History, Variously Defined

June 16, 2019

If you read my last post, you know that I've been busy moving. That, at least, is my excuse for not writing up some thoughts earlier on the first annual Summer Workshop in the Economic History and Historical Political Economy of Russia, held in Madison in late May. For three days, we had economists, historians, and political scientists in town for a fabulous exchange of ideas and work.

The origins of this workshop lie in a discussion at the Slavic meetings in 2017. As I related at the time, historians and historically minded social scientists were talking--but seemingly past as much as with each other. Roughly speaking, historians felt that social scientists were inattentive to the messiness and contextual meaning of the data they were using. Social scientists, in turn, insisted that their methods were often employed to deal with such issues, but that it was hard to communicate this across the methodological divide that separates disciplines.

Thankfully, the scholars who were part of this discussion enjoy each other's company, and so we decided to deal with our differences by spending more, not less, time with each other. Picking up on a suggestion by Martin Kragh, Amanda Gregg organized a pair of panels at the 2018 Slavic meetings--one with historians presenting and social scientists discussing, the other with precisely the opposite. Meanwhile, I had come into some money through a retention offer, and so I decided to organize a workshop with the help of Paul Dower, Natalya Naumenko, Dmitrii Kofanov, Martin Kragh, and the amazing staff at UW's Center for Russia, East Europe, and Central Asia.

We had a fabulous lineup of papers and posters, by scholars senior and junior, across three disciplines: check out the program. And at the end of it all, we talked. I personally don't think that every workshop needs to end with a conversation about The Relationship, but with many folks in the room together for the first time, this one was maybe useful. Here is what I took away from the discussion:

  • Format is important. We ran the workshop according to "cliometrics rules," which is to say that participants read the papers in advance, authors had five minutes to remind the audience of their argument, and everybody participated in the general discussion that followed. This seemed to force a greater engagement with unfamiliar approaches than would have been the case with a more traditional format.
  • We can do better with graduate training. With a few exceptions, graduate students in history don't take econometrics; those in the social sciences don't take methods of history or even much history. What we need, and what some of us may be in a position to provide, is courses in reading across disciplinary divides. I have in mind especially seminars co-taught by historians and social scientists.
  • Collaboration can help but will be hard. There is nothing like writing with somebody to figure out how they think. That said, collaboration works best when coauthors can check each other's work. Unless and until graduate training is truly interdisciplinary, that will be difficult.
  • We need to keep talking. Conferences are great but infrequent (though with the generous support of the University of Chicago, there will be more summer workshops). In between, technology can serve to keep the conversation going. To that end, I have set up a Slack workspace for those interested in the economic history and historical political economy of Russia--a place to share papers, discuss data, announce conferences, and so forth. Email me if you are interested.
Three disciplines in one backyard