approach became increasingly dominant. But while they were considerably pushed out of the discipline of economics, they were able to help create the subdiscipline of economic history inside history departments. Today, economic history can be found both inside economics and history faculties, and it often functions as a bridge between the two disciplines.

The current field of economic history has various strands, such as Marxian economic history, cliometrics, the Annales school, and new institutional economic history, each with their own ideas and history. 

From its inception, history has featured prominently in Marxian thinking. Economic historians were, however, for a long time discouraged from using and building on Marxian ideas for political reasons. Nevertheless, an important Marxian strand of economic history did develop which investigates how the histories of economies can be understood with the help of historical materialist methodology.

In the 1960s, cliometrics arose out of the application of econometrics to economic history. The approach derives its name from the ancient Greek goddess of history called Clio. To this day, this strongly mathematical approach to studying history is an important branch of economic history. More recently, a partially overlapping group of scholars from different disciplines, such as political science, history and economics, has begun studying legal rules and social norms through a neoclassical lens of utility maximization. This approach is often called new institutional economics.

Another key intellectual contribution came from the Annales school which originated in France in the early 20th century. It consists of a highly diverse group of scholars that have tried to combine economics, sociology, geography, and history. In doing so, it changed historiography by focusing on long term structural developments, the lower social classes and collective mentalities. The Annales school inspired approaches such as world system theory and the regulation school, which are also important within economic history.

Further reading:

  • The Routledge Handbook of Modern Economic History by Robert Whaples & Randall Parker, from 2013. This useful collection of essays introduces students to economic history by discussing its methods, different economic sectors, and the topics of growth and the workforce.
  • Routledge Handbook of Global Economic History by Francesco Boldizzoni & Pat Hudson, from 2016. This impressive collection of essays introduces students to the economic histories of the different world regions.