Published by EH.NET (April 2005)


Joel Mokyr, editor, The Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. xli + 2730 pp. (five volumes), ?420/$695 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-19-510507-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Robert Whaples, Department of Economics, Wake Forest University.

First a few caveats: 1) I haven’t read this five-volume reference work cover-to-cover. Doing so would be a Herculean task (perhaps Promethean or Athenian would be a more apt metaphor?). The collection includes almost nine hundred entries. The articles run to roughly 2500 pages and most pages pack about 900 words. Instead, I’ve browsed through it unsystematically, reading a mix of articles on topics I know a bit about and others on which I know virtually nothing. I’ve also turned to it on numerous occasions when seeking additional background for a lecture, a student’s paper, or one of my own. 2) I contributed two of the encyclopedia’s entries — one (with Sam Williamson) on cliometrics and one on the economy of the United States since the Civil War. 3) I’m a reference book aficionado. My favorite two genres of reading as a kid were atlases and almanacs. (No kidding.) Accordingly, when this work landed on my desk, I could have found another reviewer, but I decided to review it myself. (Note that editors at the Journal of Economic History and Enterprise and Society ended up hanging onto it, as well.) 4) I edit a somewhat similar work, the EH.NET Encyclopedia of Economic and Business History (see EH.NET’s encyclopedia is much less ambitious and is designed mainly for high school and college students, while the volume under review aims at college students and above.

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History has been advertised as “the definitive reference on world economic history throughout time.” It assuredly is. The advertising flyer touts it as “comprehensive … international … interdisciplinary … authoritative … accessible.” On a 100-point scale, I’d rate it at 99, 90, 98, 98, and 95 in these five categories. The collection is so comprehensive that there are several encyclopedias embedded within the broader encyclopedia. For example, the coverage of agricultural topics runs past one hundred pages, probably exceeding 100,000 words. Most entries explain unfamiliar terms, the copy editing is superb and only a handful of entries use mathematical language, making the work unusually accessible. If only it were available online …

I’ve discussed the encyclopedia with many users. If there is a sustained ripple of criticism, it is that the collection, despite its avowed intentions, is still too Eurocentric. For example, the volume contains about 550 pages of entries on specific countries and regions. By my quick calculations, about 42 percent of those pages are on Europe, with another 6 percent on English-speaking countries. 29 percent is on Asia, 12 percent on Africa, and 10 percent on the Americas south of the U.S. Moreover, in many of the excellent articles covering broader topics (such as lotteries or canal transportation or immigration — to randomly select a few), the focus is mainly on Europe and its offshoots. Likewise, the volume is loaded with quantitative tables and figures, but this evidence is noticeably and frustratingly thinner on non-Western subjects.

The critique is somewhat accurate, but I think that it is aimed incorrectly. Based on conversations with other contributors, the editors seem to have gone out of their way to push contributors to internationalize the material in their entries. Any lack of internationalization, I believe, is instead due to the state of the economic history field. As Joel Mokyr notes in his thoughtful introduction, “To some extent it is inevitable that the economic history of the ‘West’ is over-represented. The bulk of modern research in the past decades has been on North America and Europe. Scholarship and research are what economists call ‘normal goods’: as the rich countries of the Western world have become even richer, they have been able to afford to engage in the scholarship that looked in the material past of humanity, and naturally, this was biased toward their own past” (1: xxiii). Should someone attempt such a synoptic collection a generation from now, I suspect that the balance would shift markedly away from the “West,” as China, India, Latin America and other regions continue to develop economically.

As is almost inevitable, a few of the authors seem to overstate the importance of their topics and there are a few misfires. One example is when the article on “Forests and Deforestation” asserts that “thanks to its forests, New England became the most powerful and wealthiest part of British North America” (2: 356) (This is perhaps, one of the articles that “overdoes” it, as well, talking of humanity’s 10,000-year “war on the forests” and not discussing recent reforestation in developed regions.) Another case is the entry on “Financial Panics and Crashes,” whose coverage of the Great Depression in the U.S. gives an antediluvian John Kenneth Galbraith take on the “Great Crash,” devoid of a sense of subsequent research. To the editors’ credit, such lapses are very rare.

At the Economic History Association book display in Nashville, a crowd gathered around the just-released Oxford Encyclopedia and proceeded to “ooh” and “aah.” On skeptic, however, wondered aloud, “what would you do with it?” My advice would be to read it and assign it. It is so packed with information useful to the busy economic historian, that the marginal product of consulting it or even simply browsing it is likely to be higher than from reading almost anything else.

As a contributor, I was impressed by the carefulness of the instructions and guidance I received from the editors. As a reader, I am equally impressed by the outcome. Joel Mokyr — and the rest of his team: Maristella Botticini, Maxine Berg, Loren Brandt, Erik Buyst, Louis Cain, Jan de Vries, Paul Lovejoy, and John Munro — deserve our congratulations. (See for more details.)

Robert Whaples is Director of EH.NET and editor of EH.NET’s encyclopedia.