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Treating economic history as a discrete academic discipline has been a contentious issue for many years. Academics at the London School of Economics and the University of Cambridge had numerous disputes over the separation of economics and economic history in the interwar era. Cambridge economists believed that pure economics involved a component of economic history and that the two were inseparably entangled. Those at the LSE believed that economic history warranted its own courses, research agenda and academic chair separated from mainstream economics.
In the initial period of the subject's development, the LSE position of separating economic history from economics won out. Many universities in the UK developed independent programmes in economic history rooted in the LSE model. Indeed, the Economic History Society had its inauguration at LSE in 1926 and the University of Cambridge eventually established its own economic history programme. However, the past twenty years have witnessed the widespread closure of these separate programmes in the UK and the integration of the discipline into either history or economics departments. Only the LSE and the University of Edinburgh retain a separate economic history department and stand-alone undergraduate and graduate programme in economic history. Cambridge, Glasgow, the LSE and Oxford together train the vast majority of economic historians coming through the British higher education system today.
Yale University economist Irving Fisher wrote in 1933 on the relationship between economics and economic history in his "Debt-Deflation Theory of Great Depressions" (Econometrica, Vol. 1, No. 4: 337-38):
The study of dis-equilibrium may proceed in either of two ways. We may take as our unit for study an actual historical case of great dis-equilibrium, such as, say, the panic of 1873; or we may take as our unit for study any constituent tendency, such as, say, deflation, and discover its general laws, relations to, and combinations with, other tendencies. The former study revolves around events, or facts; the latter, around tendencies. The former is primarily economic history; the latter is primarily economic science. Both sorts of studies are proper and important. Each helps the other. The panic of 1873 can only be understood in light of the various tendencies involved--deflation and other; and deflation can only be understood in the light of various historical manifestations--1873 and other.
There is a school of thought among economic historians that splits economic history--the study of how economic phenomena evolved in the past--from historical economics--testing the generality of economic theory using historical episodes. US economic historian Charles P. Kindleberger explained this position in his 1990 book Historical Economics: Art or Science?.
The new economic history, also known as cliometrics, refers to the systematic use of economic theory and/or econometric techniques to the study of economic history. The term cliometrics was originally coined by Jonathan R. T. Hughes and Stanley Reiter in 1960 and refers to Clio, who was the muse of history and heroic poetry in Greek mythology. Cliometricians argue their approach is necessary because the application of theory is crucial in writing solid economic history, while historians generally oppose this view warning against the risk of generating anachronisms. Early cliometrics was a type of counterfactual history. However, counterfactualism is no longer its distinctive feature. Some have argued that cliometrics had its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s and that it is now neglected by economists and historians.
In recent decades economic historians, following Douglass North, have tended to move away from narrowly quantitative studies toward institutional, social, and cultural history affecting the evolution of economies.[a 1] However, this trend has been criticized, most forcefully by Francesco Boldizzoni, as a form of economic imperialism "extending the neoclassical explanatory model to the realm of social relations." Conversely, economists in other specializations have started to write on topics concerning economic history.[a 2]
Economic history and the history of capitalism
A new field calling itself the "History of Capitalism" has emerged in US history departments since about the year 2000. It includes many topics traditionally associated with the field of economic history, such as insurance, banking and regulation, the political dimension of business, and the impact of capitalism on the middle classes, the poor and women and minorities. The field utilizes the existing research of business history, but has sought to make it more relevant to the concerns of history departments in the United States, including by having limited or no discussion of individual business enterprises.
Nobel Memorial Prize-winning economic historians
Have a very healthy respect for the study of economic history, because that's the raw material out of which any of your conjectures or testings will come.
- Paul Samuelson (2009)
Simon Kuznets won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences ("the Nobel Memorial Prize") in 1971 "for his empirically founded interpretation of economic growth which has led to new and deepened insight into the economic and social structure and process of development".
Milton Friedman won the Nobel Memorial Prize in 1976 for "his achievements in the fields of consumption analysis, monetary history and theory and for his demonstration of the complexity of stabilization policy".
Robert Fogel and Douglass North won the Nobel Memorial Prize in 1993 for "having renewed research in economic history by applying economic theory and quantitative methods in order to explain economic and institutional change".
Our World In Data - web publication by Max Roser (at the University of Oxford) that visualises how living standards around the world changed. Makes data available and covers a wide range of topics: Trends in health, food provision, the growth and distribution of incomes, violence, rights, wars, energy use, education, environmental changes and many other aspects are empirically analysed and visualised in this open access web publication.