The French Cliometric Association


Founded in 2001, the French cliometric association is aimed at re-launching cliometrics in France and abroad, that is to say international research on quantitative history structured by economic theory and using statistical and econometric methods.

As good Popperians, we consider that scientific work is not the production of 'real' results but consists of submitting oneself to rational criticism, that is to say accepting the testing of a theory by facts and being ready for a possible refutation. A science is objective not because the researcher lacks sensitivity or political ideas and is protected from interference between his work and value judgements (although he must eliminate this to address the problems more clearly), but because his results can be subjected to the criticism of the community of honest researchers. 

With regard to cliometrics, more than ever before perhaps, we have a curious feeling that for many historians and even economists, this research discipline in social science is a synonym first of conversation stopper and secondly that of a research orientation that is tending to become exhausted, as if we were experiencing a kind of climacteric of cliometrics. This is all the more regrettable as doubts concerning the over-mathematisation of economics since the early 1980s are encouraging numerous specialists to go back to history. Conversely, formalisation and the taking into account of socio-economic mechanisms in history has obviously led to progress in the latter, both in hypotheses and interpretation methods. In fact, every scientific discipline has links of varying strengths with neighbouring disciplines and there are obviously relations of complementarity and competition between them. Applied to cliometrics, this reasoning assumes that economics produces analytical tools used by history. However, cliometrics is not limited to the testing of economic hypotheses. More historical knowledge often makes it possible to temper economic proposals that are too rapidly imposed as legitimate. In short, the conditions for effective bartering should now be set up to enable the merging of history and economics. But, how can such a 'communion' be initiated?

Firstly, economists must be able to achieve a degree of historicity in their analyses. Secondly, historians should be made aware of the need to use theories, models and paradigms to explain historical causalities. This challenge is made all the more stimulating by its close correlation with the Methodenstreit (still in progress) between the partisans of new economic history or cliometrics and those of less quantitative economic history.

Today, before moving on to this important but above all collective stage, we are seeking to establish a kind of Soll und Haben, that is to say a balance with, on the debit side, the reasons that we think contribute to accounting for the suspicion attracted by cliometric work, and on the credit side the features that encourage us to continue our pioneer work in the discipline.

First of all, we have selected three reasons that should firstly enable us to bury the past while defining the outline of a second breath, a kind of new Weltanschauung in the line of Labroussian history or the quantitative history initiated in Europe by Simon Kuznets.

• The first reason for suspicion with regard to cliometrics certainly lies in the fact that our discipline -resulting from a meeting between history and economics- still has a low public profile today and attracts few researchers.

• The second reason concerns the fact that cliometrics does not yet have a semantic and conceptual base (with its problematics, hypotheses, methods, etc.) that is accepted more or less unanimously by both economists and historians. The aim is obviously not for everybody to adopt the same way of thinking but to achieve a kind of common language.

• The third reason is above all institutional and related to the fact that economic history in France, for example, with the exception of several CNRS laboratories, is taught only at history faculties. This is obviously not a problem in itself, but it prevents the training and hence the recruiting of young economists likely to work and develop in this field. A similar problem is seen in the institutional field in Germany where the Habilitationsschrift prevents, in its own way, the accomplishing of any dynamic career. It is only in the United Kingdom and the United States, where the cultural burden is lighter than in France and than in Germany in particular, that it would seem that a link between economics and history might be possible, but seemingly at the expense of the latter.

Beyond these difficulties to be solved, it is also necessary to present the favourable prospects or at least the initiatives to be taken to gradually broaden our scope for manoeuvre with regard to the existing constraints.

• Firstly, we should clarify our way of writing. We should for example say why we use such-and-such a statistical technique or such-and-such an economic hypothesis or, of course, why we do not.

• It is also necessary to apply a procedure displaying scientific excellence to convince both historians and economists of the pertinence of the cliometric approach and hence the combined use of historical discourse, economic theory, statistical tools and mathematical modelling. It is perhaps also necessary to go into major contemporary questions more systematically and, by doing this, show how the historical approach can be used to better describe the present situation without paralogism.

• Finally, we should be present not only in specialised journals but also in general publications covering economics and history in order to spread the teachings of the discipline as widely as possible.

In short, it seems important to re-launch work in cliometrics to participate in the drawing up of collective responses to questions that are fundamental for the future of our societies. What are the determinants of sustainable economic growth? Can only technical progress increase social well-being or can capital accumulation also lead to a permanent increase in per capita incomes? What are the factors of production that engender sustainable economic growth: physical capital, environmental capital, human capital, social capital or technological knowledge? What mechanisms ensure the long-term growth of market economies? And so on.

In fact, if we were able to establish, for example, a particular causal link governing the periods of development or contraction of the economic and social system in all the developed countries, it would also be possible to determine whether the present structural problems in the social system are the result of the overall difficulty in the economic system or whether, on the other hand, the economic problems result from the organic difficulties in the social system.

The stakes are considerable. Indeed, it is easy to understand, depending on the view taken, that the policy to be followed by the public authorities would not be the same. If the social system is 'driving' the economic system, priority should be given to measures to re-establish social balance during periods of economic difficulty in order to come out of the depression phase. However, if the opposite is true, priority must be awarded to restoring the major economic balances, thus enabling the subsequent achievement of balance of the social system.

Claude DIEBOLT, for AFC.
Summer 2001.


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