All Historians Serious About Finding the Truth Should Read This


A history Ph.D. (SUNY Buffalo, 1997), Robert E. Wright is the Nef Family Chair of Political Economy at Augustana University in South Dakota. Many of his twenty-odd books and hundred-plus articles, book chapters, and short essays are analytic narratives.

This is the dawning of the age of mixed method, especially analytic narrative. Age of analytic narrative, analytic narrative, analytic narrative. No more falsehoods or derisions and the mind’s true liberation, analytic narrative, analytic narrative. Okay, analytic narrative is not quite as catchy as Aquarius, but the analytic narrative and other forms of mixed methodologies are on the rise nonetheless as many researchers have found both traditional qualitative and quantitative methodologies lacking.

Analytic narrative and its superordinate, mixed method, are pretty much exactly what their names suggest. Mixed methods utilize both quantitative and qualitative methods, typically in a way that the researcher believes will be synergistic. Analytic narratives are a type of mixed methodology that emerged from the study of the intersection of business, economics, governance, history, and politics, or political economy for short (see Philippe Mongin, “What Are Analytic Narratives?” Although an analytic narrative may sound like a first order oxymoron to some, adherents of the method believe that “narration and formal analysis deliver better explanations of historical events than each could ever do in isolation.”

But in isolation they have long been, especially in the United States. Prior to the infamous Linguistic Turn circa 1970, historians, economists, and political scientists tended to be methodologically pragmatic and could still understand, appreciate, and usefully critique each other’s work. Since then, however, the fields have drifted far apart. Most historians eschew both theory and numbers and economists and political scientists denigrate narratives as anecdotal and ad hoc.

Specialization, however, has hurt both sides horribly. Economics (and to some extent political science and the other quantitatively-oriented social sciences) became little more than a type of applied mathematics as veteran government economist Steven Payson explains in his recent book, How Economics Professors Can Stop Failing Us: The Discipline at a Crossroads. Academic economists, he shows, are not just notoriously bad at predicting panics, they are often wrong about all important aspects of the economy. That is because economics journals skew heavily in favor of overly mathematical treatments of insignificant subjects, often based on bad or even outright fake (I wish I was joking) data. They also favor the derivative works (pun half intended) of professors at elite schools and their students over new, quality contributions from presumably lesser lights. But the Emperor of Economics has no clothes, Payson explains, because he is actually buck naked, not because non-economists lack the mathematical prowess to see his highness’s resplendent garb.

While economics devolved into an incoherent mass of mathematical curiosities, history descended into what my dissertation adviser Richard E. Ellis used to call “fart in the bottle” history, presumably because it stunk but the spread of the stench was contained by the fact that hardly anyone cared about the past anymore. In a generation, history went from being the Queen of the Social Sciences to a second rate humanities discipline. Budgets and students declined along with the discipline’s prestige and the rise in the perception that its professional practitioners were interested only in esoteric cultural topics.

The new “history of capitalism” helped to change that perception but only reinforced the notion that professional historians are no longer capable of coherent analysis. Business, policy, and especially economic historians, most recently Eric Hilt, have repeatedly shredded “history of capitalism” books, especially the ones about slavery.

The dearth of analytical prowess in history is understandable given that very few historians from the pre-Linguistic Turn era remain active. Graduate students today, even those interested in business and economics topics, are therefore being trained by narrative-oriented cultural historians, many of whom also trained under narrative-oriented cultural historians. Often, dissertation advisers do not know the relevant literatures and clearly stress development of their students’ rhetorical skills over analytic ones.

What historians (and economists and other social scientists) should do is to move back towards the middle, to mixed methods of understanding and explaining our complex social worlds, past and present. Historians already “minted” can teach themselves by reading analytic narratives, networking with the authors of analytic narratives, and perhaps even co-authoring studies with them. Graduate programs can help further the methodological revolution, and hence improve the employability of their students and the reputation of the entire profession, by hiring historians, many currently teaching in business and policy schools, who already write analytic narratives.

The Revolution will take time but eventually historians must let the sunshine, let the sunshine in, the sunshine in. Oh, let it shine.

comments powered by Disqus