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From a purely etymological standpoint, the term cliometrics should have a very broad meaning. After all, Clio was the muse of history in ancient Greek mythology, and metrics comes from the Greek and Latin word for measurement. Hence, cliometrics could encompass any application of measurement to history, placing it in the same inclusive inventory of methods as biometrics, psychometrics, and econometrics. That is, it would represent a quantitative method that does for history what the others do for biology, psychology, and economics, respectively. Yet the term is most often applied to a very specific form of economic history, namely, that in which historical data are analyzed using modern economic theory and econometric methods. By this restricted application, it may be said to constitute a specialized branch of economics rather than a method in history.
Although it is always difficult to assign a precise date to any intellectual movement, cliometrics is often said to have begun with the 1958 article “The Economics of Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South,” which Alfred Conrad and John Meyer published in the Journal of Political Economy. Whether this was truly the genesis or not, a fullfledged cliometric revolution definitely took off sometime in the 1960s. In that decade it became apparent that the practitioners of standard economic history—many of whom were strictly historians rather than economists— had to confront those who advocated what was called the “new economic history.” In 1960 Douglass North, an early champion of this innovative approach, became coeditor of the Journal of Economic History, the official publication of the Economic History Association. Just a few years later the journal Explorations in Entrepreneurial History (soon renamed Explorations in Economic History) emerged as a major outlet for cliometric research. Also in the early 1960s Purdue University in Indiana became the site for annual cliometrics meetings where the new economic historians could present and discuss applications of the discipline’s theory and methods to history.
Once cliometrics began to enjoy a conspicuous presence in the research on economic history, the next step was for the practice to become institutionalized as a formal subdiscipline within economics. As noted on their Web site, this step was taken in 1983 with the founding of the Cliometric Society, which was explicitly identified as “an academic organization of individuals interested in using economic theory and statistical techniques to study economic history.” Although the cliometrics revolution began in the United States, the movement gradually spread to other countries that featured active scholarship in economic history, such as France and Germany.
The single most important sign that cliometrics had come of age occurred in 1993. In that year the Nobel Prize in economics was bestowed upon Robert Fogel and Douglass North, the two most prominent researchers in the field. Fogel and North were honored specifically “for having renewed research in economic history by applying economic theory and quantitative methods in order to explain economic and institutional change.” This was the first time that any economic historian had received this prestigious award. North’s contributions to cliometrics went well beyond his role as coeditor of the Journal of Economic History; he also wrote a series of now-classic volumes in the new economic history that illustrated the assets of the technique. Among these is the 1973 The Rise of the Western World: A New Economic History (with Robert Thomas).
Yet, in some respects, Fogel’s place in the history of cliometrics is even more striking. Indeed, he is sometimes described as the founder of econometric history as well as the person who actually coined the term cliometrics for the new methodology. These claims aside, it is his name that has been most strongly associated with the movement, and his involvement was apparent from the very outset of his career: His doctoral dissertation applied the innovative approach to the impact of the railroads on economic growth in the United States prior to the Civil War. This cliometric research was later published in Railroads and American Economic Growth: Essays in Econometric History (1964). One central feature of Fogel’s analysis was the use of “counterfactual” arguments. By a detailed cost-benefit analysis he investigated how the early U.S. economy would have been affected had the railroads not been built, an assumption clearly contrary to historical reality.
Another basis for Fogel’s prominence is the highly controversial nature of the research he conducted with Stanley Engerman on the economic profitability of slavery in the antebellum United States. Their conclusions were published in Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery (1974). This book consisted of two volumes, the first devoted to scrutiny of the basic substantive issue, the second assigned to a detailed discussion of their data sources and statistical analyses. Because Fogel and Engerman showed that slavery was indeed profitable and that black slaves were in certain ways better off than white industrial laborers in northern cities, some critics accused them as composing an apology for slavery, that “peculiar institution.” Yet that accusation was unjustified. The authors were simply arguing that slavery constituted an efficient means of production— however morally repugnant.
The cliometric revolution of the 1960s and 1970s was supremely successful. It began as a movement led by a few “young turks” against an “old guard” who dominated the leadership positions of the profession. Still, in less than twenty years the new economic history emerged as the prevailing approach in the discipline. Moreover, because cliometrics applied macroeconomic models and econometric methods, its proponents had much more in common with economists than with historians. As a result, departments of economics at major U.S. research universities became increasingly inclined to hire cliometricians rather than conventional economic historians. In a sense, economic historians had been replaced by historical economists, that is, by scholars who differ from their colleagues mostly in that they use older rather than newer data.
Despite this apparent success, the victory was not absolute. Although cliometrics dominates economic history in its country of origin, it has had somewhat less success abroad. For instance, at the beginning of the twenty-first century a bona fide cliometric revolution had yet to take place in German economic history. Moreover, the procedure still has its vocal critics. Some observers believe that cliometrics has relied too heavily on standard macroeconomic models that cannot capture the complexities of the economic systems being analyzed. Other critics doubt whether the available historical data can bear the weight of econometric inferences, particularly when they entail strong counterfactual arguments. Even so, it seems likely that cliometrics will continue to consolidate its presence within economic history. This prognosis is supported by the founding of the French Cliometric Association in 2001. Furthermore, in 2007 this association, in collaboration with the Cliometric Society, began publishing Cliometrica: Journal of Historical Economics and Econometric History. Hence, the growth curve for cliometrics still exhibits an upward trajectory.
At least this conclusion holds for cliometrics in its narrow meaning. If the term is used according to its broader etymology, quantitative history has made much less progress outside of economics. For instance, research devoted to the quantitative but psychological analysis of historic creators and leaders—more often called historiometrics—remains a peripheral enterprise within psychology. Cliometrics may have had a more intrinsic connection with economics than it did with other disciplines that occasionally analyzed historical data. More specifically, economics is not only highly quantitative but also strongly historical insofar as change and growth are crucial components of economic theory and analysis. Hence, the supremacy of cliometrics may remain confined to economics, thereby justifying a restricted conception of the term.
- Cliometric Society Web site. http://eh.net/Clio/.
- Conrad, Alfred H., and John R. Meyer. 1958. The Economics of Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South. Journal of Political Economy 66: 95–130.
- Fogel, Robert W. 1964. Railroads and American Economic Growth: Essays in Econometric History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.
- Fogel, Robert W., and Stanley L. Engerman. 1974. Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery. Boston: Little, Brown.
- Golden, Claudia. 1995. Cliometrics and the Nobel. Journal of Economic Perspectives 9 (2): 191–208.
- Greif, Avner. 1997. Cliometrics after 40 Years. American Economic Review 87 (2): 400–403.
- Haskins, Loren, and Kirk Jeffrey. 1990. Understanding Quantitative History. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- North, Douglass C., and Robert Paul Thomas. 1973. The Rise of the Western World: A New Economic History. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Simonton, Dean Keith. 2003. Qualitative and Quantitative Analyses of Historical Data. Annual Review of Psychology 54: 617–640.
- Williamson, Samuel H., John S. Lyons, and Louis P. Cain, eds. 2006. Reflections on the Cliometrics Revolution: Conversations with Economic Historians. New York: Routledge.
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