how important is it to know your discipline’s history?

If we base our answer on the material covered in the first year of core courses in economics graduate programs, then it would seem to not be very important in my discipline.  Yet, this is an unfair way to approach the question.  The next question should really be:  “Important for what?”

Let’s try a different route.  It does not seem very important to know the grand history of your discipline to be a contributing member because your contributions are made at the research frontier.  You only need to know the other relevant literature also at the frontier.  (Or maybe the cynic would say it matters a little for establishing credibility with reviewers who want you to at give at least cursory mention to famous papers/books in your introduction.)

I remember learning this lesson as an undergraduate when I saw the list of references in one of my professor’s papers.  I naively asked him how he could have neglected to cite Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.  He chuckled and said that he’d never cited Smith in any of his papers.  I was shocked.  I wondered how it was possible to do economics without relating your work to Adam Smith.

Although I left this sweet innocence behind years ago, I often find myself revisiting my discipline’s history.  Doing so gives me insightful perspective into how my own work fits into the overall discipline.  It also aids in teaching because students love stories;  if you can teach them a little history behind ideas and controversies, they are more excited about the material.  But even better than these practical reasons is the thrill of encountering the evolution and synthesis of ideas.  Living in the world of ideas is one of the best perks of our profession.

How important is it to you to know your discipline’s history?  In what ways?

And while I have your attention, I should say that my few weeks as a guest blogger are up.  Sincere thanks to the orgtheory crew and commenters for the experience.  But you haven’t seen the last of me;  I will regularly appear with snarky comments to prevent you from forgetting me.  Alas, if I never acheive greatness as a researcher, I can always obtain five minutes of fame for timely put-downs and insults.  Oh, and by the way, I have cited Adam Smith in exactly one of all of my papers.  So far.


Written by mikemcbride

July 18, 2008 at 5:44 am

10 Responses

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  1. So — I’m one who also thinks disciplinary history matters a lot. Why? I think there are some early insights that have of late been forgotten. There are also the deeper roots of the field that matter (so, for org theory — social theory more broadly). And, I think a healthy respect for the beginnings of the field is important.

    Citing Adam Smith — yes, I’ve cited him exactly once too, in a recent paper.

    I’ll put in a proper thank you-post in — but meanwhile, its been fantastic to have you here at orgtheory, engaging posts!



    July 18, 2008 at 6:10 am

  2. The problem with citing Adam Smith in economics papers today is not that he had nothing to say of interest to today’s researchers but what they do say about his work is almost always wrong; sometimes the citation does not correspond to the modern- day context even if the words used are similar (e.g., transposing Smith’s analysis of the Royal Chartered Joint-Stock companies as if it applies to modern corporations) when the context is completely different.

    There is also the misapplication of an isolated metaphor of ‘an invisible hand’ into a ‘grand theory’, a ‘paradigm’ even, when Smith used it simply as a metaphor on two occasions, once in Moral Sentiments and once only in Wealth Of Nations (his reference in his ‘juvenile’ ‘History of Astronomy’ referred to the real beliefs of pagan religions that Jupiter’s hand cast thunderbolts at the enemies of Rome).

    Smith did not refer to markets when using the metaphor in Book IV of WN (markets are exhaustively discussed in Book I and II without mentioning the metaphor). Those economists interested in following up this example amy contact me for a copy of my recent paper: ‘Adam Smith and the Invisible Hand: from metaphor to myth’ (gavinATnegwebDOTcom).

    The professor who ‘never cited Adam Smith’ most probably had never really read him because he didn’t need to. Smith wrote about the real economy, almost as an inter-disciplinary treatment; professors today write about an imaginary economy absent human beings, almost entirely imaginary in abstract mathematics and not the real world. That is why there is hardly any agreement on economic management or policy among the profession. Governments and those who advise them hire economists who fit their politics, as they did in Smith’s day.


    Gavin Kennedy

    July 18, 2008 at 9:48 am

  3. Since I’ve commented here before about my involvement in the history of sociology, it will probably not come as a surprise that I think disciplinary history is important. The history of our disciplines tells us where we came from and how we got there–it in fact tells us who we are and what we are doing. Sociology would be a different discipline if it had emerged not in the midst of social and technological change and indeed revolution. Economics would be a different discipline had it come from those contemplating the socialist system rather from those contemplating the emergence of capitalism.

    But I don’t know that the history of all disciplines matters equally. In sociology, though our section membership is small and few sociologists evince interest in the history of the field, almost all of us learn at least some of it. That is what a classical theory course is. When we study theory, we are generally not learning to craft, integrate, or use theories. Rather, we are learning which theories the founding minds of sociology dreamt up and how social conditions influenced their writings.

    I personally think something else about disciplinary history is particularly important, and that is understanding the institutional and organizational roots of the discipline (and hey, this is a place to talk about organizations). Lots of kinds of new knowledge never become disciplines–so what is it that let our particular piece of the puzzle become institutionalized and mainstream? In sociology, there was a great bit of attention to such questions around our Centennial a few years ago. For some disciplines it is really a movement that makes them happen, and that is an interesting story worth telling to remind ourselves where we came from, to remind ourselves to remain on the cutting edge rather than being complacent, and to remind ourselves that new knowledge can turn out to be useful even when we are skeptical of the claims that new disciplines or interdisciplines are making.

    If you are interested in the History of Sociology, start with the Section Webpage (, which has bibliographies and such.

    If you are interested in social movements and new knowledge, see Blasi’s Diverse Histories of American Sociology; Scott Frickel’s work on Scientific/Intellectual Movements; Sheila Slaughter’s 1997 paper in Curriculum Studies on social movements and the emergence of science, and my forthcoming paper in Social Movement Studies on New Knowledge Movements.



    July 18, 2008 at 1:33 pm

  4. This is a great topic. I think the answer is related to the philosophy of disciplines. It’s a hallmark of “hard” sciences to leave history behind. Olivia Judson, the geneticist, confessed in a recent NYT Op-Ed that she’d never read Darwin’s “Origin of the Species.” Can you imagine a sociology PhD confessing they’d never read Durkheim? I would guess that your Smith-slighting economics prof was schooled by the model of economics as science (in the Kuhnian sense). There are economic historians. Are there historians of economics?


    Paul-Brian McInerney

    July 18, 2008 at 3:02 pm

  5. In fairness to that professor I mentioned, he is one of the most well-read economists I know. He has read many of the classics in economics (including Adam Smith) and would sometime relate ideas in our microeconomics class to the earlier authors. But this does not contradict the sentiment many of you expressed. I frequently meet economists who’ve never read Adam Smith.

    Paul-Brian, Yes, there are historians of economics. Not many, but there are some. Why so few? First, most grad programs do not offer courses in the history of economic thought, so someone would have to come to the field on her own. Second, there is not a flagship publication (at least to my knowledge) that publishes on the history of economic through. Finally, many departments would not see that as contributing to the field.



    July 18, 2008 at 4:10 pm

  6. There are historians of economics.

    HOPE — the History of Political Economy — is the flagship journal for research on the history of economic thought.


    Chris Edmond

    July 18, 2008 at 7:12 pm

  7. Chris: Thanks for the link.



    July 18, 2008 at 7:22 pm

  8. Chris, Thanks for your comment, and let me clarify. I didn’t mean that there weren’t any journals dedicated to publishing the history of econ thought. When I said “flagship” I meant a field journal that is highly ranked in the profession. HOPE is a nice journal that has actually been around a while but it unfortunately doesn’t have as much notice in the profession as I wish it did.



    July 18, 2008 at 10:27 pm

  9. Just to state the obvious — by ignoring our roots, we are doomed to put old wine in new bottles…

    I do some work on dynamic capabilities. Note that this work rarely (if ever) cites structural contingency theory. And yet, the focus on how organizational forms must be in sync with environmental conditions would seem to be central. I would follow that trail back to Burns and Stalker. A firm with a dynamic capability would have to be “organic” in their terms. I once mused to Kathy Eisenhardt that we have made very little progress beyond Burns and Stalker or Woodward. Not surprisingly, she sees things differently as she drills down on product development and design capabilities.

    I agree that progress has been made. However, I also feel that shadows of many of the newer insights on flexibility and decision-making under uncertainty can be found in the work of Simon or Barnard…



    July 20, 2008 at 8:59 pm

  10. Russ: On your point — the early organizational stuff (Barnard, March&Simon) was strikingly micro-analytic in nature as it carefully considered such matters as inducements and contributions, matters of org composition, negotiation of heterogeneous interests etc, and that focus certainly has (in significant part) been lost of late in org’l theories.



    July 20, 2008 at 11:23 pm

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