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  • Is Economic History a Neglected Field of Study?
  • Robert Whaples (bio)

No graduate student in history in the 1970s could escape economic history. One of the major professional debates of that era—about the cliometrics of Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman's Time on the Cross—went well beyond historiographical interpretation to encompass seemingly fundamental differences over the nature of historical methodology. But where does economic history stand now?

In this our third in a series of four forums we asked several leading economic historians to assess the state of their field. Robert Whaples gets our conversation started with the forum's lead essay. Philip Hoffman, Deirdre McCloskey, Joel Mokyr, and Werner Troesken respond, followed by a rejoinder from Whaples.

I'sn the fall of 2008 and early 2009 it looked to many weary and wary workers, investors, policy makers, and analysts as though the U.S. economy was about to fall off a cliff into an abyss as bottomless as the Great Depression. What on Earth was going on? Everyone wanted to know, and many turned to history—economic history—for answers. The press burgeoned with interviews and insights from economic historians who were called to Washington and New York to offer advice. Indeed, Christina Romer, an economic historian from University of California, Berkeley, whose pioneering early research examined historical trends in economic volatility and who has done influential research on the causes of the Great Depression and the recovery from it, was tapped by President Barack Obama to be chair of the Council of Economic Advisors. And Ben Bernanke, a former Princeton University economist and author of Essays on the Great Depression (2000), held—and still holds—the most powerful economic policy making position in the world as chair of the Federal Reserve.

In these turbulent times, it became obvious to almost everyone that understanding economic history is useful, indeed essential, and economic historians are indispensible. And yet many economic historians have the sense that their discipline is a neglected field, a field on the margins, caught in a no man's land between two disciplines: ignored and underappreciated by economists and misunderstood, feared, and perhaps even despised by historians. Most economic historians sense that the discipline has almost always been on the margins and that this marginalization has increased appreciably since the end of a brief golden age that glimmered during the 1960s and into the 1970s.

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Policemen tell depositors that an American bank is closed, 1933. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [reproduction number, LC-USZ62-130861].

To understand this situation, I'll begin—as economic historians almost always begin—by doing some counting. The significant demographic factor is that today's economic historians reside primarily in economics departments, not in history departments. The mailing addresses of the Economic History Association (EHA), the major professional organization of economic historians in the United States, indicate that about 57.8% of members are in economics departments, 16.4% in history departments, 8.5% in economic history departments (all of them outside the U.S.), 8.5% in business schools, and the rest in other academic units.1 Likewise, 72.6% of those who attended the 2009 EHA meeting were economists; only 11% were historians. Perhaps most tellingly, the overwhelming majority of the fifty-two authors publishing articles or notes in the Journal of Economic History (JEH) in the past year are affiliated with departments of economics and/or trained as economists. The authors include a handful housed in departments of mathematics, statistics, law, international studies, and political science, but none resides in a history department. It's not only that the field is dominated by economists; these economists rarely collaborate with historians or seek their advice. Only 7.5% of individuals thanked in the opening notes of articles published in the JEH were affiliated with history departments.2

Today's economic historians are primarily trained in economics by economists and are imbued with the outlook and habits of that profession. The intended audience for most of their work is other economists, most of whom think of economic history in very utilitarian terms—what can it teach us that's of...