In the April Newsletter an obituary of Tony Brewer1 referred to his work on the history of economic thought and in particular his management of one of the earliest repositories of economic texts ‘Documents for the History of Economics’. In this article, Richard van den Berg2 describes the evolution of this area of study.
Fifty years ago, in January 1968, a group of economists that included Donald Winch, Bob Coats, Bernard Corry and Robert Collinson Black organised a conference devoted exclusively to papers about the history of their discipline. During this event it was felt that it should become an annually recurring History of Economic Thought conference supported with a Newsletter. This is how, with initial support from the Royal Economic Society, the History of Economic Thought Newsletter was born, which ran from 1968 until 2011. The annual conference never stopped running: it will this year see its 50th edition when it takes place at Balliol College, Oxford, from 29 until 31 August.
Over the years many eminent economists and historians attended the conference and their deliberations, notes and book reviews are now freely available in the digitised Newsletters (see https://thets.org.uk/archive/ ). One early initiative, also sponsored by the RES, was the compilation of information about archives where the papers of significant British economists were kept. This resulted in 1975 in the publication of The Economists’ Papers 1750-1950, edited by Paul Sturges, which formed the basis of the more recent online resource (see http://www.economistspapers.org.uk/).
During half a century much has changed to academia in general and to the economics profession in particular. The nature of economic research and what it taught today is radically different from what it was in 1968. At that time the history of economics, as well as economic history, was taught quite commonly on undergraduate economics programmes in the UK. Especially since the 1980s this has become rarer with only some universities, like Bristol and Manchester, continuing their courses in the history of economic thought. In the last few years, however, a modest revival appears to be under way, with some economics degrees now again giving more emphasis in their curricula to the history of economic theories and policies.
Meanwhile, research in the history of economic thought has flourished in recent decades. Several specialised journals exist, such as History of Political Economy (since 1969) and The European Journal of the History of Economic Thought (since 1993), that publish articles on a wide range of topics and periods in the history of economic thought. Such specialised journals do not just indicate the maturity of an academic field, but also reflect a reorientation in the content and perceived purposes of research in the history of economic thought. It is perhaps fair to say that fifty years ago research was mostly conducted by trained economists who engaged in history as an exercise in tracing back the origins of the ideas and theories that were then current. In other words, most research was carried out by economists writing about the history of their profession and the theories of famous earlier economists.
In recent decades research in the history of economic thought has broadened out. While most researchers do of course still have a background in economics, they also tend to adopt approaches from other social sciences and the humanities. Today, academics in Britain who are interested in the history of economics are just as likely to be based in an economics department, as in an intellectual history or philosophy department, or in a business school. With this, the subjects studied have also broadened out from a strict focus on earlier economic analysis to more contextualised studies of the wider social, political and intellectual settings in which economic theories and policies were formulated. What has remained, however, is that history of economic thought can provide uniquely reflective perspectives on what economists do.
Oddly perhaps, given the fact that the 50th conference is due, until recently there was no History of Economic Thought Society in Britain. This was due primarily to the fact that the early generation of scholars who frequented the annual conference decided against any formal arrangements. In one of the first Newsletters (issue 4, Spring 1970, page 7) it was noted that '[a]t the Business Meeting there was a characteristic British reluctance to adopt a written constitution'. Only four years ago, when the editorial board of the Newsletter felt the need to make the activities of historians of economic thought in Britain more visible, was the step taken to formally found The History of Economic Thought Society (THETS). With its website https://thets.org.uk and a steadily increasing membership THETS is hoping to promote research and teaching of the history of economic thought for the next half a century.