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Journal of Interdisciplinary History, XLVIII:3 (Winter, 2018), 295312.

Herbert S. Klein
The Historical Turn in the Social Sciences The
rst professional societies in the United States, from the 1880s to
the 1910s, understood history to be closely associated with the
other social sciences. Even in the mid-twentieth century, history
was still grouped with the other social sciences, along with eco-
nomics, sociology, political science, and anthropology. But in the
past few decades, history and anthropology in the United States
(though not necessarily in other countries) have moved away
from the social sciences to ally themselves with the humanities
paradoxically, just when the other social sciences are becoming
more committed to historical research.
Until recently, historians read and interacted with the other
social sciences on a systematic basis, working on themes that today
are generally the exclusive concern of the other social sciences.
The introduction of computers has made quantitative analysis
more important in the social sciences as well as in history; studies
of this kind owed naturally from earlier work rooted in economic
and social history throughout Europe and North America. Begin-
ning in 1980, however, historians have become more interested in
cultural studies, the so-called cultural turn in history. Part of the
reason was a rejection of quantitative analysis, soon followed by a
progressive distancing from the other social sciences, even by
scholars supposedly trying to answer questions in economic history.
As Mihm recently wrote in the American Historical Review, For
scholars trained in cultural history, the phrase economic history
implies a faith in quantication and data that strikes them as nave.

Herbert S. Klein is Gouveneur Morris Professor Emeritus of History, Columbia University;

Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution; and curator of the Latin America collection in the
Hoover Institution Library and Archives, Stanford University. He is the author of The First
Americans: The Current Debate, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, XLVI (2016), 543561;
with Francisco Vidal Luna, Brazil 19641985: The Military Regimes of Latin America in the Cold
War (New Haven, 2017).
The author thanks Donald Treiman, Stanley Engerman, Paul Hoffman, Marcello
Carmagnani, James Robinson, Csar Ayala, Gail Treiner, Nicols Snchez-Albornoz, and
Grant Miller for helpful suggestions and comments on initial drafts of this article. An earlier
version was given as the 2017 Ervin Federik Kalb Lecture in History at Rice University.
2017 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and The Journal of Interdisciplinary
History, Inc., doi:10.1162/JINH_a_01159
296 | H E RB E RT S. K LE I N

Political economy may be viewed by social historians as either too

obsessed with high-level policy making and politics, or insufciently
attentive to questions of agency, much less historical actors other
than white men.1
This hostility toward economics is also amply demonstrated in
recent studies of a new historical school called Capitalism and
Slavery. Although concerned with basic economic issues, these
studies make only a partial and incomplete effort to provide sys-
tematic quantitative analysis. More importantly, they ignore most
of the classic studies by economists about African slavery in the
Americas. Thus, it is no surprise that two senior historians have
called on their profession to ignore economics entirely and create
their own type of economic history.2
Much of this increasing disdain of historians for the social sci-
ences derives from the publication of Fogel and Engermans Time
on the Cross in 1974. The North American historical profession rst
seemed overwhelmed by their analysis, but eventually, many his-
torians took the rigorous criticism that economists and historians

1 For a European and North American program of the 1930s to generate historical price
series, see Arthur H. Cole and Ruth Crandall, The International Scientic Committee on
Price History, Journal of Economic History, XXIV (1964), 381388; for an evaluation of the
primary research of Earl Hamiltons Spanish Price series, Ernesto Lpez Losa, The Legacy of
Earl J. Hamilton: New Data for the Study Of Prices in Spain, 16501800, Investigaciones de
Historia EconmicaEconomic History Research, IX (2013), 7587; for the French Quantitative
History of the 1930s, Pierre Chaunu, Les dpassements de lhistoire quantitative: retrospec-
tive et perspective, Mlanges de la Casa de Velzquez, VIII (1972), 647685; for the rejection of
the new cultural history, James W. Cook, The Kids Are All Right: On the Turning of
Cultural History, American Historical Review, CXVII (2012), 746771; Stephen Mihm (with
Sven Beckert et al.), Interchange: The History of Capitalism, Journal of American History, CI
(2014), 512.
2 The three major works about African slavery are Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never
Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York, 2014); Beckert, Empire of
Cotton: A New History of Global Capitalism (New York, 2014); Walter Johnson, River of Dark
Dreams (Cambridge, Mass., 2013). As Wright noted, In the 1960s and 70s, dominion over
economic history was vigorously contested between historians and economists. The outcome
was decisive victory for the economics side, but at the cost of virtual extinction of economic
history in history departments. A delayed consequence of this disciplinary separation has been
the rise of movement in recent years to promote the history of capitalism, largely in isolation
from economics. See Gavin Wright, Review of Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams:
Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom, Journal of Economic Literature, LII (2014.), 27. For a
review of Baptists book by several economists ( John E. Murray, Alan L. Olmstead, Trevon
D. Logan, Jonathan B. Pritchett, and Peter L. Rousseau), see Journal of Economic History, LXXV
(2015), 919931. Jeremy Adelman and Jonathan Levy, The Fall and Rise of Economic History,
Chronicle of Higher Education, December 1, 2015, available at
H IS T O R IC A L T U R N | 297
leveled against the book as proof that quantitative analysis was
essentially worthless. Yet, although critics had challenged the data
and the quantitative results, none of them had suggested that using
numbers per se was ahistorical or politically conservative. None-
theless, the negative reaction to Time on the Cross among leading
U.S. historians heralded a steady decline in systematic quantitative
analysis within certain elds and even encouraged an outright
rejection of quantitative studies as a tool of historical research.3
This situation has led to a growing lack of interest in the other
social sciences among historians at the very time when the social sci-
ences were becoming more historically oriented. A number of original
and interesting elds of study have emerged within the discipline of
history recently, many of them worthy of respect for their innovative
methodologies. But North American historians still show hostility for
any kind of quantitative and comparative work that does not t into
these new styles and ideologies, especially in the eld of social history.
Although European pioneers in these new historical trends do not
unilaterally see any inherent conict between macro- or micro-history
(in Ginzburgs terms, serial history and individual biography), North
American cultural historians are reluctant to relate individual experi-
ence to the larger world that they inhabit; such a strategy would re-
quire an explanation of the universality or the uniqueness of the
individuals in question. This rejection of quantitative evaluation marks
a good deal of the current cultural history. Moreover, the overwhelm-
ing concentration of the profession in this new type of cultural history
has not only reduced work in traditional social history; it has also de-
pressed work in numerous other traditional historical elds, from
economic and political history to diplomatic history.4

3 Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman, Time on The Cross: The Economics of Amer-
ican Negro Slavery (Boston, 1974), 2v. Many historians date the 1970s as a watershed in historical
studies, when quantitative analysis was summarily rejected as a tool of historical research. Accord-
ing to William Sewell, during the 1960s and 1970s, some historians adopted the positivist lan-
guage that dominated sociology, political science, and economics, but during the 1980s and
1990s, many historians turned from social to cultural history and from positivistic to interpretive
modes of thought (AHR Conversations, Explaining Historical Change; or, the Lost History of
Causes, American Historical Review CXX [2015], 1380). Cook, The Kids Are All Right, ob-
served that some of the new cultural historians described their turns as sparked by a growing
crisis (e.g., within the quantitative social history of the 1960s and 1970s) (756).
4 Carlo Ginzburg, Microhistory: Two or Three Things That I Know About It, Critical
Inquiry, XX (1993), 22. For the debate about what the European pioneers called serial history
and the application of advanced statistical analysis to historical data, see the exchange between
298 | H E RB E RT S. K LE I N

This turning of the profession toward the humanities is occur-

ring just as the other social sciences are becoming ever more deeply
committed to historical themes. Barely a half century ago, when
interdisciplinary-minded historians were far more committed to
serious research in economic, political, social, and demographic
history, the social sciences demonstated little interest in historical
questions. In this respect, economics has undergone the greatest
change. Mainline economists now do work that used to be the
province of economic historians. Today, leading economists rou-
tinely evince a deeper understanding of historical processes, involv-
ing such themes as the economic effect of institutions, the inuence
of culture on markets, and even the relevance of weather and
religion to an economy, along with the traditional themes of factors
of production and organization of markets in different historical
The world economic crisis of 2008 has also revived interest in
the evolution of market imbalances. As Piketty famously argued,
economics without history is not a science. His arguments have
attracted heated debate among numerous economists, especially
regarding the escalation of inequality in the industrial world and
its relationship to capitalism. These themes coincide with an ex-
pressed need for more empirical research in economics to test the
validity of models. Most of the data available for such economic
analysis is historical.6

Pierre Chaunu, Histoire quantitative ou histoire srielle, Cahiers Vilfredo Pareto, II (1964),
165176, and Jean Marczewski, Quelques observations sur larticle de Monsieur Chaunu,
ibid., 177180. For the major decline of political history in American universities, see Fredrik
Logevall and Kenneth Osgood, Why Did We Stop Teaching Political History? New York
Times, 29 Aug. 2016, available at
5 For analysis of the return of history articles to mainstream economics journals, see Ran
Abramitzky, Economics and the Modern Economic Historian, Journal of Economic History
LXXV (2015), 12401251. Alberto Alesina and Paola Giuliano, Culture and Institutions,
Journal of Economic Literature, LIII (2015), 898944; Sriya Iyer, The New Economics of
Religion, ibid., LVI (2016.), 395441; Melissa Dell, Benjamin F. Jones, and Benjamin A.
Olken, What Do We Learn from the Weather? The New Climate-Economy Literature,
ibid., LII (2014), 740798.
6 Barry Eichengreen, Hall of Mirrors: The Great Depression, the Great Recession, and the Uses and
Misuses of History (New York, 2015); Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, This Time Is
Different (Princeton, 2009). As Thomas Piketty noted at the end of Capital in the 21st Century
(Cambridge Mass., 2014), Historical experience remains our principal source of knowledge. . . .
To be sure, historical causality is always difcult to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt. . . .
Nevertheless, the imperfect lessons that we can draw from history . . . are of inestimable,
H IS T O R IC A L T U R N | 299
Social scientists show an increasing interest in how economic
class affects the evolution of institutions and beliefs in capitalist so-
cieties. This trend is occurring at at time when many U.S. histo-
rians no longer seem as concerned with class as they are with an
amorphous subaltern mass and undened hegemonic elite. Equally,
the study of social structures, social movements, and class con-
sciousness has given way to imaginaries and microhistories of
individual forms of resistance. But the interest of political scientists,
sociologists, and especially economists in socio-economic models
of class in capitalist societies has strengthened to become one of
the most dominant new elds of research in the social sciences.
Does economic growth lead to increases in inequality as Piketty
postulated, or does it lead to increasing equality, as the old Kuznets
model of growth maintained? As of now, Piketty appears to have
the upper hand; modern societies seem to be moving rapidly to in-
creased inequality. A growing body of studies questions whether
inequality was the same or different before the Industrial Revolu-
tion. Several economists have ventured into this eld of study,
where few historians dare to tread.7
irreplaceable value (574). See also idem, Putting Distribution Back at the Center of
Economics: Reections on Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Journal of Economic
Perspectives, XXIX (2015), 6788. Economists have even used the same sources as cultural
historians to analyze fundamental economic issues: Using prizes given in Worlds Fairs,
Petra Moser examined the problem of patent protection and industrial innovation in Patents
and Innovation: Evidence from Economic History, ibid., XXVII [2013], 2344). Marc Goi
examined the social galas of nineteenth-century England in Assortative Matching and Persistent
Inequality: Evidence from the Worlds Most Exclusive Marriage Market [2013], available at
7 Simon Kuznets, Economic Growth and Income Inequality, American Economic Review,
XLV (1955), 128. For comparative global studies of inequality, see Branko Milanovic,
Global Inequality and the Global Inequality Extraction Ratio: The Story of the Past Two
Centuries, Explorations in Economic History, XLVIII (2011), 494506; idem, Global Income
Inequality in Numbers: in History and Now, Global Policy, IV (2013), 198208; idem, Peter
H. Lindert, and Jeffrey G. Williamson, Pre-Industrial Inequality, Economic Journal, CXXI
(2011), 255272; for studies of specic times and places, Franois Bourguignon and Christian
Morrisson, The Size Distribution of Income among World Citizens, 18201990, American
Economic Review, XCII (2002), 727744; Lindert and Williamson, Unequal Gains: American
Growth and Inequality since 1700 (Princeton, 2016); Jan Luiten Van Zanden, Tracing the Be-
ginning of the Kuznets Curve: Western Europe during the Early Modern Period, Economic
History Review, XLVIII (1995), 643664; Esteban A. Nicolini and Fernando Ramos Palencia,
Decomposing Income Inequality in a Backward Pre-Industrial Economy: Old Castile (Spain)
in the Middle of the Eighteenth Century, ibid., LXIX (2016), 747772; Guido Alfani, The
Rich in Historical Perspective: Evidence for Preindustrial Europe (ca. 13001800), Cliometrica
(October, 2016), doi:10.1007/s11698-016-0151-8; Jaime Reis, Deviant Behaviour?
300 | H E RB E RT S. K LE I N

In addition to class, stratication, and inequality, social scien-

tists currently examine long-term trends in social mobility and
their relationship to inequalitya traditional area of research by
sociologists now also a concern of economists. Unfortunately, these
mattersas well as others raised about how class affects voting and
life expectancy, intergenerational mobility, residential segregation,
marriage/family, etc.remain outside the purview of historians
who seem oblivious to the basic structures and institutions of
society. The recent presidential election revealed the basic disjunc-
tion between the issues that most of the U.S. population nds to be
important and those that U.S. historians tend to favor.8

Inequality in Portugal 15651770, ibid. (November 2016), doi:10.1007/s11698-016-0152-7;

Osamu Saito, Growth and Inequality in the Great and Little Divergence Debate: A Japanese
Perspective, Economic History Review, LXVIII (2015), 399419; Facundo Alvaredo et al., The
Top 1 Percent in International and Historical Perspective, Journal of Economic Perspectives,
XXVII (2013), 320.
8 For sociologists, see James Z. Lee and Cameron D. Campbell, Fate and Fortune in Rural China:
Social Organization and Population Behavior in Liaoning 17741873 (New York, 2007); for a survey of
the earlier work by sociologists on these historical issues, Marco H. D. Van Leeuwen and Ineke
Maas, Historical Studies of Social Mobility and Stratication, Annual Review of Sociology,
XXXVI (2010), 429451; for the expansion of traditional intergenerational studies of mobility
to multigenerational ones, Gregory Clark, The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social
Mobility (Princeton, 2015); for a more restrained and solidly based historical study of the inuence
that grandparents and parents exert on childrens socio-economic status in an eighteenth-century
society, Jos Antonio Espn Snchez, Salvador Gil-Guirado, and Chris Vickers, The Old Men in
the Census: Inequality and Mobility in 18th Century Murcia, paper presented at the Stanford
Economic History Workshop, February 15, 2017; Joseph Ferrie, Catherine Massey, and Jonathan
Rothbaum, Do Grandparents and Great-Grandparents Matter? Multigenerational Mobility in
the US, 19102013, NBER Working Paper No. 22635 (September 2016); for a review of these
early and often contradictory ndings, Gary Solon, What Do We Know So Far about Multi-
generational Mobility? NBER Working Paper No. 21053 (March 2015); for a sociological anal-
ysis of the basic issues relating to this theme, Robert D. Mare, A Multigenerational View of
Inequality, Demography, XLVIII (2011), 123.
For a summary of new research about changing historical world patterns of wealth distribu-
tion, see Anthony B. Atkinson, Piketty, and Emmanuel Saez, Top Incomes in the Long Run of
History, Journal of Economic Literature, XLIX (2011), 371; Piketty and Saez, Inequality in the
Long Run, Science, CCCXLIV (2014), 838843; Piketty, Capital in the 21st Century; for a re-
thinking of why economic growth does not lead to poverty reduction, David M. Cutler
et al., Macroeconomic Performance and the Disadvantaged, Brookings Papers on Economic Ac-
tivity, I (1991), 174; for the social, economic, and residential factors that affect U.S. mobility, Raj
Chetty, et al., Where Is the Land of Opportunity? The Geography of Intergenerational Mo-
bility in the United States, Quarterly Journal of Economics, CXXIX (2014), 15531623; for the
social and economic conditions inuencing U.S. intergenerational mobility, Melissa S. Kearney
and Phillip B. Levine, Income Inequality, Social Mobility, and the Decision to Drop out of
High School, Brookings Papers on Economic Activity (Spring, 2016), 333396; for the extreme dif-
ferences in morbidity and mortality by social economic status, Barry Bosworth, Gary Burtless, and
Kan Zhang, Later Retirement, Inequality in Old Age, and the Growing Gap in Longevity between Rich
H IS T O R IC A L T U R N | 301
Historical institutions that affect contemporary societies have
recently become a major eld of contemporary research, especially
in economics and political science. The New Institutional Eco-
nomics involves analysis of both the contemporary institutions that
affect markets and the historical origins of these institutions. Inu-
ential economists and political scientistssuch as North, Sokoloff,
Engerman, and Acemoglu, Johnson, and Robinson, among
othershave opened inquiry into the causal factors that determined
why certain societies evolved institutions that promoted wide-scale
economic growth whereas others fostered institutions that rewarded
only a few at the expense of the many. Were outcomes due mainly
to original resource endowments, disease environments, pre-existent
social structures, a lack of exploitable native populations, or to other
initial factors that tended toward either elite exploitation or more
egalitarian economies? The debate is ongoing. But all of these new
institutional economists, following Norths lead, argue that these
initial factors signicantly determined the social and economic
institutions that followed, helping to explain differences in contem-
porary economies and societies.9
and Poor ( Washington D.C., 2016); Ellen R. Meara, Seth Richards, and David M. Cutler, The
Gap Gets Bigger: Changes in Mortality and Life Expectancy, by Education, 19812000, Health
Affairs, XXVII (2008), 350360; Cutler et al., Explaining the Rise in Educational Gradients in
Mortality, NBER Working Paper No. 15678 ( January 2010), doi: 10.3386/w15678.
9 For a key pioneering work, see Douglass C. North, Institutions, Institutional Change, and
Economic Performance (New York, 1990); for a survey of early work in the New Institutional
Economics, Nathan Nunn, The Importance of History for Economic Development, An-
nual Review of Economics, I (2009), 6592; for compilations of earlier articles, Engerman and
Kenneth L. Sokoloff, Economic Development in the Americas since 1500: Endowments and Institu-
tions (New York, 2012); Daron Acemoglu, Simon Johnson, and James A. Robinson, The
Colonial Origins of Comparative Development: An Empirical Investigation, American Eco-
nomic Review, XC (2001), 13691401; idem, Reversal of Fortune: Geography and Institutions
in the Making of the Modern World Income Distribution, Quarterly Journal of Economics,
CXVII (2002), 12311294; idem, The Rise of Europe: Atlantic Trade, Institutional Change
and Economic Growth, American Economic Review, XCV (2005), 546579; Acemoglu and
Robinson, Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (New York, 2005); for the effect
of different legal institutions on economy, Rafael La Porta, Florencio Lopez-de-Silanes,
and Andrei Shleifer, The Economic Consequences of Legal Origins, Journal of Economic Lit-
erature, XLVI (2008), 285332.
For a useful survey of all the debates, provided by a sociologist, see Henning Hillmann,
Economic Institutions and the State: Insights from Economic History, Annual Review of
Sociology, XXXIX (2013), 251273; for a lively debate about the relative positive or negative
impact of colonial institutions, which has become a theme in Mexican history, Rafael Dobado
Gonzlez and Hctor Garca Montero, Colonial Origins of Inequality in Hispanic America?
Some Reections Based on New Empirical Evidence, Revista de Historia Econmica/Journal of
Iberian and Latin American Economic History, XXVIII (2010), 253277.
302 | H E RB E RT S. K LE I N

The New Institutional Economics has shown considerable

preoccupation with explaining why Europe, which lagged behind
the more advanced Asian societies for a long time, eventually came
to dominate the rest of the world after 1500, in what Pomeranz
called the Great Divergence. Scholars have been known to cite
Europes concentration of artisans in urban centers, its constant ag-
gressive warfare, its family model, its early commitment to prop-
erty rights, its ability to exploit the new world, and its guild system
of organizing and transmitting knowledge as putative reasons for
its world domination. But whatever the model, the outpouring
of studies on this subject has led to an abundance of historical re-
search by economists, with the participation of only a few inter-
disciplinary historians.10
Important as it is in this respect, economics is not the only
social science in which major historical research has appeared. Sev-
eral of the themes central to the New Institutional Economics that
emphasize the role of political institutions are also central to recent
literature in political science. Moreover, many of the areas that
political scientists, and sociologists, currently explore have received
attention from historians as wellfor example, the origins and
evolution of the modern welfare state. Fortunately, this is one area
in which historians, political scientists, and sociologists have created
a coherent body of literature in which they actually cite each
other. A lively debate about property rights, taxation, and their
effect on the formation of modern states sees historians as well as
economists taking sides. As Tilly noted, in the study of state
formation, there is no way to create comprehensive, plausible,
and veriable explanations without taking history seriously
into account. Initially, interdisciplinary historians were active

10 Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern
World Economy (Princeton, 2000); John Hajnal, European Marriage Patterns in Perspective,
in David V. Glass and David E. C. Eversley (eds.), Population in History: Essays in Historical
Democracy (London, 1965), 101146; Jean-Laurent Rosenthal and Roy Bin Wong, Before
and Beyond Divergence; The Politics of Economic Change in China and Europe (Cambridge, Mass.,
2011); Philip T. Hoffman, Why Europeans Conquered the World (Princeton, 2015); David de
la Croix, Matthias Doepke, and Joel Mokyr, Clans, Guilds, and Markets: Apprenticeship
Institutions and Growth in the Pre-Industrial Economy, NBER Working Paper No. 2231
(March 2016), doi: 10.3386/w22131.
H IS T O R IC A L T U R N | 303
participants in this research, but other social scientists have now
taken the lead.11
In the 1960s and 1970s, historians were the major contributors
in some of the elds of study that political scientists, sociologists,
and economists now dominate, such as elections and legislative roll
calls, political participation and mass movements, the failure of la-
bor and socialist parties in the United States, or the impact of the
New Deal. Sociologists often consult historical examples of poli-
cies and examine how policymakers read and interpret historical
experiences. Studies of government policies, politics, elections,
elites, and diplomatic history that were once the classic province
of history are now largely done elsewhere. Another eld in which
historians initially worked with other social scientists but not so
much anymore is demographic history, which has largely devolved
to demographers alone.12

11 For the basic works in this coherent body of literature, all of it by sociologists, see Gsta
Esping-Andersen, The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism (New York, 1990); Theda Skocpol,
Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States
(Cambridge, Mass., 1995); for a historical survey by an economist, Lindert, Growing Public:
Social Spending and Economic Growth since the Eighteenth Century (New York, 2004); for research
by historians, Peter Baldwin, The Politics of Social Solidarity: Class Bases of the European Welfare
State 18751975 (New York, 1992); Paul V. Dutton, Origins of the French Welfare State
(New York, 2002), among many others; for a survey of recent work by sociologists and po-
litical scientists about the U.S. system, Monica Prasad, American Exceptionalism and the
Welfare State: The Revisionist Literature, Annual Review of Political Science, XIX (2016),
Much of the debate about property and taxation began with North and Barry R. Weingast,
Constitutions and Commitment: The Evolution of Institutions Governing Public Choice in
Seventeenth-Century England, Journal of Economic History, XLIX (1989), 803832. For the latest
attempts to quantify this debate, see K. Kivanc Karaman and Sevket Pamuk, Different Paths to
the Modern State in Europe: The Interaction Between Warfare, Economic Structure, and Po-
litical Regime, American Political Science Review, CVII (2013), 603626; Van Zanden, Buringh
Eltjo, and Maarten Bosker, The Rise and Decline of European Parliaments, 11881789, Eco-
nomic History Review, LXV (2012), 835861; Edgar Kiser and April Linton, Determinants of the
Growth of the State: War and Taxation in Early Modern France and England, Social Forces,
LXXX (2001), 411448; Charles Tilly, How and Why History Matters, in Robert E. Goodin
and idem (eds.), Oxford Handbook of Political Science (New York, 2006), 525; idem, Coercion, Capital
and European States, AD 9901990 (New York, 1992).
12 For a survey of recent voting studies, see Jordan M. Ragusa and Mathew Tarpey, The
Geographies of Economic Voting in Presidential and Congressional Elections, Political Science
Quarterly, CXXXI (2016), 101132; for Congressional roll-call voting from 1789 to 1985,
Keith T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal, Congress: A Political-Economic History of Roll Call Vot-
ing (New York, 1997), updated to 2004 in Ideology and Congress (New Brunswick, N.J., 2011);
idem and Nolan McCarty, Polarized America, The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches
(Cambridge, Mass., 2016; orig. pub. 2006); for the effect of international trade on party
and voting behavior in Congress, David Autor et al., Importing Political Polarization?
304 | H E RB E RT S. K LE I N

This major transfer of economic, political, and social themes

that used to nd a home in interdisciplinary historical studies to
the other social sciences has had mixed results. Much of the
path-dependency research of economists shows a lack of serious
historical context, and a number of studies in political science
make historical claims that show little depth, based on the faulty
variables often employed as proxies for basic historical indices. The
historical questions raised in these works, however, may well be
fundamental and important; historians would do well to take their
causal models seriously. But U.S. historians unwillingness to en-
gage with this important social-science literature is an indication of
an unfortunate growing divide.13
As several social scientists and interdisciplinary historians have
suggested, history is the only laboratory that social scientists can

The Electoral Consequences of Rising Trade Exposure, NBER Working Paper No. 22637
(September 2016), doi: 10.3386/w22637; for a historical study of political participation, Daniel
Carpenter and Colin D. Moore, When Canvassers Became Activists: Antislavery Petitioning
and the Political Mobilization of American Women, American Political Science Review, CVIII
(2014), 479498; for recent research on the evolution of U.S. unions, Michael Goldeld and
Amy Bromsen, The Changing Landscape of US Unions in Historical and Theoretical Per-
spective, Annual Review of Political Science, XVI (2013), 231257; Barry Eidlin, Why Is There
No Labor Party in the United States? Political Articulation and the Canadian Comparison,
1932 to 1948, American Sociological Review, LXXXI (2016), 488516; for the New Deal, Price
V. Fishback, Michael R. Haines, and Shawn Kantor, The Impact of the New Deal on Black
and White Infant Mortality in the South, Explorations in Economic History, XXXVIII (2001),
93122; Fishback., William C. Horrace, and Kantor, The Impact of New Deal Expenditures
on Mobility during the Great Depression, Explorations in Economic History, XLIII (2006), 179
222; for a sociological analysis of historical experience, Ann Hironaka, Boundaries of War:
Historical Changes in Types of War, 18161980, unpub. Ph.D. diss. (Stanford Univ., 1998).
Historical demography began with the work of Louis Henry, Manuel de dmographie his-
torique (Genve, 1967), which proposed parish records as a means to reconstruct historical
demographic indices and thus launched an abundant literature in family reconstitutions for
Europe. The vanguard works of the Cambridge School were Peter Laslett, The World We
Have Lost (New York, 1973) and E. Anthony Wrigley and Roger S. Schoeld, The Population
History of England, 15411871 (New York, 1981). What followed in the United States were
such works as John Demos, A Little Commonwealth; Family Life in Plymouth Colony (New York,
1970); Kenneth A. Lockridge, A New England Town: The First Hundred Years (New York,
1970). For a survey, see Richard Archer, New England Mosaic: A Demographic Analysis
for the Seventeenth Century, William and Mary Quarterly, XLVII (1990), 477502.
13 As Pikkerty observed, Models can contribute to clarifying logical relationships between
particular assumptions and conclusions but only by oversimplifying the real world to an ex-
treme point, . . . [and thus] models are a language that can be useful only if solicited together
with other forms of expressions, particularly with historical experience (Putting Distribution
Back at the Center of Economics: Reections on Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Journal of
Economic Perspectives, XXIX [2015], 70).
H IS T O R IC A L T U R N | 305
use to look at trends. Diamond, for example, claims that history
allows for natural experiments that are otherwise unavailable
to most of the social sciences. Social scientists often cited North
and South Korea after World War II as excellent case studies for
such a quasi-natural experiment, but they also have adduced stud-
ies about the effect of the slave trade on various African societies,
of minimum wage increases on employment, and so on. Important
historical issues even lurk in some of the new biological sciences
above all, the new eld of human geneticsin which historical
research has revolutionized our understanding of how populations
grew, most especially in the Americas before the arrival of the
This retreat from the social sciences is largely a North
American and, to a lesser extent, northern European characteristic.
In other parts of the world, historians are far more open to the
social sciences. In Spain, for instance, the economic journals reg-
ularly publish historians as well as economists. In the less dogmatic
countries, the new cultural studies are not as pre-eminent, thanks
in part to the continuation of the older Marxist tradition and to
the ongoing inuence of the Annales school. Certain subelds
of historical research in the United States, such as the classical
world, precolonial Africa, or modern China, still attract coopera-
tion with the social sciences, as well as the humanities. But the
prevailing trend in the United States has been an abandonment
of the social sciences.

ENGAGING THE SOCIAL SCIENCES But how can historians engage

with the increasingly quantitative and technical work done in
the social sciences? More easily than might be expected. A com-
mand of advanced quantitative techiques is hardly necessary to
read this literature. Most scholarly articles in the social sciences,

14 See Jared Diamond and Robinson (eds.), Natural Experiments of History (Cambridge,
Mass., 2010); Bruno S. Frey, David A. Savage, and Benno Torgler, Behavior under Extreme
Conditions: The Titanic Disaster, Journal of Economic Perspectives, XXV (2011), 209222;
Jeremy Ferwerda and Nicolas L. Miller, Political Devolution and Resistance to Foreign
Rule: A Natural Experiment, American Political Science Review, CVIII (2014), 642660. For
an economic study of a natural-historical experiment often cited in the economics literature,
see David Card and Alan B. Krueger, Minimum Wages and Employment: A Case Study of
the Fast Food Industry in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, American Economic Review, LXXXIV
(1994), 772793. Klein, The First Americans: The Current Debate, Journal of Interdisciplinary
History, XLVI (2016), 543561.
306 | H E RB E RT S. K LE I N

as in the natural sciences, begin with a survey of the pertinent

literature before describing their methodologies and justifying
their data. After presenting their quantitative ndings, they con-
clude with a discussion of how their analysis proves or disproves
their hypotheses. This model may be more conspicuous in the
hard sciences than in the social sciences, but it is generally the
norm. Any literate historian can decide whether such arguments
make sense, whether the models relate to the data, and whether
the data are appropriate for the questions raised. Reading through
an enormous technical literature can lead to a coherent view of the
issues at stake and an appreciation of the basic ndings.
Historians can and should read this literature, and they can
enter the debates through their own studies. The social sciences
are in need of serious historical research by interdisciplinary histo-
rians. One area in which historians have a distinct advantage over
social scientists is the collection of large original data sets mined
from historical archives. Not many social scientists are willing to
expend the effort to do this fundamental work for individual
societies and different time periods. Wills, testaments, tax and
property lists, voting registrations based on property qualications,
censuses, cadastral surveys, militia records, parish registersall
traditional sources for historianscan inform the study of society
in different times and places from a quantitative and qualitative
perspective. Historians have the skills and sources to challenge
long-term trends and examine the specic historial events that
helped to shape them.15
Historical data sets are not useful just in studies of inequality
or mobility; they can also serve to elucidate a specic historical pe-
riod or dene a particular group in its historical setting. Numerous
projects show that such data sets can became a major tool for the
social sciences. One case in point is the Atlantic slave-trade voyage
project. Similarly, the data set of colonial royal nance in Spanish
America has yielded abundant research by historians as well as
economists. Moreover, Reher, a demographic historian, created

15 As Florencia Torche, a sociologist, concluded after surveying social mobility studies for the
highly unequal societies of Latin America, the assumption that all of these societies function in a
similar way with respect to social mobililty by necessity is a challenging task and requires nu-
anced historical knowledge of the countries compared (Torche, Intergenerational Mobility
and Inequality: The Latin American Case, Annual Review of Sociology, XL [2014], 636).
H IS T O R IC A L T U R N | 307
one of the most sophisticated surveys of immigration produced in
Europe so far.16
But historians can also exploit the world of new source materials
made available by social scientists. One of the most important re-
sources founded by sociologists and later developed by historians is
IPUMS (Integrated Public Use Microdata Series) at the University of
Minnesota. IPUMS contains samples of indidivuals (usually 1 percent
to 5 percent of a total population) in U.S. historical census materials
from 1850 to 2010 and of individuals in the censuses of eighty-two
other countries since 1960. It also has samples for the annual U.S.
Current Population Surveys since 1962 and basic numbers down
to the county level in all of the U.S. censuses since 1790. In recent
years, it has added survey data from health, educational, and time-use
surveys. It is the single most important place to start for any work
involving census and survey data for the United States. The data
are available in machine-readable format prepared for SAS and SPSS

16 The voyages database at has two parts(1) the 5,000 voyages
with complete information about numbers carried and mortality and (2) the estimates of total
slaves carried for another 30,000 voyages. Economists and other social scientists have used
these data for multiple studies: Nunn, The Long-Term Effects of Africas Slave Trades,
Quarterly Journal of Economics, CXXIII (2008), 139176; idem and Leonard Wantchekon,
The Slave Trade and the Origins of Mistrust in Africa, American Economic Review, CI
(2011), 32213252; Warren Whatley and Rob Gillezeau, The Impact of the Transatlantic
Slave Trade on Ethnic Stratication in Africa, ibid., 571576; James Fenske and Namrata
Kala, Climate and the Slave Trade, Journal of Development Economics, CXII (2015), 1932.
The records of Spanish colonial nance, published in ve volumes by John TePaske and
Klein by Duke University Press and the Instituto Nacional de Antropologa y Historia in
Mexico, are available at For recent articles based on this
source, see Rafael Dobado and Gustavo A. Marrero, The Role of the Spanish Imperial State
in the Mining-Led Growth of Bourbon Mexicos Economy, Economic History Review, LXIV
(2011), 855884; Matthew C. LaFevor, Building a Colonial Resource Monopoly: The Ex-
pansion of Sulphur Mining in New Spain, 16001820, Geographical Review, CII (2012), 202
224; Anne-Marie Desaulty et al., Isotopic AgCuPb Record of Silver Circulation through
16th18th Century Spain, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, CVIII (2011), 9002
9007; Carlos Alejandro Ponzio, Globalisation and Economic Growth in the Third World:
Some Evidence from Eighteenth-Century Mexico, Journal of Latin American Studies, XXXVII
(2005), 437467; Luis Alonso, Financing the Empire: The Nature of the Tax System in the
Philippines, 15651804, Philippine Studies, LI (2003), 6395; Carlos Newland and Martn
Cuesta, Revueltas y presin impositiva en el espacio peruano, 16911790, Revista de Historia
Econmica/Journal of Iberian and Latin American Economic History, XXI (2003), 477500; Luz
Marina Arias, Building Fiscal Capacity in Colonial Mexico: From Fragmentation to Central-
ization, Journal of Economic History, LXXIII (2013), 662693; for the 2006 Encuesta Nacional
de Inmigrantes survey organized by David Reher,
308 | H E RB E RT S. K LE I N

or Excel worksheets. But IPUMS even has an online program that

allows individual users to create analytical and summary tables
without the use of these statistical packages.17
Another major source for the history of income, employ-
ment, health, family, class, ethnicity, and race are the national
household surveys that most countries have been taking since
the late twentieth century. Historians in virtually every major
country can do modern historical studies based on these sources
or on the well-known General Social Surveys that many nations
compile. The U.S. version, which has been run by the National
Opinion Research Center (NORC) since 1972, allows modern so-
cial and political historians to trace long-term trends in political
values and perceptions, along with the usual socio-economic vari-
ables of social mobility or changes in family structure. The bi-
annual European Social Survey, which began in 2002, is an
extraordinarily detailed survey of political participation and beliefs,
along with income, social mobility, religion, marital and immi-
grant status, household size, and fertility rates. Even an older his-
torical panel survey such as the Panel Study of Income Dynamics
(PSID), which began following 5,000 American families and their
offspring every year since 1968, can produce valuable information
about poverty or changing family dynamics. Life surveys, which
systematically ask retrospective questions, can help to keep track
of multiple generational changes in a given population.18

17 The IPUMS microdata are individual records containing information collected on per-
sons and households. The unit of observation is the individual. The responses of each person
to the different census questions are recorded in separate variables. See https://usa.ipums.
org/usa-action/faq#ques0. For an important study based on these data, see Zhong Deng and
Donald J. Treiman, The Impact of the Cultural Revolution on Trends in Educational
Attainment in the Peoples Republic of China, American Journal of Sociology, CIII (1997),
IPUMS-Integrated Public Use Microdata Series, found at, has gener-
ated numerous historical articles. For two of the most original, see Steven Ruggles, The
Transformation of American Family Structure, American Historical Review, XCIX (1994),
103128; J. David Hacker, A Census-Based Count of the Civil War Dead, Civil War His-
tory, LVII (2011), 307348. Klein and Laird Bergad drew from this series for Hispanics in the
United States, 19802005 (New York, 2010).
18 Since 1996, the Interamerican Development Bank, the World Bank, and the United Na-
tions Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (UN-CEPAL) have sponsored
household surveys (MECOVI) in most of the Latin American countries. Even a poor country like
Bolivia provides them. The Brazilian household survey, called the PNAD (Pesquisa Nacional por
Amostra de Domicilios), has been available since 1976; simple research tools now permit easy
H IS T O R IC A L T U R N | 309
Surveys also exist for particular subsets of a population. The As-
sociation of Religion Data archives (ARDA) houses a major depository
of surveys regarding all types of religious groups throughout the
world since the 1980s. It is an invaluable resource concerning such
highly charged issues in the United States as changing attitudes to-
ward sex, gay marriage, divorce, and abortion, as well as religious
participation and identity. It can even be consulted for such informa-
tion as Pentecostal beliefs in Latin America, Africa, and Asia or details
about other major religious groups thoughout the world. Most of
these data sets are compatible with the usual statistical packages as
well as with Excel format and simple ASCII les, even allowing anal-
ysis without these programs. The PEW Research Center is another
major source for much-cited information about U.S. politics, polit-
ical participation, and political orientation; Hispanic trends; global
attitudes; media; and religion since the beginning of this century.
The Human Development Index (HDI), an initiative of the United
Nations (UN) that includes every country and sub-region from 1980
2015, has become yet another indispensable research tool; econo-
mists now deploy it to study nineteenth- and twentieth-century

analysis of its questions starting in 1995 ( The original

data sets from 1976 onward can be processed in SPSS or SAS formats.
For the NORC Index to Data Set (by Data Order), see
documentation (accessed February 28, 2017); for the list of variables for the European Social
Survey, see Appendix A8 Variable List, ESS7-2014 ed. 3, with the data sets in all of the basic
formats, at (accessed February 28, 2017); for the
PSID,; for the utility of the PSID study for analyzing the causes
of povety, Mary Corcoran, Rags to Rags: Poverty and Mobility in the United States, Annual
Review of Sociology, XXI (1995), 237267; for family issues, W. Jean Yeung et al., Childrens
Time With Fathers in Intact Families, Journal of Marriage and Family, LXIII (2001), 136154;
for a life survey that evaluated how the changing nature of the labor market affected occupational
careers of men and their fathers since the 1920s, Hans-Peter Blossfeld, Career Opportunities in
the Federal Republic of Germany: A Dynamic Approach to the Study of Life-Course, Cohort,
and Period Effects, European Sociological Review, II (1986), 208225.
19 For the ARDA data, see browse.asp (accessed March
1, 2017); for the PEW surveys, (ac-
cessed March 4, 2017); for the HDI, http:// (accessed March 1,
2017); Leandro Prados de la Escosura, World Human Development: 18702007, Working
Papers in Economic History, Universidad Carlos III De Madrid ( January 2013), available at
(accessed March 1, 2017); Leandro Conte, Giuseppe Della Torre, and Michelangelo Vasta,
The Human Development Index in Historical Perspective: Italy from Political Unication
to the Present Day, No. 491, Department of Economics, University of Siena (2007),
available at (accessed March 1, 2017).
310 | H E RB E RT S. K LE I N

In addition to the data sources that have emerged in recent

decades as fruitful contributors to modern social, economic, and
political history, historical-economic data has also become avail-
able from such diverse agencies as the World Bank, Eurostat,
the various UN agencies, along with the copious material produced
by most of the census organizations in the world, which often
possess data that reach back into the nineteenth century. Even
the U.S. Department of Agriculture ( USDA) is a cited source
throughout the world for knowledge about the history of agricul-
ture during the last half-century. Historians, on their own or
sometimes in collaboration with sociologists and economists, can
produce historically relevant studies using these freely available re-
sources. Many social scientists are eager to work with historians.
They respect the unique skills and perspectives that historians
can bring to their studies.20

A host of themes are waiting for the kind of serious research that
historians are well equipped to do, such as the problems of in-
equality and social mobility, which currently attract heated debate
in economics. The well-researched historical studies about mate-
rial distribution that have emerged in every society with the
requisite data are, except for the rare exception, the work of econ-
omists and sociologists, not interdisciplinary historians.21
But major problems in demographic history also await histor-
ical research. One of the most important is the cause of the mor-
tality revolution, an enormous change in human history, which is
still highly controversial. What led to the extraordinary decline in
mortality that occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth
centurymodern medicine, sanitation and public health policies,
or simply better nutrition? The recent growth in the subeld of
historical anthropometricsthat is, the study of population heights
as an indicator of health standardsshows that historians can

20 For a few of this historians collaborations with other social scientistsincluding anthro-
polgists, sociologists, and economistssee Klein and Engerman, Shipping Patterns and Mor-
tality in the African Slave Trade to Rio de Janeiro, 18251830, Cahiers dtudes africaines, XV
(1975), 381398; idem and Jonathan Kelley, Revolution and the Rebirth of Inequality: A Theory
Applied to the National Revolution of Bolivia (Berkeley, 1981); idem and Francisco Vidal Luna,
The Economic and Social History of Brazil since 1889 (New York, 2014).
21 One of the few historians to enter the debate about inequality is Walter Scheidel, The
Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century
(Princeton, 2017).
H IS T O R IC A L T U R N | 311
become active in this area. First developed by economic historians
for Europe and North America, these studies, which initially used
military conscript records from the eighteenth to the twentieth
century, reveal the effect of class and regional conditions on health
and welfare. They have recently extended their reach to shed light
on other areas of the world.22
Questions regarding inequality and social mobility and race
and class in individual societies during particular periods are as rel-
evant to historians today as they ever were. Now, when the social
sciences are producing a wealth of data and serious historical re-
search about these and other matters, historians would do well
not to ignore it. The historical turn in the social sciences has
brought a fuller appreciation of the importance of historical under-
standing for answering basic questions. The historical profession
need not abandon its current concernswith agency or identity,
for examplebut it needs to provide for, and tolerate, alternative
approaches and to re-engage with the social sciences for its own

22 For the mortality issue, see two controversial studies, Thomas McKeown, The Modern
Rise of Population (London, 1976); Fogel, The Escape From Hunger and Premature Death, 1700
2100: Europe, America, and the Third World (New York, 2004); for alternative arguments about
the public policies as primary inuences, Cutler and Grant Miller, The Role of Public Health
Improvements in Health Advances: The Twentieth-Century United States, Demography,
XLII (2005), 122; Simon Szreter, The Importance of Social Intervention in Britains Mor-
tality Decline c. 18501914: A Reinterpretation of the Role of Public Health, Social History of
Medicine, I (1988), 137; Cutler, Angus Deaton, and Adriana Lleras-Muney, The Determi-
nants of Mortality, Journal of Economic Perspectives, XX (2006), 97120; Deaton, The Great
Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality (Princeton, 2013); Jonathan Chapman,
The Contribution of Infrastructure Investment to Mortality Decline: Evidence from England
and Wales, 18611900, available at
For a survey of anthropometrics, see Richard H. Steckel, Heights and Human Welfare:
Recent Developments and New Directions, Explorations in Economic History, XLVI (2009),
123; Carles Boix and Frances Rosenbluth, Bones of Contention: The Political Economy of
Height Inequality, American Political Science Review, CVIII (2014), 122; Timothy J. Hatton
and Bernice E. Bray, Long Run Trends in the Heights of European Men, 19th20th Cen-
turies, Economics and Human Biology, VIII (2010), 405413. The journal Economics and Human
Biology is an especially useful source for ongoing research in this eld. For a critique of the
validity of samples in a study that found a height decline in the nineteenth-century United
States, see Howard Bodenhorn, Timothy Guinnane, and Thomas Mroz, Sample-Selection
Biases and the Industrialization Puzzle, Journal of Economic History, LXXVII (2017), 171207.
Recent anthropometric work for Latin America includes Moramay Lpez-Alonso,
Height, Health, Nutrition and Wealth: A History of Living Standards in Mexico 18701950 (Stanford,
2000); Rafael Dobado Gonzlez and Hctor Garca Montero, Pre-Independence Spanish
Americans: Poor, Short and Unequal . . . or the Opposite? Revista de Historia Econmica,
XXXIII (2015), 1559; Zephyr Frank, Stature in Nineteenth-Century Rio de Janeiro: Pre-
liminary Evidence from Prison Records, ibid., XXIV (2006), 465489.
312 | H E RB E RT S. K LE I N

sake as well for the sake of important debates outside its immediate
purview. Otherwise, historians will nd themselves less and less
relevant and ever more isolated from the major issues facing the
modern world. In that case, both history and the social sciences
will suffer.