Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2005
  • Online publication date: September 2009

7 - Is there a theory of economic history?


Theory and history

Is there a theory of economic history? More than thirty years ago this question was posed in John Hicks’ Theory of Economic History (1969). Hicks noted that very few scholars have even ventured to answer the question. Looking at those who have since the heady days of Karl Marx and Oswald Spengler, we get an idea why. It is, quite simply, hard to do, and Hicks, who was widely read in general history (to say nothing of economic theory), paid little heed to what was already at that time a huge body of literature in economic history. He could not be bothered with details, because he was interested exclusively in general tendencies, trends and moments. A few observations that did not lie on his curve did not bother him, he said, because he was not dealing with ‘theory’ as it would be understood in our time: tight logical propositions formulated as theorems, which are refuted by a single counter-example. That kind of theory did not and will not exist in economic history. But Hicks was looking elsewhere.

What Hicks meant by a theory of economic history is something close to what Marx meant: namely to take from economics some general ideas, which he then applied to history so that the pattern he saw in history had some extra-historical support. A rereading of his book suggests that he was – at best – only partially successful in this undertaking.

Aoki, M. (1996), New Approaches to Macroeconomic Modeling: Evolutionary Stochastic Dynamics, Multiple Equilibria, and Externalities as Field Effects, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Appleby, J., L. Hunt and M. Jacob (1995), Telling the Truth About History, New York: Norton
Arora, A., and Gambardella, A. (1994), ‘The changing technology of technological change: general and abstract knowledge and the division of innovative labor’, Research Policy 23(5): 523–32
Basalla, B. (1988), The Evolution of Technology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Becker, G. S., and Murphy, K. M. (1992), ‘The division of labor, coordination costs, and knowledge’, Quarterly Journal of Economics 107(4): 1137–60
Bohn, H., and Gorton, G. (1993), ‘Coordination failure, multiple equilibria and economic institutions’, Economica 60(239): 257–80
Boyd, R., and P. J. Richerson (1985), Culture and the Evolutionary Process, Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Campbell, D. T. (1960), ‘Blind variation and selective retention in creative thought as in other knowledge processes’, Psychological Review 67: 380–400. [Reprinted in G. Radnitzky and W. W. Bartley Ⅲ (eds.) (1987), Evolutionary Epistemology, Rationality, and the Sociology of Knowledge, La Salle, IL: Open Court, 91–114]
Campbell, D. T. (1965), ‘Variation and selective retention in socio-cultural evolution’, in H. Barringer, G. I. Blanksten and R. W. Mack (eds.), Social Change in Developing Areas: A Reinterpretation of Evolutionary Theory, Cambridge, MA: Schenkman Publishing Co., 19–47
Cavalli-Sforza, L. L. (1986), ‘Cultural evolution’, American Zoologist 26: 845–55
Cohen, J., and I. Stewart (1994), The Collapse of Chaos, New York: Penguin
Constant, E. W. (1980), The Origins of the Turbojet Revolution, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press
Constant, E. W. (2000), ‘Recursive practices and the evolution of technological knowledge’, in J. Ziman (ed.), Technological Innovation as an Evolutionary Process, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 219–33
Cooper, R. W. (1999), Coordination Games: Complementarities and Macroeconomics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Cowan, R. (1990), ‘Nuclear power reactors: a study in technological lock-in’, Journal of Economic History 50(3): 541–68
Crosby, A. (1986), Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Crouch, T. (1989), The Bishop's Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright, New York: Norton
Dasgupta, P. (1993), An Inquiry into Well-being and Destitution, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Diamond, J. (1997), Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, New York: Norton
Drobak, J. N., and J. V. C. Nye (eds.) (1997), The Frontiers of the New Institutional Economics, San Diego: Academic Press
Durlauf, S. N. (1997), Reflections on How Economic Reasoning can Contribute to the Study of Science, Working Paper 97-05-043, Santa Fe Institute, Santa Fe
Ellison, G., and Fudenberg, D. (1993), ‘Rules of thumb for social learning’, Journal of Political Economy 101(4): 612–43
Fildes, V. (1986), Breasts, Bottles and Babies: A History of Infant Feeding, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press
Foster, J. (2000), ‘Competitive selection, self-organization and Joseph A. Schumpeter’, Journal of Evolutionary Economics 10(3): 311–28
Gallman, R. E., and J. J. Wallis (eds.) (1992), American Economic Growth and Standards of Living before the Civil War, Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Gould, S. J. (1987), ‘The panda's thumb of technology’, Natural History, 1, 14–23
Gould, S. J. (1989), Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, New York: Norton
Greif, A. (1993), ‘Contract enforceability and economic institutions in early trade: the Maghribi Traders’ Coalition’, American Economic Review 83(3): 525–48
Greif, A. (1994), ‘Cultural beliefs and the organization of society: a historical and theoretical reflection on collectivist and individualist societies’, Journal of Political Economy 102(5): 912–50
Greif, A. (1997), ‘On the interrelations and economic implications of economic, social, political, and normative factors: reflections from two late medieval societies’, in J. N. Drobak and J. V. C. Nye (eds.), The Frontiers of the New Institutional Economics, San Diego: Academic Press, 57–94
Greif, A. (2004), Institutions Theory and History, New York: Cambridge University Press
Hicks, J. R. (1969), A Theory of Economic History, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Hughes, J. R. T. (1970), Industrialization and Economic History, New York: McGraw-Hill
Hull, D. (1988), Science as a Process, Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Imhof, A. E. (1984), ‘The amazing simultaneousness of the big differences and the boom in the 19th century – some facts and hypotheses about infant and maternal mortality in Germany, 18th to 20th century’, in T. Bengtsson, G. Fridlizius and R. Ohlsson (eds.), Pre-Industrial Population Change, Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell, 191–222
Kaplan, R. (1999), The Nothing That Is, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Kauffman, S. A. (1995), At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Kitcher, P. (1993), The Advancement of Science: Science without Legend, Objectivity without Illusions, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Komlos, J. (ed.) (1994), Stature, Living Standards, and Economic Development: Essays in Anthropometric History, Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Kuznets, S. (1965), Economic Growth and Structure, New York: Norton
Landes, D. S. (1998), The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some are so Rich and Some so Poor, New York: Norton
Lewontin, R. C. (1970), ‘The units of selection’, Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 1: 1–18
Lewontin, R. C. (1982), Human Diversity, New York: Scientific American Books
Lewontin, R. C. (2000), ‘What do population geneticists know and how do they know it?’, in R. Creath and J. Maienschein (eds.), Biology and Epistemology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 191–214
Loasby, B. (1996), The Organization of Industry and the Growth of Knowledge, Lectiones Jenenses no. 7, Max-Planck-Institute for Research into Economic Systems, Jena, Germany
Lundberg, S., and Pollak, R. A. (1996), ‘Bargaining and distribution in marriage’, Journal of Economic Perspectives 10: 139–59
Mayr, E. (1988), Toward a New Philosophy of Biology, Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press
Mokyr, J. (1990), The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Mokyr, J. (1998), ‘Editor's introduction: the New Economic History and the Industrial Revolution’, in J. Mokyr (ed.), The British Industrial Revolution: An Economic Perspective, Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1–127
Mokyr, J. (2000a), ‘Knowledge, technology, and economic growth during the Industrial Revolution’, in B. Van Ark, S. K. Kuipers and G. Kuper (eds.), Productivity, Technology and Economic Growth, The Hague: Kluwer Academic Press, 253–92
Mokyr, J. (2000b), King Kong and Cold Fusion: Counterfactual Analysis and the History of Technology, unpublished manuscript
Mokyr, J. (2002), The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press
Mokyr, J. (2004), ‘Long-term economic growth and the history of technology’, in P. Aghion and S. Durlauf (eds.), Handbook of Economic Growth, Amsterdam: North-Holland
Mokyr, J. (2005), ‘The intellectual origins of modern economic growth’ [presidential address], Journal of Economic History, forthcoming
Mokyr, J., and R. Stein (1997), ‘Science, health and household technology: the effect of the Pasteur revolution on consumer demand’, in R. J. Gordon and T. Bresnahan (eds.), The Economics of New Products, Chicago: University of Chicago Press for the National Bureau of Economic Research, 143–205
Murmann, J. P. (2003), Knowledge and Competitive Advantage, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Nelson, R. R. (1995), ‘Recent evolutionary theorizing about economic change’, Journal of Economic Literature 33: 48–90
North, D. C. (1990), Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
North, D. C. (2004), Understanding the Process of Economic Change, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press
Olson, M. (1982), The Rise and Decline of Nations, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press
Penrose, E. T. (1952), ‘Biological analogies in the theory of the firm’, American Economic Review 42(4): 804–19
Petroski, H. (1993), The Evolution of Useful Things, New York: A. Alfred Knopf
Polanyi, M. (1962), Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosphy, Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Rosenberg, N., and L. E. Birdzell (1986), How the West Grew Rich: The Economic Transformation of the Industrial World, New York: Basic Books
Ryle, G. (1949), The Concept of Mind, Chicago: Chicago University Press
Sen, A. (1987), The Standard of Living, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Sober, E. (1984), The Nature of Selection, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
Snooks, G. D. (1996), The Dynamic Society: Exploring the Sources of Global Change, London: Routledge
Vermeij, G. J. (1998), Long-run Dynamic: A General Economic and Political Theory, New York: St Martin's Press
Stebbins, G. L. (1982), Darwin to DNA, Molecules to Humanity, San Francisco: W. H. Freeman
Steckel, R. H. (1995), ‘Stature and the standard of living’, Journal of Economic Literature 33(4): 1903–40
Steckel, R. H., and R. Floud (eds.) (1997), Health and Welfare during Industrialization, Chicago: Chicago University Press
Vermeij, G. J. (1994), ‘The evolutionary interaction among species: selection, escalation, and coevolution’, Annual Review of Ecological Systems 25: 219–36
Vermeij, G. J. (1995), ‘Economics, volcanoes, and phanerozoic revolutions’, Paleobiology 21(3): 125–52
Vincenti, W. (1990), What Engineers Know and How They Know It, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press
Vogel, S. (1998), Cats’ Paws and Catapults: Mechanical Worlds of Nature and People, New York: Norton
Williamson, J. G. (1982), ‘Was the Industrial Revolution worth it? Disamenities and death in 19th-century British towns’, Explorations in Economic History 19: 221–45
Ziman, J. (ed.) (2000), Technological Innovation as an Evolutionary Process, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press