Seeking a Quantitative Middle Ground: Reflections on Methods and Opportunities in Economic History


Historical research into economic topics is booming: The history of capitalism is on the march, Atlantic and Pacific histories have invigorated research on trade and merchants, and environmental history is increasingly economic. But this new popularity has generally not been accompanied by increased collaboration or even interaction with colleagues working in departments. The sources of this standoff are many, but prominent among them is the role of numbers. What should we count? And what should we do with the multitude of numbers and tables that punctuate early American documents? We have much to gain from more extensive use of quantitative sources. However, historians should return to quantification with caution: Not as novice cliometricians, but as the beneficiaries of cultural and social history. New research has already begun to stake out a kind of quantitative middle ground, combining close and distant reading and approaching numerical sources both as sources of data and as narrative structures with politics.