Johan Fourie's blog

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Bridging the methodological divide

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Stefan Schirmer and I recently co-authored a note that will be published in the next issue of Economic History of Developing Regions. We argue that, while significant South African economic history research has been undertaken since the 1990s, South African historians and economists are still fighting a methodological Cold War. This is, of course, in no way unique to South Africa, but since the beginning of the twenty-first century much progress has been made internationally (on both sides of the divide)  to overcome this stalemate. We propose that South African historians need to familiarize themselves with quantitative techniques and that South African economists need to gain a deeper insight into the way historians conduct research. Ultimately, methodological tolerance is also needed if historians and economists with different strengths and orientations are to work together and to learn from one another. All methodologies ultimately have strengths and weaknesses; no methodology is better suited to reveal ‘the truth’ than another. As Andrew Rutten (1980) put it many years ago, ‘Science does not have any single goal or method. Science demands that economic historians develop whatever tools are needed to solve the problems they face’.

Perhaps we’ve already reached a turning-point. I recently teamed up with Robert Ross and Russel Viljoen, two of South Africa’s most prominent historians, to investigate the determinants of literacy on Cape missionary stations in the mid-eighteenth century. It was an excellent experience, more so because I got to visit Robert twice in lovely Leiden. The paper will soon be available for comments. More persuasive evidence, though, is found in the number of South African economists and historians that have signed up for the World Economic History Congress to be held in Stellenbosch during July 2012. This event, which is to be held in Africa for the first time, has already attracted more than 700 entrants globally, of which more than 80 are from South Africa. Bringing the world’s best economic historians to South Africa will hopefully encourage economists and historians to co-explore  the rich sources of the South African (and African!) past.

It is not only the integration of theory and techniques that needs consideration, but also the integration of South African economic history into the economic history of Africa. African economic history is making a comeback; the formation of a new African Economic History Network is just one example. Debates published in EHDR suggest that economists and historians are grappling with issues of low data availability and mis‐measurement especially applicable to African economic history. South African economic historians should not stand isolated from these debates. Shedding new light on the economic history of South Africa, and Africa more broadly, matters not only for understanding history, but should influence broader debates about economic change as well. In South Africa, rich colonial archives can inform early trajectories of comparative development, while the unique Apartheid institutions, and the attempts by the democratically‐elected government to redress past inequalities, provide fertile ground for empirically testing hypotheses. In a paper published in the American Economic Review, Dinkelman (2011), for example, uses South Africa’s mass roll‐out of electricity to rural households in the 1990s to show how household electrification raises employment by releasing women from home production and enabling micro‐enterprises.

South African economic history can only profit from multiple methodological approaches, and so, too, can its scholars. Ike e: ǀxarra ǁke. It’s time to start talking.

PS: The 16th World Economic History Congress will be held from 9-13 July in Stellenbosch. More than 800 papers will be presented in 15 parallel sessions over five days. NewsNow magazine is the official media partner. Register for the congress here.


Written by Johan Fourie

May 11, 2012 at 14:47

2 Responses

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  1. Thanks for the post Johan. I am interested in geographical economics and in this field we are quick to say that history matters, or that there is cumulative causation in agglomerations. However, I know very little about how historians would approach and analyse the external economies. I am looking forward to the congress and hope to learn a lot.

    Waldo Krugell

    May 13, 2012 at 15:21

  2. Perhaps periodical collective efforts of a continental scale, in the style of the Latin American Economic History Congresses ( could help to further strengthen the links between historians and economists in Africa. All the best!

    Manuel Bautista

    May 12, 2012 at 16:28

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