La longue purée

historymanifestoIn The History Manifesto, two historians, Jo Guldi of Brown and David Armitage of Harvard, urge their peers to turn away from microhistory and go back to doing Big History in the longue durée tradition of Fernand Braudel. The book also doubles as a rant against the public influence of the natural and social sciences, particularly economics, arguing that historians can do “causal analysis” better. But the contents of the book cast doubt on the authors’ understanding of complex social and scientific issues. 

NOTE : (1) In what follows, when I say “historians” I usually mean modern-Europeanist and “post-colonial” social and cultural historians of a “critical-theoretic” bent especially focusing on class, race, and gender. (2) I believe Jo Guldi is the actual author of most of the book, so I will mostly refer to her in the post. (3) Free open-source versions of The History Manifesto are available in HTML and PDF. (4) For the numerous errors, peculiar interpretations, and outright misrepresentations of research outside history contained in the book, see Jo Guldi’s Curiouser & Curiouser Footnotes. [Edit 13/04/15: I also have a follow-up: Errata dentata, examining the revisions to The History Manifesto.]

The modellers’ putsch

Whilst historians slept, Jo Guldi’s ideological enemies took over the world and she doesn’t like it. Historians once spoke truth to power. But starting in the 1960s they retreated from the longue durée into the “Short Past”. As they became absorbed in the inner lives of witches, the testimonies of slaves, and the day-dreams of landless peasants, their role as counsellers to the public on the great questions of contemporary life were usurped by economists, climate scientists, ecologists, evolutionary biologists, psychologists, and other ahistorical peddlers of grand universal models.

These modellers, hopelessly naïve about the institutional bias inherent in their “impoverished array of historical evidence”, concoct thin, static, outmoded, “essentialist”, deterministic, and patently false narratives. Their reductionist mythologies serve the interests of the powerful by monopolising the public debate on inequality, climate change, and world governance, and by stymieing the utopian solutions which history tells them are within human potential.

Indispensable skills of the microhistorians

By contrast, historians are uniquely capable of assessing diverse kinds of information streaming out of the exotic foreign country that is the past. “The arbitration of data…requires talents and training which no other discipline possesses..”, because such “skills…are often overlooked in the training of other kinds of analysts”. “[D]iscerning multiple sources of causality and ranking them” and “examining them from different perspectives and experiences to offer the fullest possible account” of complex phenomena such as climate change or income inequality are the province of historians, not scientists or economists.

Thus the abilities of a Jared Diamond, the interdisciplinarian par excellence with a command of a dozen different disciplines, pale in comparison with the “deep engagement” of a Nathalie Zemon Davis or a Robert Darnton. In “their intense reckoning with archives”, these social-cultural microhistorians of obscure, forgotten lives “had to grapple” with fairy tales, architecture, “old books and their illustrations”, and more conventional kinds of evidence, in order to write about the “shame-inducing charivaris of early modern France” and the “mystifying cat massacres of eighteenth-century Paris”. The “heights of sophistication” thus reached in the Short Past can be put to good use in our public debates about the past and the future.

But the sciences are self-correcting

I’m a big fan of The Return of Martin Guerre and The Great Cat Massacre, but would Robert Darnton or Nathalie Zemon Davis, as cultural historians, really add any more value to public debate than educated lay people in general ?

There have indeed been many thin models of universalising human behaviour based on evidence that’s historically shallow or excessively Eurocentric. But over time these tend to be self-correcting as debates rage within and between disciplines. Natural and social scientists argue about data all the time — about their provenance, their representativeness, their meaning, their limits. And they have always looked to historians with constructive and reliable methodologies for historical information.

Evolutionary psychology, for example, has matured from a field of poorly evidenced rampant speculations to one much more constrained by evidence and internal debate — enough to turn the irascible evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne away from scepticism to cautious embrace. Steven Pinker took a pretty strong position on the historical trajectory of violence in The Better Angels of Our Naturebut there had long been a “war over war” within and between disciplines.

For decades the simple model of a single migratory radiation out of Africa had been accepted by archaeologists. Initially, genetic data reinforced this model, but the recovery of ancient DNA has shown that all non-Africans have some Neanderthal admixture ; some non-Africans have admixed with “Denisovans” ; and there must have been many hominid species across the Old World that had been undreamt of by archaeology. Thus the provisional paradigms of science keep finding complications and deviations.

Guldi cites the case of Thomas Piketty as powerful confirmation that social science is short-sighted and would be improved by the historian’s perspective. But her own intepretation of Piketty’s place in the intellectual history of economics demonstrates a fairly normal operation of science. An old hypothesis by Kuznets had held that in industrial economies inequality should initially rise with growth but diminish over time. This view was challenged by Piketty using both longer-run evidence and quite conventional economic methodology. (He has been criticised by “heterdox” economists precisely for being so conventionally neoclassical.) Model, empirical challenge, debate, more data brought to bear on the question : isn’t that how things are supposed to work ? But of course Guldi is unaware that the Kuznets hypothesis has been challenged before Piketty. For example, Gallup 2012 surveys the literature on the empirical tests of the Kuznets hypothesis and finds that the initial confirmations based on cross-sectional evidence were challenged as soon as cross-country panel data became available in the 1990s.

Historians can do “multicausal analysis” ? Who knew ?!

Here I gauge the analytical sophistication of Jo Guldi and David Armitage themselves, using a few examples from the book, as a way of suggesting that cultural-social historians of their type are ill-equipped to deal with serious policy issues. Guldi wisely stays clear of trying to argue against evolutionary psychology, except to mutter, perfunctorily, against biological determinism by noting “gender roles and systems of hierarchy show enormous variations in human history”.

(a) Example of shallow causal analysis

Guldi objects far less to climate scientists than to economists. Her problem with the former is mostly that she doesn’t much care for their “species thinking”, because it’s the Western elites and corporations who are to blame for climate change, not “humanity”. Guldi seconds Malm & Horborg‘s view that the Anthropocene only meaningfully began with the industrial era of steam inaugurated by elite capitalists, for which “at no moment did the species vote … either with feet or ballots, or march in mechanical unison”. Furthermore,

…as of 2008, the advanced capitalist countries or the ‘North’ composed 18.8% of the world population, but were responsible for 72.7 of the CO2 emitted since 1850, subnational inequalities uncounted. In the early 21st century, the poorest 45% of the human population accounted for 7% of emissions, while the richest 7% produced 50%; a single average US citizen – national class divisions again disregarded – emitted as much as upwards of 500 citizens of Ethiopia, Chad, Afghanistan, Mali, Cambodia or Burundi…”

This may be a plausible argument for exonerating countries so poor as to produce virtually no carbon emissions, but a bad one for concentrating the blame on a “particular, small subset of western elite families and corporations”. Millions of consumers around the world in the 19th century did, in fact, “vote” for steam by buying cheap cotton clothing or buying other goods transported by rail or ship.

The bottom half of the US income distribution receives <20% of the total income. That’s still more than $3 trillion — a lot of carbon ! Even the bottom 5% of Americans have higher incomes than at least the bottom 60% of the world. This means, the average bottom-ventile American has got a carbon footprint many orders of magnitude greater than any Afghan or Malian villager. The bottom 5% of Germans would consume even more. And, of course, this global inequality of income was in part enabled by the Industrial Revolution.

(b) Example of naive historicism & extrapolationism

Guldi proclaims…

Economists like Anil Markandya have used historical thinking to cut the Gordian knot of growth vs ecology. Markandya revisited questions of environmental regulation with new data gathered over a century and a half from the experience of regulation in Britain. His conclusion was that Britain had started regulating sulphur dioxide and other contaminants as early as 1821, all ‘without any serious impact on GDP per capita’.

Markandya does have a plot of SO2 emissions per capita versus GDP per capita :

markandya

The above was not intended by Markandya as a statistical analysis of the issue, which is why he notes the “steep decline in the levels of SO2 since 1956…, without any serious impact on GDP per capita”.

Markandya did not extrapolate from the much smaller fluctuations in the longer history (unlike Guldi), because he must be aware of an important confound : the falling energy intensity of the economy resulting from technological change or an expanding service sector. During the 19th century, the amount of energy consumed per unit of GDP fell in Western Europe. From Kander, Malanima, & Warde (a book favourably mentioned by Guldi in The History Manifesto) :

kanderMarkandya is aware of this :

…the fact that the ‘carbonization’ of these economies, measured as carbon per unit of GDP, has declined while the economies have grown is not surprising. As Nakicenovic (2002) shows, the decarbonization rate for the US from 1800 to 2000 was about 1.3 per cent per annum, while the annual per capita growth was about 1.7 per cent. (pg 1146)

Nakicenovic (2002) documents the long-term “decarbonisation” (falling carbon per unit of GDP) of the US economy :

nakicenovic

Since energy intensity clouds the causal picture, one cannot naively compare the trajectories of emissions and GDP in order to assess the impact of regulations on the latter. One might be on sounder footing in case of dramatic divergences such as after 1956 in the UK, which is what Markandya focused on.

(c) Plain old flakiness

Many passages in The History Manifesto degenerate into outright flakiness. For example, a section of chapter 3 discusses the possibilities of increased international governance. The “power of historical thinking…destabilise[s] conclusions about the best shape of institutions”. And in rapid order we are told, Samuel Huntington and Francis Fukuyama were wrong ; David Graeber has shown capitalism, historically, has used debt to put people into bondage ; the United Nations used to be more important in the 1950s and 1960s ; there has been a recent upsurge in mass protest movements and indigenous peoples’ movements ; etc. And because of these things, we know… well I’m not sure exactly, but it seems alternative, international modes of governance are more feasible than is reckoned by most people today.

Guldi also routinely commits the “genetic fallacy“, the logical error of confusing the origins of a thing with its current use, meaning, or implications. Thus, the staid metric known as “unemployment” was initially

…calculated with a view of establishing political peace by minimising the case of the working class for reparations, welfare, or even government reform.

…[The concepts underlying GDP and the consumer price index] may reflect enduring biases of old-world aristocrats and Presbyterian elders….

…the terms carrying capacityand even overpopulation’ or populationcarry with them the imprint of colonial ideas about wildlife management and management of natives and indigenous people, or even of religious ideas about Gods punishment intended for the lazy.

Finally, may I suggest Guldi confuses the neo-Malthusianism of the ecologists, which really applies to all time, and that of the economic historians, which is only about the preindustrial past ?

In 2008, economist Karl Persson flew after his colleague Greg Clark for propounding what he called ‘the Malthus delusion’ against evidence that human civilisations usually contain their reproduction, and that poverty and want are therefore due to more complex factors than over-population alone….

Modern economists have removed the picture of an abusive God from their theories, but their theory of history is still at root an early nineteenth-century one, where the universe is designed to punish the poor, and the experience of the rich is a sign of their obedience to natural laws.58 Today, anthropologists can point to the evidence of many societies, past and present, where the divisions of class are not expressed in terms of ejectment or starvation.59

Persson himself tells you that Clark “admits” human beings restrict their fertility decisions. Since A Farewell to Alms is cited in Guldi’s notes, she might have known Clark has got a whole chapter on fertility arguing that all human societies, contra Malthus himself, exercised “preventive checks” on fertility via delayed marriage, infanticide, birth spacing, contraception, etc.

Clark’s neo-Malthusianism relies heavily on income inequality. When per capita income is higher, this need not translate into increased population because income inequality is also higher. That means, most of the extra income is extracted by the elites and does not necessarily translate into better living standards for the ordinary person.

What’s not to like, for Guldi ?!

( The argument between Persson and Clark was not about the causes of “poverty and want”. The key bone of contention is what constitutes “subsistence income”. Persson interprets it to mean the absolute minimum for survival and Clark, any level of income, high or low, at which birth and death rates are equal. )


The Poverty of Naive Historicism

Guldi and Armitrage just don’t like most of what they hear (or imagine hearing) from the economists, the climate scientists, the evolutionary biologists, and the like. It is for this reason historians like them will always talk about “richer” and “more deeply layered” data, which is essentially code for selective anecdotes and impressions which can be cited to bolster some argument that can’t be defended conventionally.

So G&A’s objections are not to the evidence, which they are mostly incapable of assessing anyway, but aesthetic and ideological. The findings of these disciplines just don’t mesh with their activist mindset, and they don’t understand how modelling works. They reject the implications of any kind of determinism or reductionism, whether it be geographical, biological, cultural, genetic, evolutionary, economic, environmental, or any other kind which constrains human agency even modestly and restricts even slightly the possibility of alternative futures they favour.

Cultural-social historians are ill-equipped for the age of “Big Data” that Guldi drones on about, but not because they are intellectually incapable. They can get trained in quantitative techniques and actually understand the various interdisciplinary debates that are mostly impenetrable to them right now. But such training would actually change who they are. It’s the historians’ hermeneutical and subjectivist instincts that alienate them from the big empirical debates amongst economists, psychologists, evolutionary biologists, climatologists, anthropologists, archaeologists, geneticists, etc. So the problem with historians is less any microhistorical preference, than an epistemological bias against positivism.

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11 Responses to La longue purée

  1. Luke Lea says:

    “Whilst historians slept, Jo Guldi’s ideological enemies took over the world and she doesn’t like it. Historians once spoke truth to power. But starting in the 1960s they retreated from the longue durée into the “Short Past”. As they became absorbed in the inner lives of witches, the testimonies of slaves, and the day-dreams of landless peasants, their role as counsellers to the public on the great questions of contemporary life were usurped by economists, climate scientists, ecologists, evolutionary biologists, psychologists, and other ahistorical peddlers of grand universal models.”

    A great paragraph. I foresee a future for you as a writer (who actually makes a living that way).

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  2. danallosso says:

    Great review! I had been planning on reading the Manifesto, because I’m particularly interested in how history can be relevant to regular people outside the academy. Actually began it, but put it down at the first use of the term longue durée which I thought was a pretty clear indication they aren’t talking to regular people.

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  3. Craig Yirush says:

    Why do you believe 2)? Both their names are on the Manifesto?

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  4. Javier Rodríguez says:

    I know you can read spanish and I am feel more confortable writing in my mother tonge so:
    He entendido bien? The history manifiesto proclama un retorno a Braudel y a la vez está en contra del diálogo entre los historiadores y las ciencias sociales? Y recurren a la gran masacre de gatos de Darton como modelo a seguir? Si es así me parece una incoherencia grave (Hobsbawm contraponia la influencia que para su generación había tenido el “Mediterráneo” de Braudel con la influencia de Geertz de la que el libro de Darton es quizás el más claro ejemplo).
    Lo segundo. Soy consciente de que en tu nota aclaras que usas el término “historiadores” para referirte en realidad a una tribu muy especial y no a toda la disciplina, pero a lo largo del post esa advertencia se diluye y pareciera que consideras que en general la historiografia es una disciplina inferior dentro de las ciencias sociales. Si no es eso lo que piensas quizá sería util que incluyeras en el análisis a historiadores que van más allá de las anécdotas y que sí son capaces de establecer relaciones causales rigurosas.

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    • (1) The History Manifesto es un polémico a favor de la longue durée del tipo Braudel y contra la “microhistoria” del tipo Darnton-Davis, pero tiene mucho cuidado elogiando las contribuciones y los métodos de la microhistoria. No lo dicen explicítamente pero es claro que a los autores no les gustan las ciencias sociales. Como tú creo que es una contradicción dado que con Braudel vivían en armonia la historia y las ciencias sociales. (Puedes ver las diversas reacciones a History Manifesto aqui http://scholar.harvard.edu/armitage/publications/history-manifesto ; mi favorito es una crítica por parte de historiadores que apareció en The American Historical Review: http://www.historians.org/Documents/AHR%20Exchange%20REVISED.pdf

      (2) No, no, no creo que la historia es inferior a las ciencias sociales ! Pero la mejor historia utiliza los metodos de las ciencias sociales y las mejores ciencias sociales son concientes de los datos historicos.

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      • Javier Rodríguez says:

        Gracias por la respuesta.
        Otra cosa: has leído “The Poverty of Clio”?. Qué piensas de ese otro manifiesto, también critico respecto a buena parte de la historia económica reciente.

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    • [Feliz pascua!]

      En general NO estoy de acuerdo con Boldizzoni. Es decir, en principio soy partidario de la cliometría.

      Pero en muchos casos concretos, estoy de acuerdo con las críticas de Boldizzoni — por ejemplo sobre muchos aspectos de la “New Ancient History” o sobre los “datos” de ingresos en la epoca premoderna (ver mi post “The Little Divergence” para una crítica de ingresos medievales del tipo Angus Maddison; pero no incluyo en esta crítica los trabajos de Robert Allen en la reconstrucción comparativa de salarios)

      Me gustan la primera generación de la cliometría (Fogel etc.) y la segunda (Crafts, el McCloskey masculino, etc.), pero sobre la “3era generación” tengo ciertas dudas.

      En la tercera veo más y más sustitución de argumentos teóricos o “aprioristicos” en ausencia de datos empiricos, una cosa que odio !

      Pero aún es peor el modelo ad hoc que no sirve de nada salvo la “explicación” de datos relativos a un fenómeno particular sin ser necesariamente aplicable a otros fenómenos. Normalmente este tipo de teorización aboga en favor de que datos particulares que se ven en el mundo real se puedan “explicar” como hechos estilizados deducidos de la teoría. No sé si me entiendes pero un ejemplo reciente excelente de lo anterior es http://econpapers.repec.org/paper/hithitcei/2014-6.htm que contiene un modelo complejo pero completamente trivial, casi tautológico, para explicar nada más que los datos presentados en el artículo sí mismo.

      Tengo que subrayar que soy gran partidario de la econometría y este artículo “The Causal History of Africa” http://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/24458/2/FenskeCausal.pdf exprime muy bien mis pensamientos.

      Otra cosa: distingo entre la historia económica cliométrica (que se interesa en el pasado) y el “comparative development” (que se interesa en el presente pero investigando las influencias del pasado en el presente). Extraordinario resumen del segundo por Nunn que tienes que leer si ya no has leído: http://scholar.harvard.edu/files/nunn/files/nunn_handbook_growth_v3_0.pdf Le odio a Acemoglu que realmente empezó este movimiento, pero los trabajos que siguieron sus artículos más influyentes son excelentes en mi opinion.

      ! Esta respuesta ha sido casi un blog….

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  5. Javier Rodríguez says:

    Realmente, casi un post. Gracias.
    Aprovecho a dejarte este link a un paper que trata de estas cosas desde la experiencia latinoamericana. Puede que te interese: https://www.academia.edu/11353717/Latin_American_Economic_History_looking_backwards_for_the_future
    Allí se argumenta que la historia económica latinoamericana ha estado a medio camino entre ese deseo de conocimiento del pasado per se y ser una la herramienta hacia el futuro.
    Saludos

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  6. Pingback: Errata dentata: Examining the revised History Manifesto | Pseudoerasmus

  7. Pingback: Review of the History Manifesto | The Judge and The Historian

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