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Living Economic and Social History

Author(s):Hudson, Pat
Reviewer(s):Ville, Simon

Published by EH.NET (March 2002)


Pat Hudson, editor, Living Economic and Social History. Glasgow: Economic History Society, 2001. xv + 480 pp. ?10 (EHS members) or ?15 (nonmembers) (paperback), ISBN: 0-9540216-0-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Simon Ville, School of Economics and Information Systems at the University of Wollongong, Australia.

This book celebrates the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Economic History Society in 2001. It begins with a brief but informative history of the society, which was established at a conference at the Institute of Historical Research, London, in 1926. However, most of the book consists of short pieces, up to about 2500 words, written by over one hundred practitioners addressing the question: what economic (and social) history means to me. Their recollections, both personal and intellectual, make fascinating reading. A few authors are angry or disillusioned at the fate of economic history but the overwhelming impression is that most have found the teaching and writing of economic and social history a labor of love. Common themes are not hard to extract. The strong intellectual influences of Marx, Tawney, Braudel, Hobsbawm, Clapham, Hill, Rostow and Ashton are clear; the personal influences of Power, Postan, and Fisher as supervisors and mentors also emerge. The worth of economic history is seen in many forms: its interdisciplinarity; its flexibility; its broad-minded receptiveness to many ideas, ideologies, and methodologies; its readability and accessibility; its integrative qualities; and its attention to human welfare. The multiple, changing, and sometimes contradictory, approaches to the subject have led one contributor to refer to economic historians as Marxist price-loving capitalists (Martin Chick, p. 38). The experience of economic history is described in many ways, perhaps most memorably that, “reading it is like soaking in a hot bath and doing it is like rock climbing” (Meghnad Desai, p. 60).

The economic history boom of the 1950s to 1970s is clearly borne out in the careers of many writers, emerging particularly from the LSE and taking up new positions in the subject in universities in the British Isles and overseas. The shortage of trained economic historians relative to the expanding number of new positions is reflected in the bizarre appointment experiences of several writers, with interviews being little more than an informal chat over a cup of coffee. The reasons for the boom are clearly enunciated: the expansion in British universities, disillusionment with traditional political/constitutional history and unrealistic neoclassical economics, and the rise of the social science disciplines in which economic history was viewed as part of the core. Understanding and coming to terms with the subsequent experience of economic history, particularly the closure of most departments and the reduction in the number of posts, has certainly been more difficult and generated much less agreement.

To a number of writers, the alleged decline of the subject is linked to the ascent of the ‘new economic history’ from the 1960s; the effect was to enhance the rigor of, but diminish the market for, economic history. Others believe that a dominant oligarchy controlling the Economic History Society were keen to develop the disciplinary integrity of economic history but in the process edged out important fellow travelers such as labor, social, and business history. Many of the cross-disciplinary virtues of economic history in an era of optimism and expansion became liabilities in darker times as academic boundaries became more sharply divisive, and disciplinary groups turned inwards for self-protection: the flexible, even flighty, economic historian was caught between its behemoth parents of economics and history. Members of small economic history departments, vulnerable to calls for cost-saving economies of scale, were shuffled into either history or economics departments, a choice made more on the basis of administrative convenience than the personal wish of those affected.

Economic history has certainly changed in the last two decades but far from all contributors believe this has been entirely for the worse. In the face of organizational and numerical contraction, the intellectual rigor of the discipline has increased and the number of refereed journals expanded. The discipline now draws upon a range of theories and concepts, which are broader and more sensitive to historical analysis than neo-classical economics and more inclusive than time series econometrics. As Peter Mathias notes, after the narrowing effect of the new economic history, the new institutional economics, “opened the doors wide enough for all of us to re-enter the temple” (p. 234).

Alongside the soul-searching are interesting and entertaining personal reflections: economic and social historians always tell a good story. Negley Harte recalls being turned down as a student by UCL, where he was later to become lecturer in economic history. Clive Lee describes his career choice as ‘manifest insanity’ and then confesses to having ‘borrowed’ archival documents from the University of Manchester. F.M.L Thompson describes the bizarre teaching methods of Asa Briggs, who simultaneously dictated paragraphs of his latest book to his secretary. Gabriel Tortella first became acquainted with economic history while in jail as a student activist in the 1960s. Less creditably, Francois Crouzet confesses surprise at the criticism of the IEHA in light of the Seville 1998 debacle — this reviewer is still awaiting the refund of his registration! Perhaps best of all is Maurice Beresford’s wartime recollection that the chairman of the Conscientious Objectors Tribunal that consigned him to labor as a social worker was Sir John Clapham; forty years earlier Clapham had been appointed the first Professor of Economics at Leeds, twenty years later Beresford was to become the first Professor of Economic History at the same university!

The contributors to this volume are inevitably a self-selecting group, responding to a general request from the Society for contributions. Perhaps not surprisingly in light of the demographics of the discipline, three-quarters of writers were born in the 1920s, 30s or 40s. Unfortunately, many of the senior members of the discipline currently below retirement age have not contributed. Perhaps more worryingly, there are more contributors born before 1920 than after 1960. Maybe this is inevitable in the nature of the sample bias — the book provides an opportunity for a lifetime’s reflection. However, it also confirms the numerical contraction of the discipline, while the absence of younger views of the current state of economic history and thus its likely destiny over the next few decades is regrettable.

This book really was a joy to read — fascinating personal career experiences mixed with deeper reflection on the nature and progress of economic history. There has been no history written of economic history, as at least one contributor noted; when such a task is attempted the current study will constitute a valuable source. My only personal regret with this book is that I did not find the time to write a piece for it.

Simon Ville is Professor and Head of the School of Economics and Information Systems at the University of Wollongong, Australia. His most recent work is The Rural Entrepreneurs. A History of the Stock and Station Agent Industry in Australia and New Zealand (Cambridge University Press, 2000).

Subject(s):Development of the Economic History Discipline: Historiography; Sources and Methods
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII