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The Poverty of Clio: Resurrecting Economic History

Author(s):Boldizzoni, Francesco
Reviewer(s):Petracca, Enrico

Published by EH.Net (May 2012)

Francesco Boldizzoni, The Poverty of Clio: Resurrecting Economic History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011. xi + 216 pp. $39.50 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-691-14400-9.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Enrico Petracca, Departments of Philosophy and Economics, University of Bologna.

In a well-known passage quoted by Carlo M. Cipolla (1991), the ancient historian Arnaldo Momigliano wrote: ?The historian works on the assumption that he is capable of reconstructing and understanding the events of the past. If an epistemologist manages to convince him that this is not so, the historian should change profession.? More difficult ? but to a certain extent more interesting ? would be the possibility that a historian be convinced to give up his own way of doing history by another historian.

Francesco Boldizzoni (University of Turin) belongs to a younger generation of Italian scholars and his training in both history and economics makes him ?familiar with the tricks of the trade? (p. x). The Poverty of Clio is meant to give voice to an increasing sense of dissatisfaction within the economic history profession. The subject, the author says, is undergoing a ?deep identity crisis? (p. 4) brought about by the spread of the U.S.-born ?New Economic History? ? or, as it is also labeled, ?cliometrics? ? worldwide, and across Europe in particular.

At the root of such an identity crisis one might be tempted to see the usual struggle between Modernists and Traditionalists ? a kind of prototypic Analytic/Continental divide (letting Britain out for this time) opposing the prophets of generalization, equipped with a ?hard? deductive apparatus, on one side, and inductivists and bookworms, always ready to stress the importance of context-dependent specificities, on the other. This, however, would be a rather misleading representation of the book, being neither its starting point nor its center of gravity. In fact, Boldizzoni proposes to test contemporary cliometric history-writing against what (economic) historians should do, that is, ?throw[ing] light on the workings of societies that differ to varying degrees from our own? (p. 5). This is the book?s working heuristic. The volume then ends up by revealing the ?unconfessed? (p. 5) aims of cliometrics that, along with its methodological faults, contradict its repeated claims to ?scientificity.?

Common to various strands of cliometrics ?is an ideological slant, whether conscious or unconscious, aimed at exalting values such as individualism and materialism, which are typical of certain segments of contemporary Western society, and at projecting them unduly onto the past? (p. 55). Yet relying on an ideological background is not in itself an irreparable vulnus: ?In the twentieth century,? Boldizzoni writes, ?Marxism and liberalism produced influential paradigms and informed the work of hundreds of scholars, but this influence was generally kept within the limits of decency and only rarely did it go so far as to pervert the work of the historian? (p. 7, italics added). Cliometrics transcends traditional forms of Whig history in that the ideological element here goes so far as to render historical analysis unhistorical, and therefore by definition nonhistory.

This perversion stems from an imbalanced marriage between history and economics ? the ?two cultures? that Cipolla spoke about ? in which the latter absorbs the former. Not by chance, the term ?perversion? echoes the title of a well-known article of William Cunningham (1892) in the context of his debate with Alfred Marshall on the methodology of economic history and its relationship with economics (see Hodgson 2001). But what is cliometrics? What are its boundaries? According to Boldizzoni, cliometrics ?has evolved into a literary genre having little to do with numbers in the sense of econometric testing,? as the vulgata would claim, ?though a lot to do with the deductive stance of the new institutional economics and of rational choice theory. At times these two approaches, which are not completely compatible, coexist even in the same author, giving rise to a sort of analytical schizophrenia? (p. 54).

Despite the eclecticism that characterizes current varieties of U.S.-style economic history, a common thread may be identified. The search for this thread and the discussion of its implications for the discipline is the most enjoyable part of the book.

Cliometrics has changed over the past sixty years, and Boldizzoni explores these changes thoroughly, starting from the first generation of practitioners, including Nobel laureates Robert Fogel and Douglass North, up to Avner Greif and Gregory Clark, just to mention two recent best-selling authors. In order to show their inability to deal with historical complexity, Boldizzoni proposes a simple test: are cliometric analyses historically accurate or do they lead to fictitious narratives? Many examples of serious faults and mistakes are given: the most interesting and revealing ? treated at length in chapter 3 ? is perhaps the case of Avner Greif?s incautious handling of primary sources and particularly his wrong translations from the Codice Diplomatico della Repubblica di Genova (2006, pp. 58-60), leading to an anachronistic representation of Western medieval individualism. The question that this example inevitably raises is whether history is for cliometrics an actual domain of analysis or rather a mere aggregate of facts to pick up in order to validate a theory.

At a deeper level is the criticism of cliometrics in its, let us say, obsession for the price-making market interpreted as the only natural allocation system, to which the humankind has always tended. Rational choice accounts of the past see markets and maximizing actors everywhere, while new institutional narratives focus on ?institutional? constraints that have prevented perfect market functioning. According to Boldizzoni they are biased by ?the same ethnocentric naturalism, which assigns a moral value to the differences in income, wealth, and development existing in the world, and traces them back to a pre-established order. Such differences are a confirmation of the superiority of the order incarnated by the political and economic constitution of liberal democracies? (p. 63).?

This book, however, is for the most part construens. The intriguing question ?is it possible to practice a different kind of economic history from cliometrics, without lapsing into narrative history?? leads to the answer that ?a third way is possible and, indeed, was already being extensively applied in the second half of the twentieth century? (p. 86). Boldizzoni has in mind a wide range of outstanding historians and social scientists, among who are Witold Kula, Moses Finley and Marshall Sahlins. But a prominent place is accorded to the rich and articulated tradition of the Annales school. While revisiting and reappraising its contributions, he points out its distinguishing features. The most important relates to the definition of historical knowledge provided by Marc Bloch, the co-founder of the school, not as the ?science of the past,? but rather as the ?science of men in time? (Bloch 1954). This concise definition, Boldizzoni claims, embodies the essential element of any reconstruction of the past that can be regarded as history: its focus on human societies and their changes across time and space. The twentieth-century Annalistes developed a methodology that is consistent with this definition, fostering interactions with a wide range of disciplines on the ground of historical model-building.

Against this background, Boldizzoni sets out a Manifesto (pp.150-52) for the renewal of economic history. The main desiderata would be 1) an ?adherence to primary sources?; 2) an attention for the ?historical background?, i.e. economic facts should be contextualized within the broader picture; 3) ?the careful choice of friends?: economic sociology and anthropology should replace mainstream economics; 4) ?a different use of quantitative techniques?, i.e. inductive statistics rather than methodologies based on deduction or probability. Point 5), ?a different relationship with theory,? advocates an epistemic pathway for economic history where a continuous interplay is realized between primary sources and the economic historian?s ?metatheory,? which ?is a much more general, flexible, and open construction than a specific theory. It is something similar to a Weltanschauung? (p. 151). The whole procedure is considered an alternative to the cliometric method whereby the ?historical narrative? (the output) emerges as a mere consequence of the application of theories and concepts borrowed from neoclassical and/or new institutional economics and their superimposition on historical data and facts.

Finally, let me add a personal consideration. At the end of the book (p. 155-58) it is noticed how the research agenda in economic history has recently switched from production to consumption ? an evolution that does not seem to me either neutral or natural in any sense. This replicates to some extent the fundamental dichotomy between the (classical and Keynesian) ?production paradigm? and the (neoclassical) ?exchange paradigm? in economics (Pasinetti, 2007). The switch from production to consumption attests, once more, the neoclassical blueprint on current economic history research.


Bloch, M. (1954) The Historian?s Craft, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Cipolla, C.M. (1991) Between Two Cultures: An Introduction to Economic History, New York: W.W. Norton.

Cunningham, W.? (1892) ?The Perversion of Economic History,? Economic Journal, 2(7), pp. 491-506.

Greif, A. (2006) Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy: Lessons from Medieval Trade, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hodgson, G. (2001) How Economics Forgot History: The Problem of Historical Specificity in Social Science, London: Routledge.

Pasinetti, L.L. (2007) Keynes and the Cambridge Keynesians: A ?Revolution in Economics? to be Accomplished, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Enrico Petracca is a Ph.D. candidate at the Departments of Philosophy and Economics of the University of Bologna. His M.Sc. thesis Economic Theory and Economic History: Controversies on Method was awarded the Manlio Resta Prize (2010) as the best Italian dissertation in economics.? E-mail:

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Subject(s):Development of the Economic History Discipline: Historiography; Sources and Methods
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative