Lyndon Megarrity interviews Claire E.F. Wright about her new book Australian Economic History (ANU Press, 2022)
Your book on the history of Australian economic history has a strong focus on local, national and global academic networks among staff at Australian tertiary institutions. What inspired you to take this approach to your work?
I’ve had an unorthodox career. I initially trained in economics, and did my Honours research on the history of economic thought. My supervisor at the time mentioned that no one had ever mapped networks between the individuals and various informal intellectual ‘circles’ in interwar Vienna. He had no idea how to actually do it, but he thought it was a cool idea. Over the course of that year, I taught myself how to use social network analysis (SNA) software and became very interested in how academic networks operate – do the ideas and research we produce depend on whom we have interacted with?
When it came time to do my PhD (in a history department, long story), I was still wedded to this idea of ‘networks’, and so set out to map, as you say, the local, national and global networks amongst economic history staff in Australia. An interdisciplinary community such as economic history is an excellent case study for work on networks, as research is non-standardised and so particularly susceptible to the peculiarities of intellectual communities.
Over the intervening years, the book has developed to have less of the formal mapping of networks, but the core ideas remain: how does interdisciplinary research change as a result of where folks work, who they work with, and the conditions under which they work?
One of the key historiographical themes explored by economic historians was that of British capital and imperialism (especially between 1870 and 1914), and the extent to which it drove economic development and policymaking in Australia. Was a consensus ever reached among leading academics in the field, or does this remain a contested issue?
One of the things that has always struck me about Australian economic history is that no one can seem to agree whether we are sitting ducks dependent on the whims of our dominant friends/enemies (Britain initially, then the US, Asia, and so on), or whether we have distinctive economic features – and fortunes – independent of a globalised world. It’s probably somewhere in the middle. To point to a prominent example, debates around the 1890s Depression focussed on whether it was the speculative land boom and internal weaknesses in the Australian banking system (building since the 1870s), or the London-based Baring Crisis of 1890 that really caused the Australian Depression. Some argue that we would have slipped into recession anyway, some that independent of the reluctance of Britain to lend to the colonies we would have been fine.
Essentially no, this remains a contested issue. To take some recent work, Dyster and Meredith’s Australia in the Global Economy is quite ‘externalist’, seeing Australia as dependent on flows of capital, labour and goods over the long run; whereas most chapters in Ville and Withers’ The Cambridge Economic History of Australia highlight the unique features of Australia’s economic destiny.
Many economic historians were involved with the war effort in various ways during World War Two. How did this experience shape them as historians and the field of economic history as a whole?
I imagine war will always change you. For the economic historians, their recent memory of the Great Depression, then the central planning required for the war effort and postwar reconstruction highlighted the importance of Keynesian economics. Several of the group interacted directly or indirectly with John Maynard Keynes, with Noel Butlin recalling that after being manpowered into postwar reconstruction immediately after graduation, he participated in “virtually a six-month continuous seminar from John Maynard Keynes telling the assembled company from the Dominions and colonies how economics should be handled” (Foster, interview with Butlin, ANU Oral History Archive). The principles of Keynesianism – markets are inherently unstable, fiscal ‘smoothing’ is needed over the business cycle, and quantitative measurement is necessary for policy intervention – dominated economic history work until at least the 1980s.
Noel and Syd Butlin played a major role in the development of economic history as a discipline in Australia. What were their most important contributions to the field?
Noel and Syd Butlin were brothers and economic historians; Syd, the elder by 11 years, was prominent as the Head of Economics at the University of Sydney through the post-war years, and Noel was a prominent researcher at the ANU’s Research School of Social Sciences. They were quite the odd couple – Syd was meticulous and straight-laced, and Noel bold and bohemian.
They both made enormous contributions to economic history in Australia. Syd was interested in Australian money and banking, and his Foundations of the Australian Monetary System (1953) interpreted Australian banking operations in the context of the early British colony. Noel was interested in economic growth, particularly the global movement towards developing and interpreting national accounts. Alongside his team of researchers, he published two main books: Australian Domestic Product, Investment and Foreign Borrowing 1861-1938/9 (1962) – colloquially known as ‘the numbers’ – compiled Australian historical economic statistics from the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century, and Investment in Australian Economic Development 1861-1900 (1964) – aka ‘the words’ – used these numbers to describe the sector-by-sector mechanism of growth in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Both were crucial for the field’s quantitative and inductive character in the post-WWII decades, and alignment of economic history with the mainstream economics discipline. However, as the more imaginative and ambitious of the two (not to mention the one with far more institutional resources), Noel gets most of the reverence.
In any academic discipline, stretched out over vast geographical distances, there is always going to be a centre and a periphery. Economic history as practised in Australia between the 1950s and 1990s was no exception to the rule. What was possible to achieve in the central locations of Australian economic history (i.e. the Sydney-Melbourne-Canberra triangle) and what different perspectives were made possible by being outside those major centres (e.g. the University of New England in Armidale)?
As this is a book about scholarly work, we have to consider a couple of structural matters: larger cities have more people and more students, so have attracted more universities and intellectuals simply due to the ‘market’. As a result, most of Australia’s economic historians have resided in the south-eastern corner, as (in the era before widespread international students), the ability to attract local students was very important to recruitment.
Canberra had it’s own ‘market’ for intellectuals – ANU was established in 1946 as a National University due to the move of the Federal government and the public service to what was then essentially a big paddock. There weren’t inherently large student numbers in Canberra, but it had big money to spend on developing research capacity, so attracted the best and brightest scholars, all of whom were supported to develop large scale, ambitious projects. This was the main reason Noel Butlin’s innovative work was even possible.
Concentration of scholars in these main centres fostered collaboration and joint endeavours, which was why there was a distinctive profile of research in Canberra-Adelaide; Melbourne and Sydney. Outside of these centres, the character of groups was still dependent on the people, plus the differing concerns of the student base. For example, in Armidale, UNE recruited a lot from overseas (Britain primarily) though their students were often part of the applied agricultural economics program which responded to the needs of the community. This contributed to distinctive incentives for scholars and a particular research-teaching nexus in this place.
How “golden” were the golden days before the Dawkins era? In respect to the development and progress of Australian economic history, what were the pros and cons of the academic system as it was then organised?
Most of the economic historians I interviewed had a strong nostalgia for academia prior to the Dawkins reforms, and I can understand why. There was relatively little managerial or bureaucratic intervention, less competitiveness between departments or universities, guaranteed student numbers, and separate departments that provided the field with identity, resources, and intergenerational renewal.
I certainly won’t taint the idea of less competition and managerialism – that sounds lovely. My main issue in the book is with the small, separate departments of economic history that used to exist in Australia, each with half a dozen scholars and a ‘God Professor’ in charge of hiring, firing, curriculum and funding. They had their own seminars, grad student programs, research projects and even had their offices clustered together along a hallway. This structure is fine for disciplines, as they need hierarchies and strong ties between scholars. However, interdisciplinary fields like economic history are best when they can integrate and communicate between disciplines – they need slightly more open structures and less strong ties.
Separate departments restricted these interdisciplinary functions. Economic history groups sat independently within economics or commerce faculties, which meant they were structurally cut off from history groups, and were seen as different and ‘less rigorous’ than economists. Economic history was not alone in this organisational structure, indeed it was part of the logic of universities at the time. Universities basically didn’t understand how to encourage interdisciplinary knowledge.
The end result, in the late 1980s, was that economic history was situated so far towards the economics end of the spectrum that it basically resembled a sub-field of applied economics rather than an interdisciplinary field. This became a problem in the neoliberal era, when small departments were targets for closure across the sector, economists were not willing to protect economic history (remember they were seen as separate and less rigorous), and there was no basis on which to bargain with the history discipline. Uh oh.
In order to survive the neoliberal era, economic historians have sought a renewed focus on fostering interdisciplinary relationships and research that has led to broadened horizons and a more global outlook. The last three decades have nevertheless been a time of massive upheaval and disruption which is not always conducive to either morale or productive research. If you could combine the positive aspects of the “golden era” with the current era, ideally, what kind of institutional environment for economic history would you like to see developed?
As you say, each era has positive and negative aspects. The golden era stabilised the field’s resources, with predictability in personnel and funding allowing mammoth data collection, intergeneration renewal, and collective projects. Since the Dawkins reforms, the resources question has been in constant flux (which makes it hard to build data infrastructure projects or do long-term projects), however the intellectual and geographic broadening has been a good thing.
Economic history – and all interdisciplinary fields – are still subject to a higher education environment that does not know how to encourage their work (despite saying they want flexible cross-disciplinary insights). There are a number of structural matters in universities that would allow interdisciplinary fields to bargain on the basis of the value they provide, and allow a little more stability and predictability in resources, respect and identity.
I’ll take one example: what should we be writing? What you write is determined by the discipline you work in (or hope to work in) – if you are in a history discipline and haven’t written a book they will look at you funny; if you are in an economics group and you have written a book they will look at you funny. Rankings (which are deeply connected to appointments, promotion, and funding) are still dictated by disciplines. Oxbridge or Ivy League imprints, or journals ranked by SCImago, are the top of the tree in history; whereas most economics or business groups demand you write articles for A* journals according to the Australian Business Dean’s Council (ABDC) list. Interdisciplinary journals are structurally ranked lower than single-discipline journals (irrespective of quality), and yet single-discipline journals are less likely to publish work from outside the core of their group.
My recommendation is for managers to be aware of the bias inherent in ranking systems, and assess interdisciplinary scholars relative to markers of quality in their field rather than only against disciplinary norms. That way, interdisciplinary scholars get to stay in larger departments (which is good for integration and communication) but get the respect and resources their research profiles deserve.
Along with major figures such as Noel Butlin, there are many less celebrated but nonetheless significant economic historians and researchers who feature in your book. Is there a particular contributor to the field that you would like to be better known and appreciated?
I think Gus Sinclair has not received the attention he should have. The man is a delight (and makes a mean cup of tea), and is a true interdisciplinary economic historian. He worked with Noel Butlin at ANU in the 1950s helping to develop ‘the numbers’, and then worked at Monash, Flinders, and La Trobe, in a variety of groups. His work has been explicitly integrative, summarising the insights of ‘orthodox’ economic history for a broader audience, and publishing work in economics and history outlets (which was unusual at the time) to demonstrate that ‘the insights of the economist can yield relevant findings’ to historical questions, and that historical data could yield useful theoretical knowledge for economics. A sharp mind and one fully dedicated to economic history as an interdisciplinary project.
The Departments of Economic History which were a feature of several universities have long been closed down. Why were they not able to survive in the new neoliberal era of tertiary education?
Ah, my old nemesis, departments of economic history. I mentioned before that departments in the subject (and other similar interdisciplinary groups like industrial relations) were generally very small. Their numbers were sustained by large, compulsory undergraduate courses in commerce or economics degrees, with some students flowing through to upper-level subjects and to PhD programs.
The Dawkins reforms changed the logic of universities to deregulation, competition, and the creation of new markets (garden variety neoliberalism). Funding became tied to student numbers, and so everyone from the university, to the faculty, to the department, began competing for students. Electives across faculties were discouraged in order to maintain each group’s income, and the emphasis shifted to more ‘vocational’ degrees such as accounting and management. The economics discipline did poorly in this schema, and basically sent compulsory economic history subjects to the front to take the initial onslaught against their students and funding. The loss of undergraduate subjects then made separate economic history departments untenable from a fiscal perspective, with their merger or closure following shortly after. I’m sure this was an immensely stressful time for all involved.
Finally: What’s next for you? Will your new research build on some of the findings that you have made in this study?
I’m now in a management department, and have applied skills similar to this project (understanding networks, communities and ideas) to examine leadership and strategy in corporations. It’s remarkably similar, looking at how university policies create certain types of knowledge; and understanding the way institutional and professional structures influence the way corporate leaders operate, and the work that is done in the firm. I’m excited to be expanding my work in more applied business history areas.
I’ve used these themes to look at interlocking directorates (networks based on shared board members); elite professionals and managerial capitalism; co-operation and industrial districts in the wool industry; and now my DECRA project on women in Australian corporate leadership. Alongside this, I also continue my advocacy for interdisciplinarity in economic history, with a co-authored chapter in a book comparing outcomes for the field globally to be presented shortly at the World Economic History Congress in Paris!