Economists and historians of economics have related differently over time, and the past of the discipline has then served for varied purposes. The matter compounds when we take into account that it has been and it currently is the case that most historians of economics are in economics departments. Besides sharing the same institutional space, they also share one important event: the annual meeting of the Allied Social Science Associations (ASSA). In it, several societies (including the History of Economics Society, HES, and the American Economic Association, AER, for instance) hold their sessions in a couple of hotels that are reserved for the event. All societies care about one important thing: the head counting staff of ASSA. He goes to every session and writes down the number of attendees, which then defines the number of sessions and the size of the rooms that societies will get in the subsequent meeting. So, it is a common strategy among societies for filling in the room to invite “big names” to present a paper, chair the session or comment papers.
Historians of economics share this strategy, and try to have sessions that would engage practitioners and somehow show that history matters. However, it is not completely clear that historians are always able to get the attention of economists in general, besides those who are critical about the present state and thus see the past as a set of roads not taken. So it is worth reflecting once again about the role of the HES sessions at the ASSA meetings and how to engage with economists. After a talk with our fellow blogger Tiago Mata, we thought about asking a couple of historians of economics about this. So I wrote to Margaret Schabas (University of British Columbia and president-elect of HES), E. Roy Weintraub (Duke University), Steven Medema (University of Colorado, Denver), Kevin D. Hoover (Duke University), and David M. Levy (George Mason University). Although most emphasized that it is very important for HES and our field to keep the space at the ASSA meetings, there was some differences in terms of how best to do it. Let me quote them a bit:
It allows the HES and historians of economics their broadest potential audience, whether that be for promoting history of economics generally or for individual scholars to gain feedback on their work. The majority of those attending the HES sessions, in my experience, are not HES members. Good work presented at HES sessions thus breeds a measure of support for the field, even among those not part of the Society or actively researching in the field.
It also allows for participation in HES sessions of economists who are not generally a part of HES conferences but who have some interest in the history of economics or interest/expertise in the topic of the session. (Steve Medema)
There can be different opinions, of course, as to who the natural audience for history of economics should be. Personally, I don't think that there is only one -- say, historians of science. Many historians value the traditional role that history has played in economics itself and continue to think that economics itself would be better off if it maintained fruitful contact with practicing economists. For myself, I think that it is a two-way street and that historians of economics are also better off for their contact with current economic thinking. The ASSA meetings are an excellent venue for historians to present work that builds a bridge to the wider economics profession. (Kevin Hoover)
It is important to showcase our field to the broader group of economists (social scientists). This may not matter on any given year, but surely if even one session is attended by someone making a decision to e.g. Keep the subject taught or even required in the undergraduate curriculum, we have served a purpose. If we also enlighten scholars about the history of our subject, so much the better. (Margaret Schabas)
For those HE [history of economics] folk who think that HE is economics, this helps them feel connected. For those HE people who want to reach out to economists, this makes it seem like they are doing it. For HE people who teach in economics departments, this allows them to tell their colleagues that they are legitimate members of the economics community. (Roy Weintraub)
Thus, how best to achieve the goals mentioned? With an emphasis on postwar history of economics? Inviting well-known practitioners to talk about how they contributed to the development of a particular literature? In a panel discussion or in regular “paper-discussant” session?
Given that perspective it's probably best to have sessions only on post WWII topics, to engage the non-historical economists. Certainly no sessions on say Ricardo or Smith or heterodox figures like Marx or Hayek are appropriate since mainstream economists then get reinforced in their idea that HET [history of economic thought] is a refuge for heterodox economics and thus it's not really acceptable for their mainstream students. (Roy Weintraub)
I'm biased toward a mix of working economists and HET types. … I think it is a disaster if historians of economics only talk among ourselves. (David Levy)
As research in the history of post-WWII economics continues to expand, there are more and more occasions to involve in sessions people who were "on the scene" or in other ways connected to that history. We cannot have Adam Smith's friends and colleagues participate in sessions, but we can have (as we have) those involved in the development of experimental economics, in New Classical macro, etc. as part of our sessions. This, for my money, adds a great deal—including, at times, providing data for those writing those histories. …
So, three or four papers and then general discussion with the audience is my preferred method when papers are the order of the day. But panel discussions can also be very good for the right type of topic and with the right sort of people. (Steve Medema)
The main thing -- whatever the design -- is to present sessions that are both meaty intellectually and that engage the interests of a wide audience of non-historians. (We have other venues for engaging our internal interests.) Sessions should be preferred that leave the non-historian recognizing the value of history. These are sessions for winning friends and not for excoriating enemies. That does not mean that they should necessarily avoid viewpoints that challenge the mainstream, but they should certainly focus on modes of presentation that produce positive engagement. Sometimes that means catering to obvious interests of non-historians (e.g., anniversaries of important figures, works, or ideas) or historical reflections on issues that are currently active (e.g., financial crisis). It also means choosing topics with wide potential interest and not narrower inside-the-community disputes. It is often, I think, also useful to have sessions in which the non-historians (perhaps ones who are witnesses to the history or otherwise engage it somehow in their work) participate alongside the historians. (Kevin Hoover)
For me, history of postwar economics is critical for an engagement (not always easy) with economists. But I still remain doubtful about how many and what kind of economists are going to the HES sessions, when they have to choose among an incredible number of sessions from other societies closer to their interests in that same time slot.
P.S.: By the way, our fellow blogger Yann Giraud just called my attention at the meetings that if you search the word “history” in the ASSA online program you will get many hits. This may indicate that economists are more willing to look to the past when the confidence in their theories and models are decreased, as it perhaps happened with the 2008 crisis.