The History of Economics in the Expanded Field

HOPE Conference

25–27 April 2024

Duke Universtiy

Organizers: Philippe Fontaine (ENS Paris-Saclay) and Joel Isaac (University of Chicago)

Sponsors: Duke University Press and the HOPE Center


Since the Second World War, social scientific ideas have come to occupy an increasingly important place in world societies. Economic ideas in particular have been especially influential: they have shaped public policies worldwide and supported a way of thinking about problems and their solutions that has eclipsed others that were less efficiency-oriented. Economic reasoning, with its basic notions of incentive, externality, and opportunity cost; its idea of weighing costs and benefits; and more generally marginal analysis, has gradually permeated all segments of society and displaced other forms of reasoning centered on rights, universalism, fairness and equity.

Until the mid-1990s, there was little historical interest in that transformation. Economists interested in the discipline’s past identified its upper limit with Maynard Keynes and preferred to resuscitate theories that had been marginalized by the ascent of neoclassicism. Moreover, even though the idea of “the economy” was affirmed in the postwar era, from the 1960s the increased definition of the discipline by its methods rather than by its subject did not encourage the historical study of the economy. To historians of science and intellectual historians, economics often appeared as a remote land, with a foreign language, whose relationship with the economy was unclear.

Things changed in the late 1990s when historians of economics trained as economists began to reflect on the rise to authority of economic science after the Second World War and when noneconomists—social scientists and historians alike—began to develop an interest in the influence of economic arguments in public debates.

In social sciences other than economics, sociologists and political scientists have been especially active in stressing the impact of wider forms of economics on society and culture. As the efficiency of the competitive market in coordinating individual actions was celebrated in various quarters, sociologists and political scientists took a rather critical stance towards economics. And, after the 2008 financial crisis, it became even more common for them to point to the neoliberal doctrine and its role in social fragmentation and democracy’s endangerment.

In history, intellectual historians, because of their interest in the political role of ideas, have found it useful to place economic ideas in public contexts and to put them in conversation with broader cultural currents. Likewise, those economic historians who are trained as economists have found it natural to deal with economic ideas, especially when they felt that they enriched their analysis of capitalism. For other historians, attention to economic ideas has very much depended on the variable capacity of historical subfields to accommodate the role of ideas in their narratives, with political, cultural and social history providing good examples.

From this perspective, it may be interesting to take into account the increased diversity of scholars who write about the influence of economics on society and culture after the Second World War. These scholars approach “economics” from various angles, study different topics, ask different questions. We need to understand how this engagement with past economic ideas looks like from different subfields: e.g., from the perspective of (i) the new history of capitalism, (ii) intellectual history, (iii) the history of social/public policy, (iv) history of science and medicine, (v) Foucauldian political theory (vi) history of the social sciences (vii) history of geopolitics/international order.

It may also be wondered how these new treatments and authors have interacted with the history written by those with professional training (and stakes in) the discipline of economics itself? And what can the latter learn from scholars who write about past ideas from outside the discipline. Finally, since noneconomists take an important part in writing about past economic ideas, it may be wondered whether the economists will be able to keep control over the public image of economics.