The institutional approach to economic history: Connecting the two strands

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Abstract

This essay examines the historiography of two episodes in history—the scattering of plots in the open fields in the Middle Ages and the transition to the factory system in the Industrial Revolution—to shed light on the uses of institutional economics in economic history. In both of these episodes, economic “just-so” stories advanced our understanding of history. What animated intellectual innovation in both cases was a bold conjecture about the raison d’être of a puzzling institutional structure. But what ultimately enriched our understanding was the process of conjecture and revision those conjectures set off. In both episodes, the revised conjectures that best withstood criticism and revision were those that saw the phenomena not as static snapshots of economic agents confronting an economic problem but rather those that embedded the phenomena within a larger economic problem and within a process of economic change. In the end it is an account of institutional change—what I call the good old New Institutional Economics—that connects the use of institutional economics to explain puzzling historical phenomenon with the role of institutional economics in addressing the big questions of economic growth.

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Langlois, R. N. (2017). The institutional approach to economic history: Connecting the two strands. Journal of Comparative Economics, 45(1), 201–212. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jce.2016.04.004

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