Cliometrics Shows its Teeth !

The New Economic History (a term proposed by Jonathan Hughes) or Cliometrics (coined by Stanley Reiter), meaning literally the measurement of history, is of very recent origin. The first to claim involvement in it were Conrad & Meyer in 1957 and 1958.

The birth of cliometrics amounts to a revolution, a total break with traditional economic history. Whether this is true or not is doubtless of little importance today. As eminent a defender of the new school as Robert Fogel perceives a clear continuity between old and new economic history. What is certain is that economic history has awarded an increasing important position to theory since the end of the 1950s. It also used increasingly rigorous statistical and econometric analysis for the simple reason that a fair number of the problems that remain unsolved in economic history are such that the only intellectually satisfactory answers are quantitative by definition.

Cliometrics does not concern economic history in the limited, technical meaning of the term. It modifies historical research in general. It represents the quantitative projection of social sciences in the past. For example, the question of knowing whether slavery benefited or not the United States before the Civil War or whether the railways had substantial effects on the development of the US economy is as important for general history as for economic history and will necessarily weigh on any interpretation or appraisal (anthropological, legal, political, sociological, psychological, etc.) of the course of American history.

Furthermore, cliometrics challenges one of the basic hypotheses of the idealistic school that consists of holding that history can never provide scientific proof as it is never possible to subject to experiment historical events that are by definition unique. It replies that on the contrary, it is possible—at least in suitable cases—to construct a fictitious (contra-factual) situation that can be used to measure the deviation between what actually happened and what could have happened under different circumstances. This methodological principle, that is to say the measurement of the influence of a factor on a development by using the difference between the development actually observed and the hypothetical development that would have been observed if the factor in question had not existed, is perhaps, along with the historical econometrics of time series analysis, the most important contribution of cliometrics for researchers in social science in general and historians in particular.

Fogel defined the methodological features of cliometrics. He considers it fundamental that cliometrics should lay stress on measurements and that it should recognise the existence of close links between measurement and theory. There is no doubt that the distinguishing feature of the new school is the second characteristic and not the first. Indeed, unless it is accompanied by statistical and/or econometric processing and systematic quantitative analysis, measurement is just another form of narrative history. It is true that it replaces words by figures but it does not bring in any new factors. In contrast, cliometrics is innovative when it is used to attempt to formulate all the explanations of past economic development in terms of valid hypothetico-deductive models. In other words, the essential characteristics of cliometrics is the use of these hypothetico-deductive models that call on the closest econometric techniques with the aim of establishing the interaction between variables in a given situation in mathematical form. This generally consists of constructing a model—of general or partial equilibrium—that represents the various components of the economic evolution in question and showing the way in which they interact. Williamson's general equilibrium model (1974) is a key reference here. Correlations and/or causalities can thus be established to measure the relative importance of each over a given period of time.

So far, hypothetico-deductive models have mainly been used to determine the effects of innovations, institutions and industrial processes on growth and economic development. As there are no records saying what would have happened if the innovations in question had not occurred or if the factors involved had not been present, this can only be found out by drawing up a hypothetical model used for deducing a fictitious situation, that it to say the situation as it would have been in the absence of the circumstances in question. It is true that the use of propositions contrasting with the facts is not new in itself. Such propositions are implicitly involved in a whole series of judgements, some economic and others not. What would have happened, for example, if there had been opposition to Hitler's remilitarisation of the Rhineland in 1936.

The use of propositions contrary to the facts has not escaped criticism. Many scientists still consider today that the use of hypotheses that cannot be verified does not produce history but quasi-history. Furthermore, the results obtained by the most elaborate cliometric applications have been less decisive than many cliometrics specialists had hoped for. Critics are doubtless right to conclude that economic analysis in itself, with the use of econometric tools, is unable to provide causal explanations for the process and structure of change and development. There appear to be non-systematic breaks in normal economic life (wars, bad harvests, collective hysteria during stock market crashes, etc.) that require overall analysis but that are too frequently considered as extrinsic and abandoned to the benefit of an a priori formulation of theoretical suppositions.

Nevertheless, in spite of the disappointments resulting from some of its more extreme demonstrations, cliometrics also has its successes, together with continuous theoretical progress. The risk would obviously be that of allowing economic theory to neglect a whole body of empirical documentation that can enrich our knowledge of the reality of economic life. Conversely, theory can help to bring out certain constants and only mastery of theory makes it possible to distinguish between the regular and the irregular, between the foreseeable and the unforeseeable.

At the present stage, the main achievement of cliometrics has been to slowly but surely establish a solid set of economic analyses of historical evolution by means of measurement and theory. Nothing can now replace rigorous statistical and econometric analysis based on systematically ordered data. Impressionistic judgements supported by doubtful figures and fallacious methods and whose inadequacies are padded by subjective impressions have now lost all credit with serious, honest scientists. Economic history in particular should cease to be a story illustrating with facts the material life during different periods and become a systematic attempt to provide answers to specific questions. By extension, the more the quest for facts is dominated by the conception of the problems, the more research work will address what forms the true function of economic history in the social sciences. This change of intellectual orientation, of cliometric reformulation can thus reach associated disciplines (law, sociology, political science, geography, etc.) and engender similar changes. Indeed, the most vigorous new trend in the social sciences is without a doubt the preoccupation with quantitative and theoretical aspects. It is the feature that best distinguishes the concepts of our decade from those current from after World War 2 until the 1980s. Everybody is ready to agree to this—even the most literary of our colleagues. There is nothing surprising about this interest. One of the characteristic features of today's younger generation is most certainly that its intellectual training is much more deeply marked by science and the scientific spirit than that of the generations that preceded us. It is therefore not surprising that young scientists should have lost patience with regard to the tentative approach of traditional historiography and have sought to build their work on foundations that are less artisanal.

The social sciences are thus becoming much more elaborate in the technical respect and it is difficult to believe that a reversal of the trend might occur. However, it is clear that many scientists—perhaps the majority—have not yet accepted the new trends aimed at using more elaborate methodology and clear concepts conforming to new norms in order to develop a truly scientific social science.

Claude DIEBOLT, for AFC.
In Autumn 2004.