Theorists Need History, But Historians Need Theory Too

2 October 2006 at 5:36 pm Leave a comment

| Peter Klein |

We have previously lamented the lack of interest in doctrinal history among contemporary social scientists (here and here). Wanting to be Real Scientists, economists and management theorists tend to focus on the latest trendy theories and empirical techniques, paying little attention to what prior generations of scholars might have thought. If this means occasionally re-inventing the wheel, well, that’s the price of being on the cutting edge.

It is often argued that the increasing marginalization of doctrinal history — and its transformation into a specialized field with its own associations, conferences, journals, etc. — may be harmful to current practice. I share this concern. At the same time, however, the emergence of doctrinal history as a self-contained field may also be harmful to doctrinal history.

Over the last few days I’ve been following an intense discussion, on a history of economic thought listserv, about self-organizing systems or “spontaneous orders.” Participants have been arguing about markets and hierarchies, the organization of large enterprises, and the roles of authority and delegation. Yet not once in this discussion have the names Chandler, Williamson, Hart, Simon, Hart, Granovetter, or any other modern organizational scholar been mentioned. If any participants are familiar with contemporary organizational economics or sociology, they are keeping this knowledge to themselves. It’s as if no one had thought about the pin factory since Adam Smith. 

As a result, rather than enriching our understanding of organizations (or whatever is the issue at hand), such discussions seem to treat doctrinal history as an end in itself, an aesthetic pursuit of interest only to specialists. Historians of economic thought rightly chide mainstream economists for being ignorant of history, but failure to keep up with recent theoretical and empirical work is just as bad.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Methods/Methodology/Theory of Science.

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