A Field in Search of a Name

December 08, 2016

Still catching up after a fun weekend at Harvard for a Political Institutions and Economic Policy conference. By pure coincidence, this year's papers were all on the political economy of nineteenth-century agricultural societies: my work with Paul Dower, Evgeny Finkel, and Steve Nafziger on peasant unrest and local self-government in Imperial Russia; a paper by Bryan Leonard and Gary Libecap on water rights in the American West; and Avi Acharya, Matt Blackwell, and Maya Sen's book project (and associated paper) on the political legacy of American slavery.

Renewed interest in history has been one of the great developments in political science and economics in recent years. The papers at this conference represent the two ways that scholars have approached the past: as a setting to investigate important theoretical issues, and as a way of understanding the present. To my eye, we're seeing more and more of the former, even as work in the latter tradition has really started to go deep in its analysis of institutional legacies.

But there's one thing that's still missing: a name for half of the field. When I describe my historical work to economists, I begin by telling them that it is economic history. But that's not quite right, and I use this shorthand only because we don't have an analogous term in political science. Americanists have APD, but I'm not sure that quite describes some of the new work in the field. Comparative politics has always had a historical bent, so maybe we don't need a separate name, but I'd personally prefer a pithy description that cuts across traditional subfields. Ideas, anyone?