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Epistemological Issues in Economic History

Daniel Little

University of Michigan-Dearborn


                  The history of a region or people encompasses a multitude of aspects of social life: culture, religion, political institutions, social movements, environmental change, technology, population—and the circumstances and processes of economic change that the region undergoes.  One does not need to be a reductionist in order to observe that the economic circumstances a society experiences, and the processes of change that these circumstances undergo, have a profound influence on other aspects of social and cultural change.  Improved agricultural productivity can support population growth; it can enhance the coercive power of state institutions; and it can make possible the flourishing of intricate institutions of religion and education.  Likewise, the constraints created by slow or negative economic productivity growth in a region can stifle the development of other important social processes.  So economic history, as a discipline within history more broadly, is a crucially important field of historical inquiry.

Yet the foundations of the discipline of economic history are not yet fully secure or beyond controversy.  Economic historians do not yet agree on the role of mathematical economic theory within their discipline, or the relationships that should obtain between quantitative and qualitative data, or the role of social theories of causal factors in explaining economic change, or the connections that should be established between economic historical research and other fields of social or cultural history.  This essay is a preliminary contribution to discussion of some of those foundational topics, with special focus on the economic history of China.

The essay might be described as a contribution to the “philosophy of economic history,” and the author is a philosopher of the social sciences.  This conjunction between philosophy and empirical research perhaps requires some explanation.  The philosophy of science is a discipline that undertakes to examine and clarify the logic and credibility of scientific knowledge.  The philosopher is not an empirical specialist, but is instead trained to make use of tools of analysis and rational evaluation in application to a wide range of problems.  The philosophy of science is premised on the idea that it is helpful to bring these analytical tools into dialogue with scientists as they develop their theories of the world.  In the past fifty years it has often been found that it is possible to create a fruitful interaction between the scientific disciplines and the discipline of philosophy around topics of methodology, explanation, and empirical reasoning.  This interaction has in fact born fruit in the past several decades in a variety of scientific areas—for example, physics, biology, economics, and sociology.

The philosophy of social science is the field that is most relevant to the discipline of economic history.  The philosophy of social science can be described as the study of the logic and methods of the social sciences from the point of view of analytic philosophy.  A few central topics include: What are the criteria of a good social explanation?  How (if at all) are the social sciences distinct from the natural sciences?  Is there a distinctive method for social research?  Through what sorts of empirical procedures are social science assertions to be evaluated?  Are there irreducible social laws?  Are there causal relations among social phenomena?  Do social facts and regularities require some form of reduction to facts and regularities involving only the properties and actions of individuals?  The philosophy of social science aims to provide an interpretation of the social sciences that permits answers to these questions, based on close examination of specific issues and controversies in the social sciences.

A concrete illustration of the benefits that can come from a philosophical treatment of the sciences is the discovery that empirical disciplines are sometimes preoccupied with assumptions about methodology and metaphysics that are in fact quite incorrect—and that these misconceptions have the potential of deflecting the development of research and theory in unproductive directions.  An example is the influence that radical behaviorism had in the discipline of psychology in the 1940s and 1950s; the hold of this restrictive assumption was only loosened in the 1960s by the writings of cognitive psychologists and linguists who insisted on the scientific legitimacy of theories of unobservable mental entities and constructs.  A more contemporary example within the social sciences is the positivistic assumption that only statistical analysis of quantitative data represents real scientific knowledge of the social world (King, Keohane, and Verba 1994).  Philosophers and methodologists argue against this assumption by establishing the legitimacy of research into concrete social mechanisms, single-case studies, and ethnographic research (Mahoney and Rueschemeyer 2003), (Little 1998).  If a philosopher can contribute to the development of a scientific discipline by helping shed light on underlying assumptions about methodology and knowledge, this will be a valuable contribution to the development of the field. 

It is the goal of the current paper to bring some of this synergy between philosophy and science into current discussions of the methodology of Chinese economic history.

What is “economic history”?

Let us begin by considering a foundational question: what is the intellectual task of an “economic history” of a region or country?  To start, we might say that the task of the discipline of economic history is to provide an evidence-based description of the main economic characteristics of the country or region over a defined period of time: the kinds and levels of agricultural and manufacturing products that are produced, the technologies and institutions through which production and distribution occurs, the size of the population, and the level of material well-being that is experienced by the population.  And, second, the task of economic history is to arrive at causal hypotheses that may serve as explanations of some of the patterns of economic change that are discovered.  This charge can be further broken down into the activities of description, synthesis, and explanation. 

It should be emphasized at the outset, that economic history is a good example of “large social science,” in the sense that there is a large and extended research community of scholars who contribute different pieces of the overall body of knowledge.  No single scholar can do original research on every aspect of a region’s economic history.  Instead, there are specialized groups of scholars who focus their research different aspects and levels of the problem, and others who synthesize these findings into larger historical constructions.  This division of labor is cross-generational and cross-national.  Thus the careful farm studies conducted by John Lossing Buck in the early twentieth century continue to provide the basis of more comprehensive synthetic work on the economic history of rural China in the early twenty-first century.  And the historical population studies conducted by teams of researchers in over a dozen settings across Eurasia in the EurAsian Population Project provide the basis for rigorous testing of such high-level hypotheses as the Malthusian theory of population behavior (Bengtsson et al 2004).  In each case the specialized studies are eventually brought into higher-level interpretations by other economic historians. 

There is a substantial and permanent role within this definition of the field for sustained, detailed empirical investigation.  The data that permit the historian to reconstruct economic facts—prices, wages, consumption levels—are usually obscure and difficult to reconstruct.  And there is almost invariably a substantial degree of variation of economic activity and results throughout the given region.  So the task of gathering and analyzing relevant evidence about economic phenomena and behavior is a daunting one.  This work takes the form of estimating price movements, wage levels, demographic events, the timing and distribution of technological innovations, the rate and pattern of capital formation, patterns of trade, and so on; in other words, descriptive empirical work.  Second, the economic historian is charged to identify salient patterns, whether of change or persistence.  This might be called the work of synthesis, or the construction of more general and abstract narratives of the economic processes that were underway in the time and place under study.  And third, the economic historian is asked to provide explanations of the patterns that the research tradition discovers.  If an “agricultural revolution” occurs, if a prolonged period of technological stagnation takes place, if population trends change significantly—the economic historian is charged to attempt to arrive at an explanation of these large features of economic development.  What are the background factors that caused the economic circumstance in question to occur? 

What theoretical resources are available to the economic historian in support of explanations?  Social theories provide developed accounts of common social mechanisms—the processes and patterns that result from purposive human behavior within constraints.  (This view of social explanation is explored more fully in (Little 1998, 2006).)  It is evident that economic outcomes are the result of human behavior within the context of environmental circumstances and institutional settings.  Human behavior, however, is not rigidly segregated into “economic,” “cultural,” and “social” behavior; rather, behavioral outcomes are influenced by all these kinds of factors.  So economic history cannot be restricted to the theories associated with neoclassical economics.  Rather, the economic historian is obliged to examine the economic phenomena under study within the broader social and environmental context in which this behavior takes place.  And that means that the economic historian must be as much a social historian, a sociologist, or an ethnographer as he is an economist; he needs to pay as much attention to the social and political context of economic trends as he does to the pure mathematics of equilibrium or the idealized workings of a market.  This suggests that the economic historian needs to be mindful of the wide variety of social factors and causes that are potentially relevant in the explanation of economic outcomes.[1] 

The “multi-threaded” character of economic phenomena also implies that the economic historian needs to be open to a variety of kinds of evidence that are pertinent to assessing economic circumstances.  Marc Bloch’s history of medieval French agriculture is a good illustration of the value of a broadly contextualized approach to a region’s economic history.  Bloch surveys the main social institutions and technologies that were in use, and attempts to explain some of the large patterns that became evident (for example, field shape and the geographical diffusion of the wheeled plough) (Bloch 1966)).  Bloch’s explanation invokes such varied factors as the nature of the soils across France, the availability and timing of technical innovations in the design of the plough, and the nature of village communities in different parts of France.  And he makes use of an ingeniously wide range of historical sources to permit him to come to assessments of various economic and institutional facts.

We can further focus our treatment of the issues underlying the current writing of the economic history of China, by identifying a limited number of features of economic life that define the literature today.  Is there a small set of factors where further empirical and theoretical investigation could bring about a higher level of consensus among the experts?  Abstractly, it is clear that an economic history of rural China should address several crucial sets of issues, and it is plausible to believe that additional empirical and theoretical research can narrow the range of disagreement about these factors.  So let us begin by identifying several core dimensions of empirical and theoretical disagreement about China’s economic history.

·          Demography.  What was the absolute population size and distribution at various time points during the period?  What were the trends of population growth during the peri­od?  How much urbanization occurred during the period?

·          Inputs and technology.  How much land was under cultivation?  What crops and products were in production?  What fertilizer technologies were in use?  How much irrigation was available, and what was the trend of extension of land and irrigation? 

·          Property relations and control of labor.  What forms of tenancy and land ownership were in place?  How were these arrangements changing during the time period?  What forms of labor control were in use?  Was there a tendency of change in the conditions and extent of wage labor?

·          Productivity.  What was the absolute size of the production of central commodities—rice, wheat, cotton?  What were the factor productivities for land, labor, capital, or animal power?  What trends existed in these quantities?

·          Prices and market conditions. How much agricultural activity took place within functioning markets for crops, grain, textiles, and handicraft goods?  What were the prices of these goods over time?  How sensitive were farmers to changing market conditions?

·          Human welfare.  What were the income levels and food security of various groups: landless workers, smallholding peasants, tenants and other groups?  How extensive were income inequalities within the economy?  Where were economic surpluses going?  What was the trend of real welfare and inequalities?

·          Causal factors. What are the causal relationships that obtain between various large factors: technology, social relations, property systems, state, demographic regimes, and international relations?

It is evident that there are relationships among these dimensions.  For example, we can make inferences about the standard of living if we have confident estimates of crop production, population size, and surplus distribution institutions.  Equally, it is evident that there are different types of historical data that permit us to arrive at estimates of these several dimensions of economic history.  For example, there are qualitative and forensic sources (gazetteers’ and travelers’ reports, skeletal measurements) that permit assessment of the standard of living that may provide evidence that either supports or contradicts the estimates that are produced on the basis of estimation of population, food output, and prices (Allen, Bengtsson, and Dribe 2005).  This variety of kinds of evidence permits us to test the validity of some of our conclusions on the basis of the estimates produced of related variables by a different method.

An economic history demands temporal differentiation; we need to identify the processes of change over time that occur for the many variables of interest.  Ideally we would want time-series estimates for each of these groups of variables.  But we also need to have spatial differentiation of these variables, in order to capture the crucially important regional variations that are present in economic development in an economy as large and physiographically diverse as China’s.  As G. William Skinner’s work has demonstrated, we need to break these data down in spatial terms.  Regions differ across China, and data that is averaged over large regions give misleading impressions of the processes of development that were underway (Skinner 1964-65, 1977, 1985).  And in fact, one of the most interesting implications of recent Chinese economic history is the discovery that the definition of the regions under comparison makes a great deal of difference.  North and South China had profoundly different agrarian economies, and findings that are based on data from one region may be highly misleading when generalized to another region.  Likewise, comparisons between England and the lower Yangzi Delta are more revealing than comparisons between Europe and China.  In principle, then, we can picture the empirical core of an economic history as a three-dimensional data space repre­senting a set of variables as they change over time and place.

If we succeeded in reaching reasonable estimates of these dimensions of economic activity and change, we would have a very substantial basis for resolving the breadth of disagreement that currently exists among experts on China’s rural economy.  This would permit the field to move from the situation of “basic paradigm” disagreement to one of “normal science” investigation of more particular issues.[2]  In other words, it should be possible to resolve disagreements within the field of China’s economic history with additional empirical research.  And in fact, it appears that research in the past ten years has provided a substantially better empirical grasp of most of these key dimensions of China’s economic history, especially with regard to population, farm productivity, and the standard of living. 

Research strategies

                  What are some of the research tools that are available to the comparative economic historian?  First, it is important to have the best possible grasp of the empirical and factual experience of the two settings.  The specialized economic history literatures of Europe and Asia provide factual evidence at a number of levels of scale: national economic performance, regional or occupational living standards (wages and prices), levels of trade, levels of transport, levels of output and output-per-unit, and so on.  These sources do not “speak for themselves”; the economic historian needs to exert himself in understanding the measurement issues that underlie the data, the regional variations that exist, etc.  But important economic and social variables can be observed through existing economic history research at a variety of levels of aggregation.  Economic historians such as Robert Allen have done highly valuable work in attempting to provide meta-level analysis of these data sets, to provide the strongest basis for comparison across contexts; so Allen’s detailed summaries of cost of living and wages across Europe and Asia provide a significantly more rigorous basis for cross-regional comparison (Allen 2005, 2002); see also (Goldstone 2002) and (Li 2002, 1998).

                  Second, a great deal of institutional detail is known about state policies, taxes, property systems, labor, etc., in a wide variety of settings across the Eurasian continental system and the smaller regions embraced within this system.  Once again, this sort of historical knowledge can be gathered and aggregated at a range of levels, from the local to the regional to the national or continental; it is a substantive issue that the historian must address in choosing the “right” level of aggregation for the purpose of the current comparison.  The comparative economic historian needs to have an expert acquaintance with the most credible accounts of the institutional settings within which communities, regions, and nations undertook their processes of economic development (Pomeranz 2000), (Wong 1997).

                  These points underlines the importance of further empirical and factual research in resolving these hypotheses and debates about China’s economic development.  But there are also significant conceptual problems that need to be addressed as historians attempt to formulate summaries of the facts about population, output, productivity, standard of living, or real wage.  Goldstone emphasizes the importance of discussing and motivating a set of data consistency standards that ought to guide the use of historical economic data.  Goldstone distinguishes between micro and macro data and argues for the need to tie them together to establish consistency (Goldstone 2002).  Similarly, Robert Allen’s close attention to establishing consistent accounting for measurement and comparison provides an admirable model of rigor.

                  Third, the economic historian is interested in discovering causal relations among various sets of factors.  Here the economic historian needs to have a deep understanding of a wide range of social theories and the social mechanisms that they describe; and he or she needs to be able to consider whether specific mechanisms are at work in specific historical circumstances.  How did population pressure affect technological change?  How did tenancy relations affect investment (and hence productivi­ty)?  How did tenancy relations affect average rural welfare?  How did rural welfare levels affect population trends?  If we are to arrive at explanations of the large historical processes that we discern in economic development, we need to consider a range of possible social mechanisms that might be shown to drive these processes.  This is the function of social theories—and significantly, the role of theory is itself one of the central dimensions of disagreement among contemporary economic historians.  Disagreements about social mechanisms are highly prominent across these debates.  Consider a few of the major social mechanisms that have been invoked in recent debates:

·          unregulated population growth, leading to unsustainable pressure on land and other resources ((Elvin 1973), (Chao 1986), (Huang 1990));

·          competition and market institutions, leading to the spread of efficient techniques, the migration of labor, and the extension of trade ((Rawski 1989), (Brandt 1989), (Myers 1970));

·          economic incentives at the level of the household or manager, leading to adjustment of techniques, inputs, and innovations so as to arrive at optimal distribution of labor and capital to produce outputs that maximize income and security ((Schultz 1964), (Huang 1985)).

·          sets of social property institutions that assign highly unequal bundles of powers, resources, and incomes to various participants including peasants, handicraft workers, landlords, merchants, or officials, leading to different economic strategies in different settings ((Brenner 1976), (Lippit 1987), (Riskin 1975));

·          the economic effects of colonialism and empire in the form of cheap access to resources and labor ((Pomeranz 2000), (Frank 1967));

·          the accident of the geographical distribution of mineral and energy resources ((Pomeranz 2000), (Goldstone 1991));

·          processes of environmental change, both exogenous and endogenous ((Elvin 2004), (Perdue 1987))

·          processes of warfare and militarization ((Perdue 2005; Tilly 1990))

·          cultural factors that influence economic behavior ((Lieberman 2003), (Geertz 1980))

This list could be extended, but the central point is this.  These factors may or may not have causal significance in China’s economic history, but each serves to identify a possible causal mechanism that has been invoked as a factor leading to economic change or stasis.  Well-developed social theories give us a basis for demonstrating how various factors could be causally relevant.  It is then the task of empirical, historical, and theoretical research to arrive at justified conclusions about causation.  Moreover, it is entirely possible that different combinations of causal factors are of primary importance in different historical settings; historical change is conjunctural and contingent.  (These themes are explored more fully in (Little 2000).)  The general point is that institutions and circumstances matter, and that institutional arrangements in different times and places may impose limits or opportunities that discourage or favor some pathways of development over others.  Instead of expecting one grand course of development, we ought to expect a congeries of contingent, fluctuating path-dependent processes.  And it is the responsibility of the historian to use a variety of forms of inquiry and inference to assign credible weight to the various factors in different circumstances.

                  What is the ideal product of a successful comparative economic history across regions or continents?  We would like to have a reasonably detailed description of the empirical realities that were experienced through time and space in the field of study.  We would like to have an account of the most important causal mechanisms that were in play in economic development in the cases under comparison.  We would like to be able to construct narratives that illuminate the similarities and differences in the several regional experiences that we have considered.  We would like to arrive at a clear understanding of some of the diversity and contingency that exists in these economic development trajectories.  At the same time, we would hope that the results of historical comparison will shed light on the degree of systematicity or causal order that exists in economic and political development processes.  There is variation, but there is also a degree of causal order.  So each region’s economic history is not sui generis; instead, productively, we find that there are causal similarities and contingent differences.

                  The knowledge that emerges from comparative research should offer insight into questions about contingency and necessity among large economic and political developments in East Asia or Western Europe.  We should be open to the likelihood that there are substantial differences in processes across cases.  Economic development embodies a complex configuration of factors and institutions, and represents a clear example of the role of contingency and path-dependence in historical change.  Do we find that economic outcomes reflect a large degree of path-dependency and contingency?  Do we observe substantial variation in the basic institutions through which economic and political functions are performed?  Or is there convergence around “most efficient or effective” political and economic institutions?  The results so far suggest a high degree of variation and contingency across Eurasia.

                  An especially important recent work that emphasizes these features of contingency and conjuncture in Eurasian historical development is R. Bin Wong’s China Transformed (Wong 1997).  In this work Wong offers a sophisticated approach to the problem of comparison across Europe and China.  Wong believes that such comparisons are legitimate and fruitful, but he offers a powerful set of cautions about the conceptual and theoretical presuppositions that we bring to such an effort.  His central point is a crucial one: we must not make the mistake of assuming that European developments and characteristics are the paradigm for history, and that Chinese developments will either reproduce this general template, or will be regarded as “a-typical.”  He writes, “This book too aims to dislodge European state making and capitalism from their privileged positions as universalizing themes in world history, but it offers a new approach: comparison with the dynamics of economic and political change in a major non-Western civilization” ((Wong 1997) : 2).  Against the general approach of taking European developments as paradigmatic—demographic transition, capitalist development, state formation—he argues that the comparativist needs to be prepared to identify large processes in any of the great civilizations as potentially insightful in application or contrast to the experience of others.  He puts the point this way: “For historical trajectories to matter, there must be more than one.  Western social theory has generally analyzed only that created by the twin processes of European state formation and capitalism.  Western states and economies have histories that matter to the formation of the modern world.  Other parts of the globe, according to the research strategies employed in most social science research, had no histories of comparable significance before Western contacts began to transform them” ((Wong 1997) : 3).  The purpose of China Transformed is thus to attempt to discern China’s own dynamic of transformation, its own historical trajectory and historical formations, with the aid of appropriate social theory.  And Wong aims to illuminate European history by detailed consideration of an alternative historical course of development.

Problems of methodology

What problems stand in the way of achieving greater levels of agreement about the most basic characteristics of China’s economy?  It is evident, to start, that estimates of some of the important economic variables depend on estimates of others.  For example, if we have good data on population size and trends, income distribu­tion, and absolute levels of output, then we can construct credible estimates of real welfare.  If we have good estimates of real wages then (making neo-classical economic assump­tions) we can estimate labor productivity.  If we have good estimates of the absolute amount of grain consumption and if we make assumptions about the direction and rate of change of consumption then we can make an estimate of demographic variables.  And so on for various sets of these variables.

                  But it is glaringly obvious that there are very considerable problems of data in recent efforts to measure China’s historical economic performance.  This is a problem that con­fronts all research in economic history—witness the “standard of living” debate in English economic history of the 1960s (usefully analyzed in retrospect in (Crafts 1985)).  But the problems are particularly severe in the case of China.  Ideally we want estimates of a variety of common economic variables: population size over time, urbanization rate, amount of land under cultivation, average crop yields, prevalence of various agricultural techniques and inputs, level of output of various export goods (cotton, silk), amount of commercialization, amount of transport of commercial goods, prevalence of landlessness, tenancy rates and rent levels, wages for various kinds of employment, productivity in various sectors of the economy.  But these data are hard to come by; in practice there are only a few data sources that scholars have relied on to tease out into estimates of economic trends.

Consider some of the main data sources on which Chinese economic history depends.  Population and production data are crucial.  In some cases the imperial state itself collected relevant data (generally for tax purposes), and these sources are used extensively by all contemporary historians.  But (as Joseph Esherick shows convincingly; (Esherick 1981)) these data can be severely skewed as a result of strategic under- or over-reporting of data.  Moreover, as Skinner shows in his analysis of Sichuan’s population data, there are often internal inconsistencies that cast very profound doubt on the validity of official population and production data (Skinner 1987).  (For a comprehensive review of the state of Chinese demography see (Lavely, Lee, and Feng 1990).)

A second major source of data, employed by almost all contemporary Chinese historians, are the agricultural surveys undertaken by John Lossing Buck and his research teams in the 1930s.  The Buck surveys collected a wide range of information: land usage, wage rates, tenancy rates, cropping patterns and so on.  Here again, however, there are substantial problems of bias and completeness of coverage; Buck’s surveys of land concentra­tion, for example, excluded absentee landlords, thus underesti­mating land concentration (Esherick 1981).

                  A third data source that has been extensively employed by several authors (including especially Philip Huang and Ramon Myers) are the Mantetsu surveys performed in North China by the Japanese South Manchurian Railway Company in the 1930s.  These surveys offer village- ­and household-level surveys of economic activity in North China.  They provide very extensive detail on the organization of the local economy in a variety of villages.  Their limitations, however, are severe as well: only a relative handful of villages are studied (raising questions about the representativeness of the data); and the surveys are done at the behest of a conquer­ing army—raising a different set of questions about bias of investigation and response.  (Joshua Fogel (Fogel 1987) provides a useful description and assessment of the Mantetsu surveys.)

The methodological problem, then, is this: for virtually none of the key economic variables describing rural economic development are the data sources fully adequate and fully credible.  Instead, economic historians are unavoidably forced to combine sketchy and problematic data, assumptions about trends they cannot directly observe and assumptions about the economic system that derive from economic theory (e.g. the assumption that the real wage of unskilled labor is equal to the marginal product of unskilled labor), in order to arrive at estimates of other economic vari­ables.  The point to be emphasized here is not that the resulting estimates cannot be taken seriously.  It is rather that the reader needs to follow the economic historian’s reasoning very carefully, in order to arrive at an assessment of the overall credibility of a given claim.

There are other epistemic problems that confront economic historians besides paucity and unreliability of data.  An issue that divides much of the work in this field is the question of the relative importance of qualitative and quantita­tive data.  Thomas Rawski and Loren Brandt make an appeal for investigation solely on the basis of available quantitative data—grain prices, maritime records detailing quantities of grain transported, official population data.  On the other hand, as an historian, Philip Huang pays substantial attention to a variety of non-quantita­tive sources: criminal case archives, the Mantetsu studies, the observations of rural welfare by interested observers.  Does one data source have strict priority over the other, as Rawski and Brandt maintain; or is it mandatory for the historian to cross-check the inferential conclusions his or her quantitative analysis produces on the basis of qualitative data?

A related issue concerns the need for sociological detail in economic history.  As Kathleen Hartford notes (Hartford 1992), there is disagreement among contemporary historians about the relative autonomy of economic processes and economic behavior.  Rawski and Brandt essentially assume that political and social institutions matter little to economic change.  Huang believes, and Hartford emphasizes, that the specifics of institutions and political culture have a great deal of effect on the results: whereas commercialization in the institutional context of eighteenth century English agriculture led to managerial agriculture, within the context of the cultural situation of the lower Yangzi it led to more intensive family farming.  And so we are faced with another important method­ological question for the economic historian: how much institutional detail and sociological or even anthropological detail is needed in order to account for processes of economic development in China?

Finally, we may question the validity of the historiographical frameworks and assumptions made by various authors.  Quantitative analysis requires economic theory, on a more or less grand scale; in order to arrive at an estimate of labor productivity it is necessary to employ a set of assumptions that permit us to make inferences from a given set of data about population size, land acreage and output to conclusions about labor productivity.  But what assumptions should we use?  Rawski and Brandt are neoclassical economists.  Their analysis depends on the equi­librium conditions of competitive markets.  How well or poorly, however, do such assumptions fit the circumstances of the Chinese rural economy?  Huang embraces no single economic theory; but he comes closest to a neo-Marxist theory, emphasizing surplus extraction and power rather than freely competitive markets.  For all these theories, we need to ask the foundational question: how well do these theoretical assumptions fit the terrain of late-imperial China?


                  We began by noting the intellectual importance of economic history, along with the explicit and implicit disagreements that exist among practitioners about the most basic assumptions that should lead research and theory in the field.  We proposed that it would be constructive to bring the perspective of the philosophy of science into dialogue with economic historians.  The value of this experiment is for the reader to assess; but we have made a beginning, by identifying several central tasks for a philosophical treatment of the field of economic history.  First, it is important to have a clear statement of the knowledge goals that motivate the discipline of economic history, at a range of levels; and the answers to this set of questions are not yet clear.  What kind of knowledge should be the result of a sustained research program of economic history?  Are there different knowledge goals at different levels of aggregation?  Does the knowledge product of economic history research need to contribute to comparative economic history knowledge?  Second, it is worthwhile to have an explicit treatment of some of the conceptual complexities that arise in the conduct of this field of research.  Some of these complexities have been identified above: the importance of specifying appropriate regions for comparison, the importance of incorporating the variability of economic factors across place, time, and population into our thinking, the importance of institutions and customs in influencing economic outcomes, or the challenge of formulating an index to represent the “standard of living.”  Third, we have seen that there are large epistemological challenges within economic history, at the level of providing critical assessment of different kinds and qualities of empirical data.  What are the challenges of arriving at confident knowledge of a given sort of low-level economic fact (for example, price and wage history, standard of living)?  And what are the logical inferences through which data of this sort can be brought to bear on higher-level economic history findings (such as “the lower Yangzi Delta experienced a rising standard of living in the 18th century”)?  If we can arrive at more satisfying answers to questions such as these, it should be possible to make substantial progress in the primary task of better understanding the economic history of China as a result.  Collaboration between philosophers and methodologically astute social scientists and historians should pay valuable rewards to the discipline of economic history—and to the ability of philosophers to think more rigorously about history and social change.


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[1] Cliometrics, the school of thought that gave almost exclusive priority to economic modeling as a tool for economic history, has been convincingly criticized for its disregard of other historically important factors; (Schabas 1995).  Less single-minded economic historians from an earlier generation, such as (Hicks 1969), (Jones 1988), and (Schumpeter 1947), offer examples of full historians who treat the history of economies in ways that give appropriate attention to the broad context of economic institutions and behavior.  See (Rawski 1996) for good recent discussions of the role of theory in economic history.

[2] The distinction between paradigm shifts and normal science is the core of the history of science developed by Thomas Kuhn (Kuhn 1970) .  The distinction is developed primarily on the basis of study of the physical sciences, but it seems relevant in this area of historiographic disagreement as well.

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