Economics + History = … Science? A Brief Introduction to Cliometrics

I’m not sure if it says more about my lack of education or about cliometrics’ obscurity, but I first heard about the field of cliometrics from Eifelheim — a science fiction novel set in mid-14th century Germany, and based in part upon the unexpectedly entertaining synthesis of quantum physics and quantitative economic history. Or, rather, “cliogy,” as it’s called in Eifelheim. While I was reading the book, I took cliology to be a fictional branch of academia, something more or less a present-day version of Asimov’s psychohistory. After some snooping on wiki, however, I learned that the branch of history called cliometrics really does exist.

Cliometrics is “is the application of economic theory and quantitative techniques to describe and explain historical events.” The name is derived not from some scientificky sounding Latin terminology, but rather from Clio, the Greek muse of history. As a non-historian and non-economist, probably the most fascinating parts of it for me is largely the random historical-economic factoids — such as that in 1700 in Maryland, for a female indentured servant, one lash was worth about 38 cents, or about two days of labor.

Sadly, despite having snagged a Nobel in 1993, cliometrics is something of a has-been among academic disciplines. Too many articles on cliometrics are of the “What Has Cliometrics Achieved?” and “Reflections on the Cliometric Revolution” variety — it’s never a good sign for an academic field when the meta-commentary plays more prominent role than the regular kind does. The idea of making some sort of falsifiable, scientific study of history does seem appealing, but as cliometrics’ critics are quick to point out, the whole point about it being “history” means there’s too often not a complete set of data to work from, leaving researchers no choice to theorize in the gaps. The mere presence of numbers does not actually turn subjective analysis into an objective one.

Still — how can you not love a discipline that results in articles like “The Suitability of Domesday Book for Cliometric Analysis” and “An Economic History of Bastardy”?


1 thought on “Economics + History = … Science? A Brief Introduction to Cliometrics

  1. Just found this post today through the “cliometrics” tag; was a little surprised to see anyone using it on WordPress.

    I’m a Ph.D. candidate in U.S. history with some knowledge (and more opinion) about the history of cliometrics. I gather that some professional historians find the term uncongenial. For some it’s because of memories of an earlier round of “history wars” in which zealous cliometricians insisted that all future history would be based on classical economic theory and calculated with mainframe computers, and anyone who failed to get on board was a dilettante. For others, I think “Clio + metrics” just seems like a silly coinage.

    Seems to me that the combination of the muse’s name (romantic) with the positivist claims (opposite of romantic) was interesting. Anyway, cliometrics is more or less dead, but quantitative economic history is not. It has developed into not-merely-quantitative economic history.

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