“The other side of words”: Cliometrics


Patroness of history, Clio , daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne, is one of the nine Muses celebrated by Plato as an intermediary between the god and the poet. Born from the association between Clio and the art of measurement (“metry”), cliometrics represents the meeting point between the “world of ideas” and the “world of science” . A concept invented by economist Stanley Reiter while collaborating with economic historians Lance Davis and Jonathan Hughes, cliometrics aims to reunite history and economics , more modestly to inspire the humanities and social sciences.

By mobilizing historical archives, building and revising databases , soaking up history, the famous wie es eigentlich gewesen ist (in English, “how things really happened”) by Leopold Ranke, as a crucible for examining economic theory, cliometrics has deepened our collective knowledge of “how”, “why” and “when” economic changes occur.

In 1993, the discipline reached its peak with the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Economic Science to Robert Fogel and Douglass North , hailed as
“pioneers of the branch of economic history that has been called the ‘new economic history’, or cliometrics, i.e. research that combines economic theory, quantitative methods, hypothesis testing , alternatives and traditional techniques of economic history, to explain economic growth and decline”.

Today, cliometrics is much more than just a community of researchers . Like a quantitative projection of the social sciences into the past, it is an original approach to the production of knowledge which, like the work of Fernand Braudel in The Dynamics of Capitalism , takes the greatest care in dealing with short time (the history of major events), intermediate time (the history of conjuncture and crises) and long time (massive and structural history evolving slowly over the long term). This perspective is in line with the founding work of Simon Kuznets , Nobel laureate in economics , thesis director of Robert Fogel.

Among the notable contributions of cliometricians , we can cite the fundamental contributions of Robert Fogel , that for example of having demonstrated that the railroad was not the major determinant of American economic growth. Another early example is Douglass North . He pointed out that institutions, not technology, were the cause of the increase in the productivity of maritime transport from the 17th to the 19th  century  . It is from this result that he will stimulate a new branch of economics, that devoted to the study of the structural and spatial dynamics of institutions.

Some would say that cliometrics is a branch of history . For others, it reveals itself as an auxiliary discipline of economics or political economy , like an interdisciplinary, even multidisciplinary toolbox . Calling on history, statistics, computer science or even mathematics, it is essential for innovative research in the humanities and social sciences .

With the turn of the 21st century  , it imposed itself as a science of historical economics as the meeting point for international research in quantitative history structured by economic theory and informed by statistical and econometric methods, in order to move on to screens the relative importance of various factors , i.e. forces (in the natural sciences), believed to have been at work in a given historical situation.

Author Bio: Claude Diebolt is Research Director at CNRS, UMR BETA at the University of Strasbourg