History of Economics Playground

Contextualizing one and other @ ESHET 2012

My attempt at a double riddle. "I find familiar faces only in unfamiliar places. Who am I? And whom are the faces?" The answer to the first is, I am an academic, to the second, my conference buddies. 

This weekend I was at the annual meetings of the European Society for the History of Economic Thought (ESHET) in the enlightened town of St. Petersburg. These events collect some 150 plus scholars from a range of disciplines that have a deep to passing interest in the history of economics. The majority are practicising economists, but you will find also sociologists, anthropologists, philosophers, cranks and even the occasional historian. All are misfits. They cross continents and pay for expensive visas to have a chance to talk about their latest work, some are in departments where no one cares about what they do. They wine, dine and pontificate for three packed days in a different venue every year. Some occuppy those days with sightseeing, and there are plenty of sights in St. Petersburg. Most find a compromise between slumping through talks and drifting away for beers in the park. I spent Sunday at the Hermitage (see pic).

[ESHET's symbol is a Dracma, the pictured one is from the Hermitage. My photo.]


I won't try to review the meetings. Although the conference had an ample theme "Institutions", it is nearly impossible to move a community sown with such loose and thin ties, on a preassigned subject. (I know because I tried with Harro Maas and John Davis when we organized the same society meetings in 2010.) So you pick sessions with people you know and trust, or subjects that you know nothing about but catch your fancy. Two highlights of the meetings. The fist was my growing infatuation with the man and the work that is Donald Winch. The other was the Blanqui lecture for the best book in the history of economics given by Simon Cook, author of A Rounded Globe of Knowledge: The Intellectual Foundations of Alfred Marshall's Economic Science. Cook gave a masterclass on how to write and deliver a history lecture. He whet everyone's appetite and poked the anger of a few by quoting a compromising excerpt from Alfred Marshall's Principles. On face of it the great economist looked like a proto-nazi. Cook went on to show how we are deaf to the english language and its meaning. He contextualized Marshall's theory of the mind, and the moment of the writing of the excerpt, opening a much more layered, ambivalent and dialogical understanding of Marshall's theory of society, race and nation. A well delivered talk, with the self-deprecating humour that every audience needs when intimidated by the intellect of the speaker.
Making notes for this post I realized that I have been going to conferences like this since 2001. More than one decade gone and they start to feel quite different. I surely changed. But I think the community has changed too. I number three observations of a decade of Tiago's conference touring. 
1. Less Jeremiad
I recall getting very angry many times some years ago, as I heard the betters of the history of economics talking of paradise lost. Presidential lectures and plenty of sessions were devoted to a peculiar self-flagelation of remembering a distant past, when I was not born, when historians of economics walked with the giants of economics who did what we did, and that since the 1960s, some say 1940s, some say 1890s, the history of economics had been losing ground, crippled and pushed to a corner. It must be because I am Portuguese, but I am deeply suspicious of dreams of glories lost. It is one of the great offenses to the imagination of the living to speak of a forever lost golden age, to which you never had a chance to participate. I am happy to report that there is much less of that now, and happily forsake the chance to get angry.
(I won't talk here about jobs, because jobs is all we talk about and no one really listens (in case you are wondering, yes, our jobs, not the unemployment rate).) 
2. Hold the presses
A few years back there was much planning and concerted protest to raise the status of the history of economics journals, a bread and butter matter for applicants of that sought-after assistant professorship or for scholars facing promotion committees. Two journals in the field have recently been included into the Thompson-Reuters Social Science Citation Index: History of Political Economy (Duke Uni Press) and European Journal of the History of Economic Thought (Taylor Francis). I am sure it will not take long before Journal of the History of Economic Thought (Cambridge Uni. Press) makes that list, hopefully in the company of Journal of Economic Methodology (Taylor Francis) who is friendly to having some history spill on its pages. The more journals join the index, or get captured by the bots of google scholar, the higher the impact scores of historians of economics. And then new journals are bursting into the scene. The History of Economics Review has long been in existence and so has History of Economic Ideas. New is the Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics. Oeconomia and History of Economic Thought and Policy, are effectively re-launching for international calls for papers, but were pre-existing French and Italian journals in history of economics. Although many scholars still aim to send their papers to HOPE first (you will get the best copy editing of your life!) and look for second bests if they get a rejection, it is becoming more and more common to tailor writings for one of these journals and to ignore the hierarchy. 
I can't guess how this publishing landscape will look like in a decade. The location of the author seems to matter for choice of journal, but not much, the theme of the article seems to matter for a few, and there is a perception of differing historiographical standards, and yet picking up the issues of the journals one finds that anything goes. Adding to this, the business model of academic publishing is in crisis and hotly contested, how the journals of historians of economics will adapt, adopt and improvise is unclear. 
I mentioned one downward trend, and one upward trend, finally we get to an absence. 
3. The end of historiography
The great historiographic debates are mute. In 2001 when I got into this business everyone was still raw of debating the future of the field. Some of those conversations had been had that Spring (see HOPE special issue of 2002), but the opening salvos were from much earlier, as early as 1969. I object to most of that marketing talk, particularly when it sacrifices intellectual value to an accounting of fantasy alliances with historians of science, sociologists of science or economists heterodox or orthodox. I unwelcome the intrusion and distraction to think of community that way, passively and submissively. But for all its sins of subalternaty, those debates lent clarity to ways of practicing history, and they opened a discussion about historiographical values.
ESHET in St. Petersburg and in all other places, including its outreach conferences in Latin America and Japan, is an exercise of conferencing by expeditionary force. Historians are sent to these places, to talk history to the locals, and try to convince them to come to the next year's event, to pay dues to the societies, to publish in the journals. The conference moves on to another country and the numbers grow, a bit. All are welcomed. A lot of mediocrity creeps in unchecked for the sake of inclusiveness and bolstering our numbers. I worry that no one cares.  
Today, everyone is busy building edifices of scholarship upon their elected foundations. Some build neo-gothic cathedrals, others shacks of ticky tacky. Everyone is set in their ways unpreturbed.. and that preturbes me... Perhaps because it suggests that there is no community, no collective agency posing questions, giving answers and moving on. In this mode, conferences become exposition to dozing off audiences. They are void of confrontation with red eyed publics. It is all polite, smiley, summery and bland like crumpled cotton jackets. 
I am not making the case for gatekeeping, although gates need to be kept, but instead a longing for passionate engagement and for the vitality of a self-examining community. I am as guilty as anyone for failing to razzle the rabble. I lack the stamina of the firebrand, and my legs hobble at the cry of battle. But I know when I am missing something. There is no best friend than a formidable enemy. And there aren't enough enemies around.