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Economic history is the study of how economic phenomena evolved from a historical perspective. Analysis in economic history is undertaken using a combination of historical methods, statistical methods and by applying economic theory to historical situations. The topic includes business history and overlaps with areas of social history such as demographic history and labor history. Quantitative (econometric) economic history is also referred to as cliometrics.


Development as a separate field

Treating economic history as a legitimate separate 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 theory 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 department 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 it's 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 Glasgow retain separate economic history departments and stand-alone undergraduate and graduate programmes in economic history. The University of Warwick now has the greatest number of economic historians working in an economics department anywhere in the UK, but has virtually no PhD students specialising in the subject. The LSE, Glasgow and the University of Oxford together train the vast majority of economic historians coming through the British higher education system.

In the US, economic history has for a long time been regarded as a form of applied economics. As a consequence, there are no specialist economic history graduate programmes at any mainstream university anywhere in the country. Instead economic history is taught as a special field component of regular economics PhD programmes in some places, including at University of California, Berkeley, Harvard University, and Yale University.

Relationship between economics and economic history

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: 337-338): '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?.[1] The professional society for economic historians in Europe is called the European Historical Economics Society to reflect this emphasis. Most economic historians today, however, do not make this fine distinction between the two schools of thought and the term historical economics has gone out of fashion somewhat.

Closely related to the historical economics approach to economic history is that of cliometrics. This refers to the systematic use of economic theory and econometric techniques to study economic history. The term 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 inclusion of history is crucial in formulating solid economic theory. Cliometrics is a type of counterfactual history.

Nobel Prize winning economic historians

Milton Friedman won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences 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 in 1993 for "having renewed research in economic history by applying economic theory and quantitative methods in order to explain economic and institutional change". Merton Miller, who started his academic career teaching economic history at the LSE, won the Nobel in 1990 with Harry Markowitz and William Sharpe.

Notable economic historians

See also


  1. ^ Charles P. Kindleberger (1990), Historical Economics: Art or Science?, University of California Press, Berkeley

Further reading

  • Rondo Cameron and Larry Neal (2003, 4th ed.) A Concise Economic History of the World: From Paleolithic Times to the Present, 480 pp., Oxford. Description and Table of Contents,
  • N.F.R. Crafts (1987). "economic history," The New Palgrave: A Dictionary of Economics, v. 2, pp. 37-42.
  • Milton Friedman and Anna Jacobson Schwartz (1963). A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960. Princeton. Page-searchable links to chapters on 1929-41 and 1948-60 A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Joel Mokyr, ed. (2003), The Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 5 vols. Description.
  • Giuseppe Felloni and Guido Laura, Genoa and the history of finance: A series of firsts? 9th November 2004, ISBN 88-87822-16-6 (book can be downloaded at

External links


Articles and lectures

Professional societies

Historical statistics

Recent economic history conferences

Economic History Services

  • EH.Net Economic History Services - Includes Economic History Encyclopedia, Ask the Professor, Book Reviews, databases, directories, bibliographies, mailing lists, and an inflation calculator.
  • EHE - An Economic History of Europe For students of economic history, includes links to major databases, technology descriptions, examples of use of data, a forum for economic historians.


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