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Handbook of Cliometrics

Editor(s):Diebolt, Claude
Haupert, Michael
Reviewer(s):Mitch, David

Published by EH.Net (July 2016)

Claude Diebolt and Michael Haupert, editors, Handbook of Cliometrics. Berlin and Heidelberg: Springer, 2016. xxii + 590 pp.  $149 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-3-642-40405-4.

Reviewed for EH.Net by David Mitch, Department of Economics, University of Maryland – Baltimore County.

There is by now a long tradition of handbooks in economics. And they have varied over the decades in their intended audience and aims. J.M. Keynes in his 1922 introduction to the Cambridge Economic Handbook series described it as “intended to convey to the ordinary reader and to the uninitiated student some conception of the general principles of thought which economists apply to economic problems.”  Kenneth Arrow and Michael Intrilligator in their introduction to the North-Holland Handbooks in Economics series describe them as “a definitive source, reference and teaching supplement for use by professional researchers and advanced graduate students. Each Handbook contains self-contained surveys of the current state of a branch of economics in the form of chapters prepared by leading specialists on various aspects of this branch of economics.”

Claude Diebolt (University of Strasbourg) and Michael Haupert (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse), the editors of Springer’s Handbook of Cliometrics have not clearly identified the audience at which the volume is aimed. They do indicate in their introduction (p. xi) that the contributions “stress the usefulness of cliometrics for economists, historians, and social scientists in general.” Their preface and introduction describe the handbook as one that “contains digested knowledge in an easily accessible format,” (p. xv) while also asserting the aim “to foster world-class research” (p. xv).  They have followed the lead of North-Holland’s handbook series of choosing leading specialists in various branches of cliometrics to write its chapters but appear to have given them quite free reign regarding intended audience, scope, and methodology employed.   Indeed one message the volume as a whole conveys is the diversity of formats that can be associated with cliometric history ranging from exercises in applied econometrics to purely verbal narrative expositions.

The volume comes in at just under 600 pages. It is divided into 22 chapters subsumed under some 7 headings.  This implies an average allotment of 27 pages per chapter with the actual chapters varying from 15 to 35 pages in length.  By way of comparison, the North-Holland Handbook of Economic Growth, Vols. 1A and 1B (to choose just one immediately available volume from the many in the series) runs to a total  of 1800 pages in some 28 chapters for an average length of 64 pages per chapter.  The considerable relative restriction in length for the Springer Handbook implies tradeoffs between the scope and level of the audience for a given contribution.  Some contributions in this volume provide an overview of the forest, taking up general concepts such as labor markets or human capital or landmark episodes such as the Great Depression and accomplish this by aiming at primarily an undergraduate audience albeit with elegance and incisiveness.  Other contributions focus on specific trees, considering a few key issues, key studies or key methodologies which they cover in a depth more suitable for advanced graduate students and researchers.

What choice of topics and organization is appropriate for a handbook of cliometrics?  Insofar as cliometrics is a method rather than substantive economic history, organization according to chronological or geographical coverage would not seem in order. If cliometrics is defined as the application of economic theory and quantitative methods to the study of history, then what is to be covered in such a handbook over and above the theoretical and quantitative tools to be applied? Are there either general principles or specific techniques that can be articulated for the application of economic theory and methods to the study of history? Forums on the future of economic history (such as that from the 2015 Economic History Association annual meeting published in the December, 2015 Journal of Economic History) suggest no shortage of methodological advances to consider including Geographical Information Systems, big data and computational power, and use of quasi-experimental methods — to name just some.

The editors acknowledge the difficulty of deciding what to include and that some important and historically significant topics were excluded (p. xi) and point to the goals of achieving “variety over time, topic, and geography” and “a sampling of topics cliometrics has helped to transform over the past half-century” as principles of selection.

The seven section headings chosen for the volume seem more Fogelian than Northian in conception.  Four of the categories, Human Capital, Finance, Innovation, and Government have clear parallels with headings in The Reinterpretation of American Economic History, the important 1972 compilation by Fogel and Engerman of cliometric work. The three other categories that round off the work include a section on the history of cliometrics, a section on growth, and a section on statistics and cycles.  While Douglass North and new institutional approaches certainly get mention throughout this handbook, none of the chapters give extended coverage to institutions or a Northian framework, an understandable decision given space constraints.

The opening section on history contains both Michael Haupert’s history of cliometrics and Peter Temin’s effort to link economic history and economic development via his own illustrious career experiences.  Almost half of Haupert’s history of cliometrics is actually devoted to the history of pre-cliometric economic history; which limits the detail he provides to either old or new economic history.  Such important episodes as the controversy over the cliometrics of slavery are notably missing from his account, though it does provide a quite useful entrée to the topic. Peter Temin’s contribution fills in this gap with his insightful romp through selected cliometrics highlights over the past fifty years pointing to parallels and synergies between the study of economic history and economic development.  He offers the perspective of a pioneering practitioner of cliometrics on work by more recent generations of cliometricians. His is one of the few contributions in the volume to give explicit consideration to the quasi-experimental methods that have become widespread in the work of younger cliometricians. He also considers tensions and opportunities in publication strategies aiming at alternatively economic history or mainstream economics journals as outlets.

The second section on human capital has five contributions which differ widely in scope and detail.  Claudia Goldin and Robert Margo provide quite general, albeit cogent, overviews of respectively cliometric work on human capital and labor markets. Given their own scholarly work they both not surprisingly focus on the U.S. case, though Goldin sets this in the global context of unified growth theory with Malthusian, transition, and human capital phases.  Her treatment of education and schooling centers on her landmark 2008 book with Lawrence Katz rather than a detailed overview of recent research. She also treats health as a form of human capital in considering long run trends in mortality and life expectancy.  She does not provide any assessment or even mention of recent age-heaping approaches to estimating human capital historically.  Robert Margo’s treatment of labor markets centers around estimates of long term trends in some basic magnitudes including that of the labor force as a whole, occupational structure, wage structure, and racial differences.  He provides concise but insightful interpretations of these trends utilizing a simple demand and supply framework. Margo does refer to work exploring underlying sources and data limitations but given his space limitations does not do so in any depth.  A major and innovative area of cliometric research since the late 1970s has been in examining the relationship between nutrition, heights, and biological living standards, and disease environments as evidenced in trends in human heights, the field of anthropometrics.  Lee Craig overviews this research and his particular emphasis on nineteenth century U.S. developments allows him some focus in depth, though he does draw extensively on more global evidence.  He considers in more depth than the Goldin chapter the role of improvements in nutrition and in public health measures in improving the biological standard of living.  Franziska Tollen and Joerg Baten’s contribution provides an in-depth survey of the use of age-heaping indicators to estimate human capital.  They go in detail into the methodology of how age-heaping indicators are constructed and survey a wide range of findings stemming from use of the age-heaping approach.  Unlike other contributions in this section the level of detail is more suited to advanced researchers.  Jacob Weisdorf surveys the use of parish registers by cliometricians and economic and demographic historians more generally. He provides a useful description of the registries themselves. And he makes note of their use not only for the English and other Western European cases but also for Africa and potentially for other regions as well. Weisdorf embeds his survey in a discussion of the Malthusian population framework and the unified growth approach of Oded Galor and collaborators through the evidence parish registers can provide on trends in births, deaths, and marriages. He connects with the human capital theme by taking up the important information registries can provide on occupational trends.  He gives coverage to historically integrated occupational coding schemes that have been developed to categorize the occupations sometimes recorded on parish registries as in the work of Marco van Leeuwen, Andrew Miles and others (2004, 2005), but only passing mention to the major Cambridge Group project of using occupational information on parish registers to extend back in time knowledge about trends in English occupational structure (Shaw-Taylor and Wrigley 2014).

Section Three on Economic Growth contains a further five chapters that are quite varied in character and coverage.  Claude Diebolt and Faustine Perrin nominally give coverage to a range of growth theories, although they use the unified growth approach of Oded Galor and David Weil to provide a narrative of growth over the past millennium while offering an extension by incorporating implications of female economic and social empowerment into their discussion.   Gregory Clark offers a cliometric perspective on the British Industrial Revolution centering on the sources of productivity advance and identifying it as driven by an “upturn in the rate of technological innovation” (p. 207).  Although he does not provide an in-depth survey of cliometric work on the Industrial Revolution, Clark does consider some of the leading underlying explanations that have been offered including institutional and intellectual approaches and those grounded in human capital; he argues that none can provide convincing explanations. He thus concludes that the “Industrial Revolution remains one of history’s great mysteries” (p. 232). James Foreman-Peck takes up economic-demographic interactions by using a simple linear specification of the Malthusian model as his starting point and quite effectively uses it as a unifying framework for his review both of empirical evidence and causal estimation strategies. While I would have been interested in seeing further discussion of the implications of relaxing the assumptions of linearity, Foreman-Peck’s contribution should prove an effective teaching tool in showing how some simple micro-specifications can have far-reaching applications.  Emanuele Felice provides a quite detailed discussion of issues involved in constructing GDP estimates that are comparable across countries and over time and even for sub-national regions, as well as turning to the evidence and approaches in using such estimates to examine tendencies to growth convergence and factors influencing these tendencies.  Markus Lampe and Paul Sharp take up the topic of trade, turning first to the importance of trade, then to how to measure the extent of trade and market integration, then to the role of institutions, technology, and policy in determining trade and finally to the measurement and determinants of trade policy. Their coverage is very well informed, but with only a sentence or two to devote to each study they consider, the emphasis is on breadth rather than depth.

Section Four on Finance, has more unity and coherence between its four chapters than other sections of this volume.  Larry Neal’s opening contribution on the cliometrics of finance focuses specifically on surveying the market for sovereign debt from early modern times through the early twentieth century and the market for short-term commercial credit with particular emphasis on exchange rates, including extensive comments for both topics on available data sources. Neal concludes, however, with extended general reflections on both the accomplishments and limitations of the now quite extensive body of cliometric work on finance.  For his contribution, the late John James defines “Payment Systems” as “the complex of financial instruments and relationships that transfer value between buyers and sellers to complete their transactions” (pp. 353-54).  James provides a wide ranging narrative account — suitable for non-specialists that can be viewed as informed by a cliometric framework or spirit rather than directly cliometric — of the evolution of payment systems so defined from the demonetization accompanying the collapse of the Roman Empire through the early twenty-first century U.S.  In contrast to Neal and James, Matthew Jaremski organizes his survey of cliometric work on financial crises methodologically.  He first considers studies that employ survival and hazard models to examine determinants of banking crises, then turns to the use of data envelopment analysis for a production function/efficiency perspective on deposit insurance and then in the last part of the survey considers approaches to deal with simultaneity in the interaction between financial crises and more general economic activity; these include vector auto-regression, instrumental variables approaches and difference-in-difference models.  Jaremski’s exposition is lucid despite the amount of technical detail presented, though it seems aimed at specialists and researchers in the field.  Caroline Fohlin concludes the Finance section with a wide-ranging international comparative perspective on financial systems.  She starts with some basic typologies on financial systems, distinguishing first between functional and institutional perspectives and then to standard distinctions between a) bank-based versus market-based systems, b) universal versus specialized systems and c) relationship versus arms-length systems.  She then turns to the extent to which the actual historical evolution of financial systems adds complexity to these distinctions. She proceeds to consider determinants of choices between the various types of systems she distinguishes and to evidence on the nexus between finance and economic growth.  Throughout her detailed survey of a large number of studies and countries, Fohlin warns against rigid classification by over-arching categories or mono-causal explanations, leaving her with the final conclusion (p. 427) that “history matters.”

The remaining three sections of the volume each contain pairs of contribution.  The two essays in the fifth section on Innovation provides a quite interesting contrast.  Stanley Engerman and the late Nathan Rosenberg comment on “innovation in historical perspective” by arguing that uncertainty associated with the innovation process implies that the richness of historical accounts of the innovation process can capture important aspects that would be missed in an ahistorical theoretical framework. Engerman and Rosenberg were both early contributors to cliometrics; their chapter, as with that of John James described above, can perhaps be seen as more informed by a cliometric framework than involving direct application of either the theoretical or empirical methods associated with Cliometrics.  In contrast, Jochen Streb directly embraces “the Cliometric Study of Innovations,” surveying both theoretical and empirical cliometric studies of the history of innovation with a particular, though not exclusive, focus on patents as measures of innovation.

The sixth section is on “Statistics and Cycles.”  The contribution by Thomas Rahlf in this section on “Statistical Inference” is actually a history of thought of statistical inference during the twentieth century.  He attempts to link this with cliometrics in the last part of his essay by suggesting that Alfred Conrad, John Meyer and others formulating cliometric methodology were informed by a Bayesian approach and that the history of Bayesian statistics is thus relevant for understanding the methodology of cliometrics.  He also suggests that cliometric inference could benefit from further attention to the criticisms of econometric methodology offered by Rudolf Kalman of Kalman filter fame. However, neither of these suggestions is articulated in any detail. The other contribution is by Terence Mills on “Trends, Cycles, and Structural Breaks in Cliometrics,” which offers a helpful primer on developments over the past quarter century in time-series statistics and econometrics pertinent to this topic and provides a number of illustrations based on cliometric work.

In the final section on government Price Fishback contributes an essay focused on a particular historical episode in which the role of government loomed large and on which he has considerable expertise, that of the 1930s Great Depression in the United States. And Jari Eloranta brings his specialist knowledge to surveying a recurring situation in which governments have been prominent, that of war.  Given the large literatures they each consider, Fishback and Eloranta make the quite sensible choice of providing non-technical narrative overviews suitable for undergraduates and general readers.

Given the varying audiences at which the contributions appear to aim, as well as the range of formats and styles of the contributions, it may be more apt to label this volume a companion to cliometrics or a cliometric sampler than a handbook with the comprehensiveness the latter title might imply. Indeed, as already mentioned above, the editors are more circumspect than Springer’s blurb on its website about the comprehensiveness of coverage.  One can readily come up with a list of topics in which cliometrics has made important contributions that are omitted, including coverage of work on the major economic sectors, income and wealth inequality, and (as noted above) extended treatment of institutional approaches. And as suggested above, I would also have welcomed discussion of quasi-experimental approaches — both opportunities and reservations, in light of how prevalent this has become in recent research.  Nevertheless, given the apparent constraints on length presumably set by the publisher, the choice of topics is quite appropriate.  The editors are to be commended for taking on such a challenging yet important assignment and for recruiting such a strong set of contributors.  The resultant volume contains worthwhile contributions that readers from a range of disciplines and varying degrees of commitment to cliometrics will want to consult.   As more and more historians and sociologists, as well as economists, seem to be venturing into financial history, economic history, and the history of capitalism, it would be interesting to know more about how persuaded they will be about the usefulness of cliometrics by the essays in this volume.


Philippe Aghion and Steven N. Durlauf, eds. 2005. Handbook of Economic Growth Vols. 1A and 1B, Amsterdam: North-Holland Elsevier.

William Collins, Kris Mitchener, Ran Abramitzky, and Naomi Lamoreaux. 2015. “Essays: The Future of Economic History,” Journal of Economic History, 75, 4: 1228-1257.

Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman, editors. 1972. The Reinterpretation of American Economic History, New York: Harper and Row.

Oded Galor and David N. Weil. 2000. “Population, Technology, and Growth: From Malthusian Stagnation to the Demographic Transition and Beyond,” American Economic Review, 90, 4: 806-828.

Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz. 2008. The Race between Education and Technology, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

J.M. Keynes. 1922. “Introduction to H.D. Henderson, Supply and Demand,” Cambridge Economic Handbooks – 1, New York: Harcourt and Brace, pp. v-vi.

Marco H.D. van Leeuwen, Ineke Maas and Andrew Miles. 2004. “Creating a Historical International Standard Classification of Occupations: An Exercise in Multinational, Interdisciplinary Cooperation,” Historical Methods, 37, 4: 186-197.

Bart Van de Putte and Andrew Miles. 2005. “A Social Classification Scheme for Historical Occupational Data,” Historical Methods, 38, 2: 61-94.

Leigh Shaw-Taylor and E.A. Wrigley. 2014. “Occupational Structure and Population Change” in Roderick Floud, Jane Humphries, and Paul Johnson, editors, The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain, New Edition, Vol.1, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 53-88.

David Mitch is Professor of Economics at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He is the author of “Schooling for All by Financing by Some,” Paedagogica Historica, 52: 4 (August, 2016): 325-348.

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Subject(s):Development of the Economic History Discipline: Historiography; Sources and Methods
Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Education and Human Resource Development
Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Historical Demography, including Migration
History of Economic Thought; Methodology
History of Technology, including Technological Change
Military and War
Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Labor and Employment History
Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Macroeconomics and Fluctuations
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative