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What does an Economic Historian do?

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  • Written By: Gregory Hanson
  • Edited By: Susan Barwick
  • Last Modified Date: 10 December 2016
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An economic historian is an academic professional who studies the specific history of economic and business patterns and practices. Economic historians work closely with both traditional historians and pure economists and occupy an interdisciplinary position between those two fields. Typically, the work of an economic historian will employ theoretical and statistical models but also attempts to ground the work in specific historical events and circumstances. Some economic historians strive for a detached and impartial approach to history, while others, including some of the earliest and most famous champions of both capitalism and socialism, have produced works from more ideological viewpoints.

Much like cultural studies and other disciplines with clear roots in other fields, economic history occupies a position somewhere between economics and history. The discipline emerged in the interwar years, but its position at many universities remained ambiguous, as some schools saw economic historians as primarily historians, some treated them as economists, and some did see a unique intermediate role for them. In some academic systems there is a further subdivision between the work role of an economic historian, who studies the evolution of economic systems and practices over time, and that of a historical economist, who employs historical examples and methodology in an effort to test economic theories.

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The 1960s saw the rise of new economic history, an academic movement which employed very rigorous statistical methods to key moments of history in an effort to understand the underlying economic causes and effects. This movement, sometimes known as cliometrics, a name literally meaning the measurement of Clio, the muse of history, emerged at a time when historians in general were focusing more attention on both economic issues and statistical methodology. Cliometrics tended to draw economic historians away from history departments and towards economics departments, especially after the gradual decline of interest in statistical methodology among the broader community of historians.

The discipline of economic history has historically attracted a mix of technocrats and ideologues. Karl Marx, who considered himself to be, in essence, an economic historian, would have seen himself as an objective observer of history. Marx was, after all, a contemporary of Leopold von Ranke, whose ideas on the central importance of objectivity in history shaped the methods of generations of historians. Milton Friedman, the ardent 20th century advocate of market capitalism, also worked as an economic historian, and similarly possessed an ideological agenda. Friedman, more typically of modern economic historians admitted his intellectual stake in the scholarship that he produced.

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