Economists vs historians

Chris Blattman:

Most papers that show “history matters” try to convince us of some general theory of development from their very specific case study. We like our papers to tell us that the world is systematic and the forces of development are deterministic.

Judging by the paucity of papers that say so, however, we don’t like to hear that the world is complex and (sometimes) behaves in ways almost impossible to predict. Historians are more comfortable with the idea of “critical junctures”, and events that spin societies off in one direction or another.

4 replies
  1. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:

    Indeedy, nice post. In economists defense I would point out that at university there was a lot of talk of history dependence and what it means – so it isn’t that economic scientists are ignoring it, just that when we come to practical analysis we may not give the right sort of weight to these issues.

    The interesting question is why – I’d put it down to the same reason why economists are uncomfortable with preference shocks. It feels like “assuming your result” and is hard to truly test or observe in real time 🙂

  2. Paul Walker
    Paul Walker says:

    But doesn’t this just move the problem back one level. What you now have to do is explain the what, where and why of “critical junctures”. What are “critical junctures”? Why did they occur at this place and at this time?

    • Matt Nolan
      Matt Nolan says:

      I would hazard to guess you use models of multiple equilibrium, and try to make the process of equilibrium selection more transparent.

      Of course, this runs into the same sort of issue as assuming that preferences aren’t stable … and as a result, it is something that requires great care. And potentially a recognition that our ability to understand what, where, and why is oft limited.

    • jamesz
      jamesz says:

      Ideally, yes, we would like to explain those. As Matt says, without a general model of almost everything, that could be extremely difficult. Consequently, our ideas about what is important may be right without having a lot of predictive power.

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