Hindsight, it’s a wonderful thing

By Kevin O’Sullivan

‘Governments, consultancies and investment banks rushed to hire economists, who were thought to possess vital skills and information. Historians, by contrast, were treated as mere entertainers and storytellers. They were archive-grubbers, lacking in scientific method – good on television, but useless with a PowerPoint and no help in government or the boardroom.’

A tad simplistic, a little provocative, Gideon Rachman’s comments in the Financial Times on the difference between historians and economists – he’s on ‘our’ side – have stuck in my brain. And not just because of the conversation they sparked in that august journal and across the blogosphere.

About a week ago, I gave a paper at a symposium organised by the Development Studies Association Ireland, the lone historian among a cohort of social scientists, economists, aid workers, natural scientists, aid officials and bureaucrats. Great company and a great audience to test some of the theories of my current project – the history of Irish foreign aid, in 15 short minutes. But I could see it in their eyes, and I could hear it in the question of one audience member: yes, this is all very well and a nice little story too, but what does it tell us about aid giving in the recessionary climate of 2010?

Well, quite a lot actually, I replied. But just what is not the point of this post. Or, rather, it is. When DSA president Lawrence Haddad spoke earlier in the day on the contribution of development studies to policy-making and poverty relief, his emphasis on finding common ground between research and practice was thought-provoking. Academics, he said, drawing a rather nice analogy, need to make sure the song we’re humming in our heads is the same one the rest of the world is hearing.

As I listened, I couldn’t help but think (again) about our use as historians. What happens if we can’t sing or – worse – no one is even listening? My thoughts drifted back to that FT debate. ‘Historians’, economist Tim Harford wrote in reply to Rachman, ‘deal in hindsight. It is a wonderful thing. But it is not the only thing.’

It’s true, Mr Harford, that history is not about models of understanding the world in the way sociology, political science and anthropology are. And it’s true that economics can explain the world in ways that history cannot. But isn’t there some beauty to our equivocalness? Like magpies we borrow from other disciplines to help us to explain the world. A little postcolonial theory here, a little constructivism there, sprinkled with some post-structuralism. Yet where our work differs is in its open-endedness, its narrative complexity, and the way we approach our conclusions. The power is in the message: here’s our take on things, here are a few conclusions, but the real jewels are found in the journey. (I’ll happily admit, of course, that this is something of an ideal type, and raises all sorts of issues about objectivity, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

We can forgive the economists whose models failed to predict the burst of our most recent bubble. And I’m happy to let Philippe Legrain argue the distinction between the effectiveness of macro- and microeconomics in the Rachman-Harford debate. But can we as easily forgive the short memories of those who too easily forgot the story of the difficult 1970s? And anyway, isn’t there a name for the people who do remember? That’s right: economic historians.

Image: © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons

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4 Responses to “Hindsight, it’s a wonderful thing”

  1. puesoccurrences Says:

    I was at the Economic and Social History Society of Ireland’s annual conference this past weekend at Cork on the subject of ‘Booms and Busts’. Most of the papers got chuckles from the audience as the presenters spelled out ‘bust’ scenarios and political reactions which sounded all too familiar. If it were not so common, the ways in which we repeat ourselves would be shocking. Perhaps there is an evolutionary limitation on our ability to apply past knowledge to present situations. In order to feel that life is meaningful we must be convinced that every situation is completely novel!
    Juliana

  2. eoin magennis Says:

    Gideon Rachman’s piece has stirred more angst among economists than historians. This may be because, as Kevin says, he is on ‘our’ side. However it is also due to the fact that it was a good broadside against the ‘certainty’ of economists and the belief that that discipline can be a ‘hard science’. Historians, of course, have sometimes dreamed the same dream and then…woken up.

    That said, I don’t share Kevin’s confidence in economic historians holding all the answers. We are very lucky to have people of the calibre of Kevin O’Rourke and Cormac O Grada doing this work in Ireland. But this should not blind us to the worrying tendency of economic history to become more econometric in an effort to be a ‘mini-me’ of economics. In the long run that may not help them to remember too clearly.

    • Thomas McGuinness Says:

      Eoin I came across your name in several publications concerning the Maginnes family. I have been doing research and have hit a dead end. I’ve traced my family back to Ballintemple Townland County Armagh (Patrick McGuinness, Father Michael McGuinness). I’m sorry to reply personally on here but there was no other means to find a contact for you. I’m hoping you might know something of the Magennis/McGuinness history in this area of Armagh. If you would be so kind to reply my email is thomas7184@gmail.com. I appreciate any time or help.

  3. Ronan L Says:

    Great article!

    @eoin magennis
    It could be semantics but a lot of economic historians are really either: “historians of economic thought” (like Antoin Murphy) or “historical economists” (like Kevin O’Rourke). It is only natural that the latter should try to ensure as much economic rigour as possible, although as you note, it would very odd if the former did so too.

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