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Crises and Cycles in Economic Dictionaries and Encyclopaedias
Published by EH.Net (September 2012)
Daniele Besomi, editor, Crises and Cycles in Economic Dictionaries and Encyclopaedias. New York: Routledge, 2012. xxv + 676 pp. $195 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-415-49903-3.
Reviewed for EH.Net by Hans-Michael Trautwein, Carl von Ossietzky Universität Oldenburg, Germany.
Dictionaries and encyclopaediae are influential tools in the diffusion of knowledge. Their entries provide first guidance for students and practitioners. Their taxonomies and bibliographies shape standard views on the issues in question, even long after their entry service has been forgotten. The better of these reference works reflect the state of knowledge at the time of writing, in the particular form of canonical systems of condensed and self-contained pieces. Add to this the fact that dictionaries and encyclopaediae are nowadays an underrated genre of scientific literature, and you have an interesting field for historical research, in which the continuity and change in standards of knowledge can be gauged.
Given the enormous range and size of such reference works it is useful, however, to look at them with a focus on a special area of expertise. This is exactly what Daniele Besomi and his collaborators have done in the volume at hand. Besomi, an independent researcher from Switzerland, is a well-renowned expert in the history of thought on economic crises and business cycles. Editing this large volume, he has compiled a number of entries on famous entries (19) and different lines of business cycle research in recent dictionaries (5), written by himself and sixteen other experts in the field. In addition Besomi has authored four introductory chapters on the character and categories of relevant reference works and produced a comprehensive bibliography of specialized dictionaries (68 pages in small print). With such dedication of a true collector, the input of the editor comes probably close to that of the “representative reference work agent,” a rare species in our times. The output is in fact a dictionary of dictionaries and encyclopaedia of encyclopaediae on crises and cycles -- in short: an authoritative reference.
The book has three parts. In Part I Besomi introduces dictionaries and encyclopaediae as literary genres (chapter 1), outlines the history of economic reference works (chapter 2), discusses the semantics and chronology of different names for crises and cycles, such as “glut,” “bubble,” “panic” and “depression,” in their usage in the reference works (chapter 3), and finally provides a meta-taxonomy of the surveys and classifications of business cycle theories in the dictionary entries (chapter 4). Reflecting on a large range of issues of theoretical and practical lexicography, these four chapters set the scene for the chapters in the other two parts, where the focus is set on specific entries, reference works or lines of business cycle research.
Part II contains 19 chapters that summarize and assess relevant entries in “the classic dictionaries”, where “classic” refers to the period that begins with the “early French dictionaries” in the 1830s and ends with the first edition of the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences in 1968. The chapters are arranged in chronological order and deal with material from the French, German, Spanish, Italian, English, Russian and Dutch language areas. It is not explained why there are two overlapping entries on the early French dictionaries, one written by Ludovic Frobert, the other by Besomi. However, one can read them as complementary in the sense that Frobert’s chapter stresses the different perspectives of the Liberals, Republicans, Saint-Simonians and Fourierists among the writers of entries, whereas Besomi discusses the shortcomings of these entries in the light of the overall development of crisis theories at the time. Further French entries are discussed in the chapters by Besomi on Charles Coquelin and Auguste Ott, by Cécile Dangel-Hagnauer on Clément Juglar, and by Frobert on Èmile de Laveleye. The relatively influential lexicographic tradition of crises and business cycle theory in the German language area is represented by the chapters on Wilhelm Roscher, Heinrich Herkner and Wilhelm Lexis, all written by Harald Hagemann, and the chapters on Adolf Wagner and Arthur Spiethoff, written by Vitantonio Gioia. Jesús Astigarraga and Juan Zabalza present José Joaquín Mora’s writings on credit and commercial crises in the mid-nineteenth century Spanish Enciclopedia Moderna. Besomi draws attention to an Italian contribution: Gerolamo Boccardo’s Dizionario della economia politica. The English language area was a relative latecomer in lexicographic writings on crises and business cycles, and it is represented by the chapters on Henry Dunning Macleod’s Dictionary of Political Economy (Dangel-Hagnauer), on the ‘old’ Palgrave (Pascal Bridel), and on the entries of Wesley Mitchell, Arthur Burns and Tryggve Haavelmo in the two Encyclopedias of the Social Sciences, 1930-35 and 1968 (Pier Francesco Asso and Luca Fiorito). The tour d’horizon of that era is completed by chapters on the entries of Mikhail Tugan-Baranovsky (written by François Allisson) and Aleksandr A. Konyus (written by Vincent Barnett) in Russian lexica, and Jan Tinbergen’s entry in a Dutch encyclopaedia (written by Peter Rodenburg). From reading these chapters one gets the impression that, with the partial exception of Haavelmo’s 1968 entry, the reference works of the English-speaking world were not at the cutting edge of the crises and cycles literatures in the “classic” era, whereas entries in other language areas, such as those written by Juglar, Ott, Roscher, Spiethoff and Tugan-Baranovsky, had much to offer to the contemporaneous readers.
Part III is entitled “The Recent Dictionaries” and contains five chapters that deal with specific lines of business cycle research in cross sections through reference works of recent decades. Francisco Louçã discusses recent dictionary entries on long waves alias Kondratiev waves. Jan Peter Olters offers a broad survey of the different literatures and entries on political business cycles. Giorgio Colacchio performs a similar service with regard to entries on nonlinear business cycles. Marc Pilkington provides an assessment of the equilibrium business cycle theories that go under the name of “real business cycles.” Besomi and Colacchio, finally, draw attention to the renaissance of the old category of “crisis” in modern reference works. If one is to complain about any gaps in this large and comprehensive volume, they are most likely to be found in Part III. The entry on “real business cycles” does not include its more recent New Keynesian (or neo-Wicksellian) extensions into the “New Neoclassical Synthesis,” which claims to have integrated business cycle theory with growth theory, and Keynesian issues into (partly) New Classical frameworks of analysis. Moreover, there is next to nothing on financial crises, credit cycles and monetary business cycles, or business cycle measurement, trend/cycle decomposition, etc. – themes quite prominent in more recent dictionaries, such as The New Palgrave and its up-to-date online edition.
The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics Online does not get a very good rating in Besomi’s extremely brief treatment of internet publications (chapter 2). In contrast, the German Gablers Wirtschaftslexikon is praised for its mindmap-style cross-references, even though it is primarily a business-oriented dictionary and has not much to offer on crises and cycles. The most consulted internet source of knowledge is undoubtedly Wikipedia, probably also when it comes to searches for entries on crises and business cycles. In that respect Wikipedia has actually quite a lot to offer if one looks up all the different names of the phenomena in question and follows all the different links. Besomi confines his comments on Wikipedia to five lines, in which he remarks that it “suffers the disadvantage of being an editorless publication, made worse by the fact that some topics are perceived more as an ideological battleground than a field for scientific inquiry” (p. 38). That may be so. It should not be ignored, though, that Wikipedia and similar internet platforms appear to be “good enough” substitutes for standard dictionaries and encyclopaediae in the eyes of many users, including researchers, and that they may well be the more powerful tool of knowledge diffusion in the future. How far their modes of edition and communication tend to change the structures and contents of thinking about crises and cycles, as compared to the historical reference works discussed in the volume at hand, is a matter that merits further reflection.
Hans-Michael Trautwein is Professor of International Economics at the Carl von Ossietzky Universität Oldenburg, Germany. His research focuses upon the history of macroeconomics, monetary theory, and transnationalization. Among other articles, he has published “From the New Trade Theory to the New Economic Geography: A Space Odyssey” (with Dirk Ehnts), OEconomia 2:1 (2012) and “Haberler, the League of Nations, and the Quest for Consensus in Business Cycle Theory in the 1930s” (with Mauro Boianovsky), History of Political Economy 38:1 (2006).
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