WHAT'S WRONG WITH ECONOMIC HISTORY?
Article first published online: 1 OCT 2012
© 2012 Wesleyan University
History and Theory
Volume 51, Issue 3, pages 466–476, October 2012
How to Cite
Sewell, W. H. (2012), WHAT'S WRONG WITH ECONOMIC HISTORY?. History and Theory, 51: 466–476. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2303.2012.00640.x
- Issue published online: 1 OCT 2012
- Article first published online: 1 OCT 2012
- economic history;
- economic sociology;
- economic anthropology;
- Annales school;
- social history
In this polemical book, Francesco Boldizzoni argues that economic history is so moribund as to require resurrection. He maintains that economic history has been converted into a subfield of economics and has embraced the antihistorical and a priori intellectual style of mainstream economics departments: it has, in effect, ceased to be a form of history. Boldizzoni hopes to force a recognition of contemporary economic history's bankruptcy and to show the way toward a revitalization.
He criticizes both economic history as retrospective econometrics, as in the work of Robert Fogel, and economic history as a branch of the new institutional economics, as in the work of Douglas North. Boldizzoni suggests that economic history should return to the sort of research and models that prevailed earlier in its own history—models based on induction from observed economic life rather than on deduction from the theories of contemporary microeconomics. He particularly singles out the work of Witold Kula, Moses Finley, and the Annales historians for emulation, but also praises the perspectives of economic sociology and economic anthropology.
Boldizzoni's call for a return to a more inductive form of economic history is welcome, and his discussions of his heroes should remind us that economic history was once a vibrant and creative part of the history profession. But the book's advice is more useful for historians working on premodern than on modern economic life. The claim that self-governing markets and interest-maximizing individual actors are pure figments of economists' imaginations seems far less certain for recent than for premodern times. And his insistence that each society has its own distinct form of economic life that must be discovered inductively leaves unconceptualized the world-spanning forces of capitalist development that increasingly shape societies everywhere. Boldizzoni's critique and his positive suggestions are certainly valuable, but he by no means supplies a sufficient recipe for economic history's resurrection as a vibrant field.