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Economic History at the London School of Economics and Political Science: A View from the Periphery

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Abstract

Examining the intellectual and institutional development of the subject, Lewis argues that the LSE’s founders regarded economic history as a core discipline, a bridge between economics and other social sciences that was critical to the mission to foster applied research and practical education. Methodological pluralism, deploying theory to frame questions about social, economic and political change, and recognition of the interpretive power of analysis based on qualitative and quantitative data remain central. Early practitioners like Power, Tawney and Fisher also saw how studying the past facilitated an evaluation of contemporary problems. An emphasis on the relevant and radical, along with methodological diversity, explanation and argument, supported by a variety of sources, account for the emergence of the subject—and are crucial to its survival.

Keywords

  • Economic history
  • Business
  • Cliometrics
  • Development
  • Globalisation
  • History
  • Institutions
  • Social science
  • Welfare

This chapter has benefited from comments and exchanges with Christopher Abel, Gareth Austin, Dudley Baines, Maxine Berg, Stephen Broadberry, Leslie Hannah, Janet Hunter, Eddie Hunt, Tracy Keefe, Mary Morgan, Patrick O’Brien, Linda Sampson and Jim Thomas. Their thoughts and suggestions are gratefully acknowledged—with apologies for any misinterpretation. The usual caveats apply: the opinions expressed here are those of the author.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The phrase ‘growth recurring’ was coined by Eric Jones (see Jones 1988). Jones may be regarded as an early pioneer of global economic history, contributing to the subject before it was fully fledged. See below for further discussion on global economic history, and the new economic institutionalism (NIE), which influenced Jones.

  2. 2.

    Fogel and North were recognised for having renewed research in economic history by applying theory and quantitative methods to the analysis of economic and institutional change.

  3. 3.

    See the chapter by Hannah in this volume.

  4. 4.

    Coleman read his first degree and completed his PhD in economic history at the School, was appointed Lecturer in Industrial History in the Department in 1951, promoted to Reader of Economic History in 1969 and was awarded a personal Chair in 1971, at which point he moved to Cambridge.

  5. 5.

    A pithy account of the malaise encountered by the subject is offered by Coleman (1987). Such negative assessments are open to challenge, yet while some sceptics of the period may have had an axe or two to grind that does not invalidate many of their criticisms.

  6. 6.

    See below for further comment on Fisher and Coleman.

  7. 7.

    The BA Historians were Olive Coleman, A.R. ‘Tony’ Bridbury, Lucy Brown and John Gillingham. Their move from Economic History was determined by several factors. Some found the growing influence of quantitative methods and theory uncongenial; Bridbury was particularly hostile to ‘ideological theory’ and quantification, notwithstanding his work on economic growth in the late Middle Ages. (Paradoxically, in the final event, Bridbury decided to remain in the Department.) Some may have felt that the retirement of Fisher, the departure of Coleman for Cambridge and the resignation of Daniel Waley, who left LSE to take up the position of Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum in 1972, as likely to weaken the commitment of the Department to their period and subject. Perhaps, too, they were concerned about the position of the School regarding intercollegiate programmes. Until the transfer, the Department offered two undergraduate degree programmes: the BSc Economics (Economic History), taught exclusively to School students, and the BA History, a federal programme of the University of London in which students were encouraged to take courses in other parts of the University, in addition to their home college or school. At that point, the Department of International History at LSE only taught undergraduates registered for the federal, intercollegiate history degree offered across the University of London.

  8. 8.

    Tawney’s research and writing about the origins of modern capitalism focused principally on the period 1540–1640, although he also published on the following 100 years (see below).

  9. 9.

    Michael Moissey Postan (later Sir Michael) was known to his friends as Munia, a name that reflected his origin: he was born in Bessarabia, located in present-day Moldova and Ukraine. See below for further discussion of Postan.

  10. 10.

    See https://www.sms.cam.ac.uk/media/1139340—video and transcript.

  11. 11.

    In 1961, the University Grants Committee (UGC) set up the Hayter Committee on Area Studies (Africa and the Orient) and the following year the Parry Committee on Latin America Area Studies to inquire into the state of research and teaching on these regions at British universities. The committees recommended the creation of area studies centres specialising in research and teaching, as well as the funding of lectureships. The social sciences predominated among the lectureships, with a few appointments in history and literature, all funded for ten years by the UGC.

  12. 12.

    The term ‘new institutional economics’ is usually attributed to Williamson (1975).

  13. 13.

    Larry Epstein was appointed Lecturer in Economic History at LSE in 1992 and was rapidly promoted: by 1997 he was Reader and, in 2001, Professor of Economic History. A specialist in the economic history of medieval and early modern Europe, his appointment signalled the interest of the Department in subjects and periods that had been under-represented since the departure of the BA Historians. Larry’s research and publications speedily attracted international attention. A provocative article in Past & Present, published in 1991, about institutions and trade in medieval Sicily and Tuscany, overturned conventional wisdom, became the new orthodoxy and set the benchmark for innovative thinking and an imaginative use of manuscript sources (Epstein 1991). His first major monograph, Freedom and Growth: The Rise of States and Markets in Europe, 13001750 (Epstein 2000), which drew on the NIE, was recognised by the US Economic History Association as an outstanding publication, contributing to the consolidation of methodology and to the emergence of global economic history. He died tragically in 2007, aged 46. His life and work are marked by the annual Epstein Memorial Lecture (see http://www.lse.ac.uk/economicHistory/whosWho/Stephan%20%28Larry%29%20Epstein.aspx).

  14. 14.

    See below for further comment on teaching initiatives and programme development associated with new currents in economic history.

  15. 15.

    For a well-received and widely read historical critique of the vogue, especially a tendency among some growth economists to compress different historical periods and paths, and over-simplify when failing to differentiate (and disentangle) causal relations, see Austin (2008b).

  16. 16.

    For related teaching initiatives, see below.

  17. 17.

    For further comment on Stephen Broadberry, see below.

  18. 18.

    For details of the depth and scope of the project, and its range across time and space, see: http://www.lse.ac.uk/economicHistory/Research/URKEW/aboutUrkew.aspx.

  19. 19.

    For further discussion of Desai’s life and career, see the chapter in this volume by Raja Junankar.

  20. 20.

    Hewins was trained in mathematics at Pembroke College, Oxford, and appointed to lecture in economic history on the University extension programme. At the School, in addition to serving as Director, he was appointed to teach economic history, or as the subject was described in the prospectus, commercial history. In 1903, he left the School to head the Tariff Commission set up by Joseph Chamberlain; Hewins had published on early modern English trade and finance and had written about tariff reform. A member of the Conservative Party, he was elected Member of Parliament for Hereford in 1912 and served under Prime Minister Lloyd George in the wartime coalition government as Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies. Cunningham read moral philosophy at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, before taking orders as an Anglican priest. His initial passion was for philosophy, which led him to economics and economic history. His faith, intellectual interest in the social sciences and first-hand experience of poverty and working conditions in the industrial cities of northern England led to a determination to write economic history textbooks and treatise on economic theory as well as methods critical of laissez-faire capitalism—works that reflected strong Christian principles and nationalistic, Conservative values. Before moving to LSE, Cunningham had taught economics and economic history at Trinity College, Cambridge, and held the Tooke Chair in Economic Science and Statistics at King’s College London. Convinced of the superiority of historical methods in economics—as opposed to the orthodox or classical approach favoured by Marshall—Cunningham was the leading light of the English Historical School by the beginning of the twentieth century, an approach sometimes described as ‘neo-mercantilist’ due an emphasis on protectionism and State action.

  21. 21.

    Before beginning a projected multi-volume study of the British Empire, Knowles had virtually completed the manuscript of a textbook on the Great Powers yet set this aside to work on imperial economic history. The manuscript was published posthumously as Economic Development in the Nineteenth Century: France, Germany, Russia and the United States (Knowles 1932). In the Preface (p. vii), her husband, Charles Matthew Knowles, who prepared the draft of Economic Development for publication, wrote that it should be viewed as a companion volume to The Industrial and Commercial Revolutions in Great Britain During the Nineteenth Century.

  22. 22.

    For a fuller appreciation of the scope of Tawney’s work and impact, see the chapter in this volume by Noel Thompson, Fisher (1961), Jackson (2007: 168–169) and Goldman (2013).

  23. 23.

    The next recruitment boom would take place some years later, involving Dudley Baines, Peter Earle, Malcolm Falkus and Eddie Hunt.

  24. 24.

    Earle’s principal publications, which demonstrate his range, include The World of Defoe (Earle 1976), Monmouth’s Rebels: The Road to Sedgemoor, 1685 (Earle 1978), The Treasure of the Concepción: The Wreck of the Almirante (Earle 1980), The Pirate Wars (Earle 2006) and The Sack of Panamá: Captain Morgan and the Battle for the Caribbean (Earle 2007).

  25. 25.

    Until the late 1990s, the School appointed only one Pro-Director—later there would be four.

  26. 26.

    Johnson’s principal works include Twentieth-Century Britain: Economic, Social and Cultural Change (Johnson 1994), Making the Market: Victorian Origins of Corporate Capitalism (Johnson 2010) and the three-volume Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain (Floud and Johnson 2004).

  27. 27.

    Appointed in the 1980s, Howlett strengthened the Department’s teaching and research in the areas of nineteenth-century British business and labour history, as well as teaching accessible quantitative options.

  28. 28.

    See http://etheses.lse.ac.uk/view/sets/LSE-EH.html.

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Lewis, C.M. (2019). Economic History at the London School of Economics and Political Science: A View from the Periphery. In: Cord, R. (eds) The Palgrave Companion to LSE Economics. Palgrave Macmillan, London. https://doi.org/10.1057/978-1-137-58274-4_2

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