An Interdisciplinary Conversation

An Interdisciplinary Conversation

A conversation with Tracy Dennison, cross-posted from Broadstreet, a new blog devoted to historical political economy.

Scott: Tracy, this is the first post at Broadstreet for both of us. Welcome!

Tracy: And welcome to you! It feels a bit like cheating to make the first post a shared effort, but it’s very much in the interdisciplinary spirit of the blog itself.

Scott: A historian and a political economist talking to each other…sort of like one of Gail Collins and Bret Stephens’ periodic conversations.

Tracy: Just like that, but different! Better, even. Like political economy without the politics.

Scott: In fairness, we’ve had practice. Last year, in Madison, we held the first annual Summer Workshop in the Economic History and Historical Political Economy of Russia. Economists, historians, and political scientists all in the same room together, discussing each others’ papers. It was mostly wonderful, though I recall we did have a spirited conversation about “the relationship” at the end.

Tracy: It’s inevitable. I think it’s part of the peace process. I can only assume there were no hard feelings, as everyone wanted to come back and do it again this year!

Scott: And that’s what we would have done—in Paris, moreover—if the world hadn’t turned upside down this past spring. In the end, we moved the workshop online, like most every other part of our daily existence.

Tracy: It was a big disappointment to have to move to Zoom. Not only because it meant giving up Paris, but because the inaugural meeting in Madison had fostered so many productive in-person interactions. It wasn’t clear how we’d be able to recreate that atmosphere online.

Scott: That’s an interesting question—whether we were able to do so. We opened up the workshop to anybody in the field, which attracted a much larger audience than we were aware existed. But do you think we were talking to each other or only past each other?

Tracy: I think the constraints of Zoom were evident—it’s difficult to hash out those thorny questions of methodology or interpretation without being in the same room with one another and without being able to continue those conversations later in the bar. That said, I was delighted by how well it went in the end.

Scott: We had some great papers, and an online poster session to boot. (Here’s the program.) Mark Harrison, one of the deans of the field, led off the workshop with a keynote address on the KGB in Lithuania.

Tracy: Yes, it was the perfect opening; it really set up the interdisciplinary context nicely. The paper examines a question that has long interested historians of the Soviet Union: how effective were attempts to prevent deviant—as defined by Soviet authorities—behavior? And how can we measure these effects? It touched on a number of important issues, including the reliability of Soviet source materials, variation across space and time, and the changing priorities of both officials and Soviet citizens.

Scott: Once we moved to the paper sessions, it was interesting to see certain themes emerge. We had two papers on deportations under Stalin, and two on what we might call “rural political economy.” I don’t think that was an intentional choice on our part. It just reflects the state of the field.

Tracy: It was exciting to see so much new work on some of the bigger problems in Soviet history—industrialization, markets and finance, political repression, collectivization—from younger colleagues in the field. I was impressed by the ways in which they were using new sources and new methods to approach these questions. They certainly provided the group with much to discuss and debate.

Scott: You and I have been in the room where these discussions happen for awhile now. One recurring debate has centered on the use of digitized archival records by economists and political scientists. Roughly speaking, I would characterize the conversation as, Historian: You have no idea how noisy these data are and how biased is their selection into the archives. Social scientist: I understand at least some of that, and my fancy research design is intended to compensate.

Tracy: That sounds about right. I think it often boils down to one really fundamental issue: historians’ skepticism about numbers and social scientists’ doubts about textual evidence (please don’t call it anecdotal!). Somehow our “relationship discussions” always seem to revolve around some version of this problem. This is something I hope to explore in greater detail in future blogposts.

Scott: We had some variant of this in our session devoted to a new paper by Andrei Markevich, Natalya Naumenko, and Nancy Qian on the Stalin-era “Great Famine.” It’s really fascinating work that addresses an old question—whether Ukrainians, who died in enormous numbers during the famine, were targeted deliberately or merely caught up in a monumentally catastrophic policy. Many well-known historians have weighed in on this—Stephen Kotkin, Timothy Snyder, and Anne Applebaum come to mind—but Andrei, Natalya, and Nancy are the first to try to answer this question econometrically. (The working paper is online for those interested in their answer.)

Tracy: Yes, it generated quite a lively discussion—heated at times (friendly heated!), but exactly the sort of thing we are striving for with this workshop. It is worth noting that many of those who participated in the discussion were continuing a debate on the same set of questions that had been initiated in person last year in Madison. I interpreted this as strong evidence that the workshop is facilitating sustained interactions across battle—er, disciplinary—lines.

Scott: Part of that discussion was whether we should be looking for comments by Stalin or others as evidence of intent, or whether we should let the numbers do the talking. We ended up in this sort of absurd situation where we could not agree on the meaning of the word “anecdote.”

Tracy: True. But it highlighted some important ways in which we do talk past one another. Social scientists see the use of text to support an argument as arbitrary and unreliable, since, in their view, one can just look through a source and cherry-pick some quotes. Historians feel the same way about quantitative evidence. Each side assumes the other understands the value of its methodology and the reasons for skepticism, but this is almost never the case. We need more group therapy, I guess.

Scott: Or more joint training. My History colleague Stephen Pincus and I have discussed teaching a graduate course on “reading across disciplinary divides,” or something like that. We don’t need to turn historians into economists or political scientists, and vice versa, but we do need to be able to read each others’ work critically. You’re one of the few scholars I know who really invested in learning the language of more than one discipline. How did you do it?

Tracy: That is a great idea for a graduate course, and I completely agree about the value of being able to critically read each others’ work. I did my doctoral research in the UK, where there are economic history departments in which a large number of historians and social scientists are forced to cohabit. It was a conscious decision to train as a historian, but along the way I seem to have internalized a social science way of looking at the world.

But Scott, you are also a scholar of this kind. What’s your story?

Scott: I remember struggling before graduate school with the path I would take: political science or economics. Ultimately, I enrolled in a political science program, but I never really resolved the dilemma. I ended up doing as much coursework in economics as in political science, and my degree is in both. And then I discovered history as a field of study when I was a newly tenured professor. But I’m still working to learn the language of history as a discipline. The workshop and all of our conference panels help.

Tracy: I think having intellectual relationships with people from other disciplines is particularly important. As I recall, one of our aims with this workshop was to pave a way to interdisciplinary engagement for younger colleagues in our respective fields, to ensure they would have the ability to make connections across disciplines. Their participation in the project has been invaluable, and gives me hope for enduring collaborative efforts of this sort.

Scott: Since we have the megaphone for a day, we should give a shout-out to the many junior scholars who participated: Gerhard Toews, Natalya Naumenko, Dmitrii Kofanov, Giovanni Cadioli, Otto Kienitz, Viktor Malein, Brendan McElroy, Timur Natkhov, Natalia Vasilenok, Matthew Reichert, Eugenia Nazrullaeva, and Imil Nurutdinov. And we had presentations by a quartet of outstanding senior scholars: Ekaterina Zhuravskaya, Pierre-Louis Vézina, Mark Harrison, and Andrei Markevich. The state of the field is strong!

Tracy: It is! Fingers crossed we’ll be able to revisit these debates in person at next year’s workshop. In the meantime, there will be plenty of interdisciplinary collaboration on display here at Broadstreet. Stay tuned!