In this interview, we speak to Claude Diebolt, CNRS research professor of economics at the University of Strasbourg, about life as a researcher in the field of cliometrics, and explore the latest and most pertinent topics in economic history and how they impact current debates.
Cliometrica and the Handbook of Cliometrics are mobilizing historical archives, theoretical models and methods of economics and quantitative history in general. Research in cliometrics aims to discriminate between alternative theories and, in doing so, to discuss the multiplicity of misrepresentations of economic history (myths, falsifications, deformations, negations or omissions). It aims to shed light on past, present and future economic and social policy, on the one hand by emphasizing the reliance to the past of economic and social realities, and on the other hand by seeking to transform the modern vision of a major historical debate: the determinants of long run economic growth. The ambition is to understand and to explain, i.e. to produce a quantitative projection of the social sciences on the past, structured by economic theory and mathematical modelling, the building of ground-breaking data from archival sources, and using statistical and econometric models. In my view, economic history through cliometrics is precisely the very definition of economics.
It is the lack of relevant data more than the lack of relevant theory that is often the greater problem in research. In this way, cliometricians have made some of the greatest contributions to the fields of economics and history by discovering and compiling new data sets that can then be used by future researchers to better understand the evolution and growth of economies over time. The accumulation of the data is in itself monumental in many respects, but its usefulness has been expanded by the rapid growth of computing power. The ability to handle “big data” is not a cliometric issue by itself, but the construction of significant, important historical data sets, which can then be analyzed using the latest econometric techniques and computer programs, is very much a contribution of cliometrics. The marriage of cliometrics and big data is a natural one, and has been exploited by economic historians in new and creative ways.
Contrary to the perceived divergence of economists and historians, the skills of a cliometrician include, and indeed require, those of both the economist and the historian. Well before the dawning of cliometrics, Edwin Gay, in his 1941 inaugural presidential address to the Economic History Association, preached that economic historians needed to wed the skills of economists with those of historians in order to accomplish their task. He believed such a union was essential, but difficult to accomplish. That has not changed over the past three quarters of a century. What has changed is the degree to which those economic skills have become more formalized and technically demanding. But Joseph Schumpeter warns us not to forget history amidst the attention paid to the technical and mathematically attractive precision of models. He argued that “scientific” economists must command the techniques of statistics, theory, and history. And, he declared, history is “by far the most important”. Inspired by this conviction, my main research work during the last ten years addressed the relation between economic growth, human capital and gender equality in the very long run. The oft unheralded but important role of data set creation is one of the pillars of my research agenda. It is less sexy than its brethren, economic theory and econometric techniques, but it has grown in prominence and value as a result of the computer revolution as has the ability to conduct cutting edge econometric tests on said data. My ambition for future research is twofold: building a bridge between theoretical models (of growth and cycles) and economic history; and encouraging economists to examine more systematically these theories grounded upon history while nevertheless aiming at finding general laws. This middle road between pure empiricism and abstract theory might open the door for the achievement of a unified approach of the social sciences, enabling the scientific community and the society in general to explain current economic issues in the light of the past and to understand more deeply the historical working of socio-economic processes.
What makes economic historians and cliometricians unique is not their use of historical data or their focus on the past, but that they study the growth and evolution of economies over the long term. In this way, economic history’s closest kin is development economics. In addition, the attention that economic historians give to noneconomic factors, such as legal and political systems, distinguishes them from economic theorists. Given the longer time span economic historians consider, doing so gives fuller attention to changes in institutions. Many exciting projects on inequality, gender equality, human capital, health, migration, crises, etc. are major topics in the current literature. Economic crises for example pose a similar challenge as the historical study of wars. Wars and economic crises are the result of conscious choices (rational decisions) made by lots of people following their self-interest… even they led to wildly irrational results. We learned from history that in such uncertain periods, confidence, fear, a propensity to gamble, follow the leader effect, stories are central to explain decision making. Often, I have the feeling that animal spirits are stronger than rational choices! According to this statement, lessons from the past (through analogies and with no paralogisms) became central.
About Claude Diebolt