The Practice Turn

It being August, and, unable to contribute anything worth saying about trade wars and currency politics; inspired instead by reading Joel Mokyr’s account of how a distinctive passion for useful knowledge emerged and flourished in Europe before spreading around the world, I lit out for the library to have a look at Mokyr’s preferred sources on the evidence of choice-based cultural change. The economic historian has underscored why evolving preferences, social learning, and its diffusion, are among the most interesting topics in all of social science.

In Mokyr’s  index, anthropologist Robert Boyd and economists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis are at the head of a column of other cultural evolutionists and evolutionary psychologists who argue that humankind is an inherently cooperative species.  If in fact, in the view of experts, Homo recriprocans is gradually replacing Homo economicus (as Bowles and Gintis once put it), that development would certainly be news.

Why, then, did I first spend a full day reading two recent issues of History of Political Economy (HOPE), the quarterly journal published by Duke University Press?

Not often do I get a jolt from opening a professional journal, but that’s what I experienced when I began to read “The History of Macroeconometric Modeling,” by Marcel Boumans and Pedro Garcia Duarte, in the June issue. In this first of a series of paper prepared for a 2017 conference, the editors explain how their project reflects a changing conception of what the work of historian should be about.

A “practice turn,” Boumans and Duarte write, originated in the 1980s in the academic domain known as Science Studies. It had proceeded to influence the philosophy and history of science, and gradually reached history of economics.  (The Cost of Living in America: A Political History of Economic Statistics (Cambridge, 2009), by Thomas Stapleford, of the University of Notre Dame, in a prime exemplar.)

Previously historians had concerned themselves mainly with economic theories and schools of thought, write the editors. It had become time to extend their interests to practice: to models, measurements, and experiments, to worlds populated by people less familiar than the famous theorists, “their offices not furnished by bookcases alone.”

There follows a series of studies of particular episodes: the group around Lawrence Klein, 1938-1955; the construction of the Fed-MIT-Penn model, 1964-1974; the contest between the latter and that of the St. Louis Fed model, 1965-1975, to name only the first three.  The studies seem to me uneven, but they seem new:  the first studies that I have seen of what has become an important and highly technical industry.  If future issues continue in their track, I thought, HOPE will have become significantly more interesting.

Sure enough, the August issue turned the new “lens of practice” on the community of contributors to the journal themselves.  Yann Giraud, of University of Cergy-Pontoise, surveyed “Five Decades of HOPE” in a long and fascinating article.  Those fifty years he divided into three epochs in the history of the community: a period of “Setting Standards” for the field, 1969-1983; another of “Continuities and Rupture,” 1984-2002, as literary theorists and post-modern philosophers began to make their appearances in economics; and a third, “Age of Fracture,” 2003-2018, in which historians must ponder the choice of remaining within economics departments, where there appear to be ever-fewer jobs, versus venturing out into the larger community of history of science, where fiercer doctrinal storms may rage.

Giraud is especially interesting on the role of HOPE’s annual supplements in forging Grand Narratives.  These annual conference volumes contain a dozen or so papers organized around a carefully chosen theme.  The first appeared in 1992.  Since journalists are in the Grand Narrative business, too, I pay special attention to these. And because I couldn’t find a list of those volumes elsewhere, I made one here. That was enough, I thought, for one week’s efforts.  I want to get back to the news.

Annual supplements of History of Political Economy

1992 – Toward the History of Game Theory

1993 – Non-Natural Social Science [Philip Mirowski’s More Heat than Light]

1994 – Higgling

1995 – New Perspectives on Keynes

1996 – The post-1945 Internationalization of Economics

1997 – The New Economics and Its History

1998 – The Character of the Transformation of American Economics

1999 – Economics’ Engagement with Art

2000 – The Concept of Applied Economics

2001 – The Age of Economic Measurement

2002 – The Future of the History of Economics

2003 – Oeconomics in the Age of Newton

2004 – Seven Decade of the IS-LM Model

2005—Setting the Table [the role of government]

2006 – Agreement on Demand: Consumer Theory in the Twentieth Century

2007 – Economists’ Lives

2008 – Keeping Faith, Losing Faith [severing ties to religious belief]

2009 – The Neoclassical Growth Model and Twentieth Century Economics

2010 – Unsocial Science [relationships with neighboring disciplines]

2011 – Histories of Econometrics

2012 – Observing the Economy

2013 – The Economists as Public Intellectual

2014 – MIT and the Transformation of American Economics

2015—Market Failure in Context

2016 – Economizing Mind: When Economics and Psychology Met… or Didn’t

2017 – Age of the Applied Economist

2018 – Writing the History of Development Economics





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