Stanford University

News Service



CONTACT: Kathleen O'Toole, News Service (650) 725-1939;

Humanists, social scientists teaching each other in new institute

When a group of classicists gathers at Stanford later this week to discuss the ancient Mediterranean world, their presentations will be critiqued not only by fellow classicists but by a specialist on the U.S. Congress and an authority on modern economies. What's going on? Nothing less than a remarriage between the humanities and social sciences.

Or perhaps marriage is too strong a term. Call it an affair heading toward a lengthy engagement, one that might raise a few eyebrows in both families, even as it is applauded by others.


Photo by Linda Cicero

Joseph Manning, assistant professor of classics, plans to borrow modeling techniques from social scientists to assess records of agriculture and rural history in a period when a Greek dynasty was ruling Egypt. Manning says the new Social Science History Institute has helped him sharpen the focus of his work.

The conference is sponsored by Stanford's new Social Science History Institute, founded in response to growing dissatisfaction with the analytical boundaries between social sciences and humanities. Open to the entire faculty and graduate student community, the institute began holding seminars last fall with a seed grant from President Gerhard Casper. A core group of about two dozen faculty hope to train graduate students in the use of a broader set of tools by offering them a Ph.D. minor in social science history. The institute also will publish a monograph series, make small grants, host visiting scholars and sponsor academic conferences.

The first conference, which begins at 9 a.m. Friday, April 24, in the Lucas Conference Room of the Landau Building, focuses on the ancient economies of Rome, Greece, Egypt and the western Mediterranean. Modern-era historians, political scientists, sociologists and economists are among those who will attend. The ancient world offers them a chance to better understand some modern-day problems, they say, especially the difficulties that some countries face in trying to move to stable democracies and market-driven economies.

"There is something of a groundswell where dozens and dozens ­ maybe more than 100 ­ political scientists have begun to study history," says Barry Weingast, chair of the political science department. Comparing data on modern countries may be insufficient to understand what factors lead to stable democratic political systems, said Weingast, who began his foray into history by looking first at the United States when it wasn't stable ­ during its Civil War. Now he is entering "the laboratories" of the classicists.

"In places where you have a thousand years of recorded history, you can see a lot of things working their way out that you can't see by studying the modern world," agrees Ian Morris, the chair of the classics department who organized the conference with classics colleague Joseph Manning.

Max Weber and Karl Marx created the tools of modern social science, but they were classicists first who studied antiquity, Morris said. Today, the average member of a classics department doesn't read social science beyond Weber or Marx, and social scientists are not nearly so likely as in Weber's and Marx's day to have studied the ancient world or even much modern history. "We want to get dialogues going again like they used to at the end of the last century before the classicists and social scientists went their own ways," Morris said.

For those most involved, the hope goes beyond dialogue to creating paths for their own research as well as collaborations and a career trajectory for like-minded graduate students. Take Manning, for instance, an assistant professor of classics trained at the University of Chicago to be one of the world's 40 or so experts on reading a difficult ancient language called "demotic," a shorthand, cursive form of hieroglyphics.

"There are people in my field who are specialists in third century B.C. tax receipts from upper Egypt and that's all they know," Manning said recently, as he and Morris sat around a conference table with a half dozen social scientists and modern historians. Manning was there, he said, to borrow modeling techniques from the social scientists. He wants to use them on records of "agriculture and rural history of a later period in Egypt's history when a Greek dynasty was running the place instead of pharaohs, and they were injecting things like money for the first time."

Painstakingly translating and publishing papyri taken from family tombs and even sacred crocodile cemeteries (government records were used to mummify the crocodiles in Hellenistic Egypt) is important work, Manning said. "But if you want to understand how Greek money affected Egypt's rural institutions, families, the way of life, then you have to turn to the social sciences and build models that help you think about how to put the texts you have together in a meaningful way. [The institute seminars] have sharpened my focus. I am learning to ask better questions of my material."

Potentially, Manning believes, the texts he reads will change the modern world's understanding of ancient Egypt and perhaps the Hellenistic Dynasty that is credited with running the country from about 300 to 30 B.C. The longer-studied Greek papyri that survived in the Nile Delta region may underestimate the degree to which the older Pharaonic culture survived during the rule of the Greek Ptolemies in Upper Egypt. Manning has found that some social scientists are very interested in his research, he said. "They didn't know that these demotic records exist by the thousands of documents."

Differing confirmatory logic

Historians and other scholars in the humanities have a "different confirmatory logic" from social scientists, says Stephen Haber, a historian who co-directs the new institute with political scientist David Brady. Social scientists assemble evidence to see if they can disprove their hypothesis, or model of reality, Haber said. They often assemble quantitative data that historians, like lawyers and judges in courts of law, treat as "circumstantial evidence" rather than as "proof."

"Historians are always more comfortable with a set of documents, multiple corroborating sources, that say such and such happened at a particular time," Haber said.

To a political scientist, Weingast said, the historian often seems to be someone who "quotes a thousand newspaper articles that are consistent with his thesis, while somebody else quotes another thousand articles that are consistent with another thesis, and the two don't meet."

Haber and American historian David Kennedy defend the coherence of historical reasoning and say many questions can be answered with it but some also require a social science approach.

"The place where I am a consumer of social science thinking is in learning how formal institutions work, how they shift their operational assumptions and legal framework, how you get different outcomes," Kennedy said. For example, during the New Deal, major new laws on Social Security, banking and labor were introduced. Because so much happened at once, he said, it is difficult to sort out how much of the outcome was intentional and how much was accidental, but social science techniques can help.

Haber gave an example of how social science helps him cope with a major problem in his field, Latin American history. A misreading of the continent's 19th-century history led to bad economic policies by Latin American governments this century, he believes, and many people now want better answers to the question, Why is Latin America poor?

"One specific question I work on is the impact of the way the Mexican government regulated stock and bond markets and banks in the 19th century. One hypothesis is that a very concentrated banking system gave rise to a very concentrated industrial structure because only some entrepreneurs were able to get capital from banks. Their enterprises grew very large and squeezed everybody else out."

But there is no reliable documentary evidence to prove or disprove this interpretation. "People could say all kinds of things; in fact, they do, so in this case the only way to answer the question is to adopt the measurement techniques of industrial organization economics."

If the results were presented in a graph to a roomful of classicists, Morris said, the presenter should expect "a sea of blank faces." He and other faculty in the institute say they most want to create a community where graduate students who learn both sets of techniques can get critical feedback from people who understand both types of arguments.

Other faculty who are on the institute's advisory board include historian Ellen Neskar; economists Gavin Wright, Avner Greif and Paul David; anthropologist Arthur Wolf; political scientists John Ferejohn, Judith Goldstein, Stephen Krasner, Robert Packenham and Scott Sagan; and sociologists Mark Granovetter and John Meyer.

History and social science have sharply diverged in recent years at most American universities, Haber and others say, as the social sciences moved more and more to abstracted formal models and the humanities moved toward philosophies rooted in subjective issues of identity and perception. The so-called New History, Haber said, places less emphasis on evidence and documentation and more on understanding the multiple construals of history.

Graduate students in history and classics receive virtually no exposure to social science methods or theories unless they seek them out on their own, the Stanford institute faculty say. In political science and sociology, training is more diverse but students are not instructed in historical sources and methods. In economics, American students can specialize in economic history but they generally do not learn the practical dimensions of working with historical data.

Scott Wilson, a graduate student in political science, gives an example of why history matters to political science students. A friend, he says, was trying to do a quantitative analysis of civil service development when he ran across "records from Chicago that showed 90 percent of the positions were classified as civil service at a time long before Chicago had anything approaching a meritocracy." Chicago is so notorious for political spoils that the data raised a red flag with his friend, but Wilson is not convinced every political science student would have spotted the data problem so quickly. "People come into the program from all kinds of academic backgrounds and many of them have never had any historical background in American politics," he said.

His own research on presidential control of government bureaucracy could have benefited, Wilson said, from "substantive training in how you go about making a historical argument, one based on a longer term perspective and maybe not as much on numbers."

The advent of computers led some scholars in the humanities and social sciences to adopt each other's techniques in the '50s and '60s, institute faculty say. They produced some widely admired work but somehow "failed to reproduce themselves," Weingast said. "We are a forum for interaction that will certainly help students who are interested in the interstices between fields. All of a sudden, they know a whole bunch of people who think this is a good idea. Moreover, we have some money for students to do some archival work, to travel, to learn other techniques."

New institutionalism

A motivating force for many social scientists is their rediscovery of innately historical institutions and a new theory, which Weingast helped build, called "new institutionalism." The history of institutions has been "mostly a backwater" in political science, Weingast said, until recently. Economic institutions were studied by economic historians within economics, said economic historian Gavin Wright, "yet unhistorical lines of thought have prevailed" until recently in economics departments generally.

"You have these countries in transition from planned economies to market economies and suddenly, this habit of mind by which we see markets as something that just happen if you leave a society alone is beginning to look pretty quaint and a matter of faith," Wright said.

When social scientists today refer to "institutions," they do not mean the banks, churches, factories and other organizations that compose a society. They mean "laws, rules and informal agreements that both permit and bind social behavior," including people's economic behavior, according to a written description of one of the institute's research projects. A labor law or banking regulation is a formal institution, but values related to honesty, civic-mindedness and group identity are also culturally imbedded informal institutions.

New institutionalism advises that the best results occur in societies that develop institutions that enforce property rights and contracts and that create self-enforcing limits on government. The theory has influenced government leaders' actions in recent years, but Haber, Weingast, Wright, Manning and Greif say in a description of their research collaboration that the theory "has not been entirely successful at providing empirical evidence for many of its claims. The success of the approach, as well as the relevance of its policy implications, will ultimately depend on its ability to explain actual economic outcomes, not just theoretical ones." One of the problems, they say, is that "it is only in the long run that differences in economic performance attributable to institutions can be identified. This requires that empirical studies be explicitly historical."

An example of such a study is one conducted by Greif, who was trained in historical research methods in Israel before he studied economics in the United States. Greif used the records of two medieval trading groups ­ post-Roman merchants from the Italian city-state of Genoa and the Maghribis, Jewish merchants of the Muslim world. By applying game theory to them, he was able to show that the individualistic cultural beliefs of the Genoese and the collectivist beliefs of the Maghribis led them to set up different trading institutions, which ultimately led to different outcomes. When the trading world expanded, the Genoese were more able to incorporate foreign agents into their system.

"What is distinctive about Avner is that he is both a theorist and a legitimate historian," Wright says, "which allowed him to formalize how cultural beliefs matter in a way that economists could recognize and put to work in their theories."

Historians focus more on culture than economists, but this also can lead to analytical problems, Haber says. The conventional wisdom among American historians about slavery, for example, was that it was economically inefficient but lasted as long as it did because of its social value to slave owners. When social scientists got around to analyzing historical economic data, they discovered that slavery was indeed economically efficient in the American South, a conclusion that suggests that without the Civil War, slavery would not have disappeared on its own.

Wright cautions that the new institute has a long way to go in defining itself and says its members want to welcome new faculty and students. "It is not as though those of us who are involved have realized there is one common social science history language. We are still learning a lot from each other."

Word of the institute is just beginning to filter down to graduate students, who have attended some of its seminars, Wilson said. He predicts that many more will be interested when a formal list of courses is available. (The Ph.D. minor program has been approved by the dean of humanities and sciences but still must be approved by the Faculty Senate.)

"If there is a structure that says, look, taking a historically oriented seminar isn't just a pleasure cruise [for a political science student], more students in my area will take it."


By Kathleen O'Toole

© Stanford University. All Rights Reserved. Stanford, CA 94305. (650) 723-2300. Terms of Use  |  Copyright Complaints