Are we at some historical turn in economics?

Are we at some historical turn in economics?

(Methodos XVIII)

            Unfortunately, the authors considered so far did not recognize the relevance of technology.  The case for history and biological metaphors might be defended, but what about technology?  The case here is debatable.  My argumentation will follow an interpretation of the history of technological change, both in the economic history literature and the history of techniques.  There is a clear sense of complementarities between economics of innovation and the history of technological change.  Technological change is profoundly historical (Metcalfe 1998b, 2002).  The search for abstraction in economic history might take another turn; different from the one we are used to see with cliometrics.  Historical time, according to historians, is this continuous feature but also that perpetual change and not that classical history of purely geometrical series of coordinates (Beaujouan 1961).  History is both change and inertia (Mokyr 1998). Regarding the capitalist economy,  “[t]he clue here is to recognize that different elements in the system are changing at different rates; this feature defines any evolving system.  Adjustment speeds are nested  – some variables adjust rapidly, others more slowly” (Metcalfe 2001b).

            This focus on processes and history might be beneficial for economics and the study of techniques.  As Paul David ounce put it, “the future of economics as an intellectually exciting discipline lies in its becoming an historical social science” (David 1993). 

What can we learn from history and historians?  The usual answer is: not much, except time series and empirical material.  Nevertheless, here lies already much of the contribution of history, which can be amplified if we do not consider history in such a subservient way to econometrics and economics. 

History is a hard subject and the road ahead will not be easy.  Beyond the differences of methodologies, we can identify two main deficiencies on the side of history as a discipline and in particular in the traditional history of techniques that are: on the one side, the neglect of uncertainty in which past processes and events were embedded and, on the other side, the scant theoretical development of the explanations given.[1]    History is too much hindered by the discussion about the theories of history and does not present sufficient work in the direction toward theoretical history.  There is room for research on history and evolutionary theory on a more abstract basis that might be a positive step for the study of technological change.

[1] History – being the study of particularities, historical specificities, to take the term adopted by Hodgson, Geoffrey M (1999b): Economics and Utopia: Why the Learning Economy is not the End of History. London: Routledge, — (2001): How economics Forgot History: The Problem of Historical Specificity in Social Science. London: Routledge– is not inclined to proceed to abstractions, unless, as with economic historians, cliometricians, there are some extensions of ready to use techniques found in a well considered paradigm.


Cite this article as: {Jacquinet, Marc}, Are we at some historical turn in economics?,"{Management Critique}," in {}, 11/12/2019,

Marc Jacquinet

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