Tuesday, July 3, 2012

making path dependence history

Words to think about:
But there is another reason why the historians of the past should be taken seriously. A good knowledge of historiography—and the same could probably be said of the history of economics or the history of sociology—greatly diminishes the current practitioners’ claims to being innovative. When economists say that “history matters,” they invariably think of “path dependence,” the concept introduced by Paul David (1985) and often cited as if it was a Copernican revolution. This idea not only is not new but had already been shown to be unhistorical at least seventy years ago. In his The Historian’s Craft, published posthumously in 1949, Marc Bloch warned against the “idol of origins,” which leads to “confusing ancestry with explanation” (p. 27). Just as the seed from which it develops contains the destiny of a plant only to a minimum degree, so the history of social facts results from forces that are not found in the “initial conditions” to any great degree and whose effects are not propagated automatically.
From Boldizzoni's excellent The Poverty of Clio: Resurrecting Economic History, Princeton University Press, 2011.

The spectre of "path dependence" haunts a large amount of modern research on economic history. Perhaps that is due to its close association with physical sciences and mathematics (path dependence is, after all, really a concept derived from the science of particle motion).

But Bloch is ultimately correct -- ascribing the success of something today to a few determinist factors many, many years ago is not really history. At best, it is a convenient excuse to not talk about political power's influence on the success of a particular idea or institution. At worst, it's an apology for all the evils that allow an institution to persist.

So instead of making path dependence a part of economic history, let's make path dependence history, in the sense that we no longer fall back on it as an explanatory variable when in fact it is not one at all -- as Boldizzoni remarks, a multitude of other paths always exists, and seeing why others fail or succeed throughout history is the real task of economic historians.

No comments:

Post a Comment