History and the economists

This weekend I attended the annual meeting of the American Historical Association. Most of the historians at the meeting were academics, and people like myself, unaffiliated with a university, got the opportunity to hear interesting papers and catch up on the latest trends sweeping academia. This year, the most noteworthy fashion was lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender history, which filled no fewer than eleven sessions during the three-day meeting. There also seemed to be a lot of attention given to Latin American, Asian, and African history, as many of the openings in history departments involve teaching those subjects.

Much as I enjoy the diversity of approaches to studying history, it saddens me to see how business and economic history have been marginalized within the history profession. The AHA doesn’t have much use for them, and historians who work in those fields have long since gone off to form separate organizations. As a result, many academic historians — even those who consider themselves scholars of political economy — have little or no economic training, and their presentations at forums such as the AHA meeting are entirely devoid of economic perspectives. For example, at the meeting I heard papers on the Nixon Administration’s support of black capitalism that made no mention of the economic forces buffeting the new black capitalists in the early 1970s, and I heard papers on flood control that assumed that water was the main thing on the minds of members of Congress, rather than, say, employment in their districts. I’m not arguing that every paper should contain econometric analysis, but I think the history profession as a whole has lost out by pushing business and economics aside.

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