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Economic history is the study of economies or economic phenomena of the past. Analysis in economic history is undertaken using a combination of historical methods, statistical methods and the application of economic theory to historical situations and institutions. The topic includes financial and business history and overlaps with areas of social history such as demographic and labor history. The quantitative—in this case, econometric—study of economic history is also known as cliometrics.
In Germany in the late 19th century, scholars in a number of universities, led by Gustav von Schmoller, developed the historical school of economic history. It ignored quantitative and mathematical approaches. Historical approach dominated German and French scholarship for most of the 20th century. The approach was spread to Great Britain by William Ashley, 1860–1927, and dominated British economic history for much of the 20th century. Britain's first professor in the subject was George Unwin at the University of Manchester. In France, economic history was heavily influenced by the Annales School from the early 20th century to the present. It exerts a worldwide influence through its Journal Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales.
Treating economic history as a discrete academic discipline has been a contentious issue for many years. Academics at the London School of Economics and the University of Cambridge had numerous disputes over the separation of economics and economic history in the interwar era. Cambridge economists believed that pure economics involved a component of economic history and that the two were inseparably entangled. Those at the LSE believed that economic history warranted its own courses, research agenda and academic chair separated from mainstream economics.
In the initial period of the subject's development, the LSE position of separating economic history from economics won out. Many universities in the UK developed independent programmes in economic history rooted in the LSE model. Indeed, the Economic History Society had its inauguration at LSE in 1926 and the University of Cambridge eventually established its own economic history programme. However, the past twenty years have witnessed the widespread closure of these separate programmes in the UK and the integration of the discipline into either history or economics departments. Only the LSE and the University of Edinburgh retain a separate economic history department and stand-alone undergraduate and graduate programme in economic history. Cambridge, Glasgow, the LSE and Oxford together train the vast majority of economic historians coming through the British higher education system today.
Meanwhile, in the US, the field of economic history has in recent decades been largely subsumed into other fields of economics and is seen as a form of applied economics. As a consequence, there are no specialist economic history graduate programs at any universities anywhere in the country. Economic history remains as a special field component of regular economics or history PhD programs in universities including at University of California, Berkeley, Harvard University, Northwestern University and Yale University.
Yale University economist Irving Fisher wrote in 1933 on the relationship between economics and economic history in his "Debt-Deflation Theory of Great Depressions" (Econometrica, Vol. 1, No. 4: 337–38):
The study of dis-equilibrium may proceed in either of two ways. We may take as our unit for study an actual historical case of great dis-equilibrium, such as, say, the panic of 1873; or we may take as our unit for study any constituent tendency, such as, say, deflation, and discover its general laws, relations to, and combinations with, other tendencies. The former study revolves around events, or facts; the latter, around tendencies. The former is primarily economic history; the latter is primarily economic science. Both sorts of studies are proper and important. Each helps the other. The panic of 1873 can only be understood in light of the various tendencies involved—deflation and other; and deflation can only be understood in the light of various historical manifestations—1873 and other.
There is a school of thought among economic historians that splits economic history—the study of how economic phenomena evolved in the past—from historical economics—testing the generality of economic theory using historical episodes. US economic historian Charles P. Kindleberger explained this position in his 1990 book Historical Economics: Art or Science?.
The new economic history, also known as cliometrics, refers to the systematic use of economic theory and/or econometric techniques to the study of economic history. The term cliometrics was originally coined by Jonathan R. T. Hughes and Stanley Reiter in 1960 and refers to Clio, who was the muse of history and heroic poetry in Greek mythology. Cliometricians argue their approach is necessary because the application of theory is crucial in writing solid economic history, while historians generally oppose this view warning against the risk of generating anachronisms. Early cliometrics was a type of counterfactual history. However, counterfactualism is no longer its distinctive feature. Some have argued that cliometrics had its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s and that it is now neglected by economists and historians.
In recent decades economic historians, following Douglass North, have tended to move away from narrowly quantitative studies toward institutional, social, and cultural history affecting the evolution of economies.[a 1] However, this trend has been criticized, most forcefully by Francesco Boldizzoni, as a form of economic imperialism "extending the neoclassical explanatory model to the realm of social relations." Conversely, economists in other specializations have started to write on topics concerning economic history.[a 2]
A new field calling itself the "History of Capitalism" has emerged in US history departments since about the year 2000. It includes many topics traditionally associated with the field of economic history, such as insurance, banking and regulation, the political dimension of business, and the impact of capitalism on the middle classes, the poor and women and minorities. The field utilizes the existing research of business history, but has sought to make it more relevant to the concerns of history departments in the United States, including by having limited or no discussion of individual business enterprises.
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