Last month, I was thrilled to co-host the symposium ‘Australasian economic history and the future of interdisciplinarity’. Held online and at ANU, on the land of the Ngunnawal people, a diverse range of contributors came together to discuss new research and ideas, methodology, teaching, and connecting with parent disciplines. The event came about because of the coincidence of the ANU Centre for Economic History’s 10 year anniversary, and the launch of my book, Australian Economic History: Transformations of an Interdisciplinary Field (ANU Press, 2022).
At the start of the symposium, I spoke about the way my book can help us think through our practice as interdisciplinary scholars in modern Australian universities (see also here). The book has two main threads, the very big picture is about universities in Australia, and the way that university policy has encouraged but mostly discouraged research and teaching that crosses disciplinary boundaries. As I progressed in my post-PhD career, I was increasingly interested in the labour of academic work, the thing essentially casting a shadow over intellectual networks, enabling or constraining ones ability to connect with colleagues and do research. This meant taking a step back to examine the production of interdisciplinary knowledge not simply in terms of the scholars involved, but also university policy and government and public priorities.
Universities often say they want interdisciplinary knowledge. They say it on websites, they say it in press releases, and they might nominally have the odd program to encourage interdisciplinarity. But the core incentives, KPIs, and money are assigned to activities that reinforce the dominance of disciplines. As I found through the research, this is not a new thing. Fields like economic history are old, close to or as old as their parent disciplines, and economic history in Australia has had this uneasy relationship with larger disciplines of economics and history, and a higher education sector that doesn’t really know how to encourage interdisciplinary knowledge. As I outline in the book, at times this relationship has been more fruitful than others -whether through accident, or the tenacity and strategy of scholars – and as a result there is a lot we can learn from this about how to practically encourage knowledge that crosses disciplinary boundaries.
The main narrative is about Australian economic history, a small field that was at times bigger, wedged between disciplinary juggernauts economics and history. The chapters are relatively chronological – I start with the early twentieth century and the production of economic historical writing born from the collection of colonial statistics, and then partnership between government research, Workers Educational Association and university, but with very little collaboration or professional infrastructure. In the immediate post-War period, the focus on universities as part of nation-building expanded lots of disciplines and fields which, combined with the creative and audacious research program of Noel Butlin and colleagues at the ANU gave the field focus, identity and legitimacy. What followed was the golden age of higher education generally, and the golden age of Australian economic history. Small departments were established on the basis of compulsory undergraduate business/commerce subjects, kitted out with a god professor and maybe half a dozen scholars, mostly those men who entered the job market in the late-60s/early 70s.
After a lovely 20 years, we enter the period of resistance. John Dawkins introduced neoliberal market reforms to the higher education sector, which meant disciplines and fields were forced to become territorial and competitive. Compulsory economic history subjects were amongst the first to be given the stanky boot, and the resulting funding deficit meant that eventually all departments folded, with members leaving for business departments, or remaining in economics, with very few going to history. There was a very real chance the whole field would collapse in on itself. There have been signs of a moderate renaissance since the 2010s, with big projects, engagement from parent disciplines, and an increase in diversity of work and practitioners. The challenge as I see it is the same one the field has been grappling with the whole time: maintaining diversity but also building capacity, relationships and identity.
When events like this happen, there is a really strong temptation to reflect on the field and where it’s at and the challenges we face. If you go back through the Australian Economic History Review every three years or so for the last 30 there are these reflective pieces on the state of the field. I’ve written several myself. That easily could have been the event on this occasion, but our vision was for something slightly different. We wanted to know about what is going on, what is working, what is happening. That’s not to say there aren’t challenges, but my perspective on the long run story of the field is one of adaptation. Faced with a higher education sector that doesn’t really understand what interdisciplinary research is, or how to properly support it, economic history by rights shouldn’t exists. It should have died in the 90s, along with tamagotchis. But it didn’t. So the field’s resilience, inventiveness, flexibility, and survival is very interesting.
In the case of Australian economic history, and probably in most cases, flexibility has been the key to resilience. That sounds pretty profound, my psychologist would be proud. I come to this in chapter 5 of the book, that the doom and gloom story of the 1990s, as it was told to me, did not account for the field’s survival. I entered the field without any of the experience of the field’s golden age, and nothing to compare it to. From my perspective I entered a profession where there were opportunities and people wanted to talk to me about economic history, it just didn’t look anywhere near what it did before.
As Ben Huf would tell you, what you choose to count matters. In the absence of departments – where you can definitely say this is how many members of the field there are, and this is how many students we have – markers of success become ambiguous. I think one of the things we all have to consider is, how to we know we are doing a good job at interdisciplinary integration? Markers of success look different, but we need markers in order to demonstrate our specific value to funders, to promotion committees and to our universities. I make some suggestions in the final chapter – this may look like measuring the diversity of degrees or majors of those who take our courses, the use of history or economics to contextualise an otherwise pretty straight disciplinary subject; the range of affiliations of those who attend our events or collaborate in published work. At the symposium, we heard a lot about the things that scholars are doing to create these networks, from expanding the geographic reach of the journal, the creation of digital content and data visualisation, connecting with end-users, and incorporating economic history into a range of coursework.
It’s important to note there is only so much agency we have – as academics we are stretched, we are tired, and this is an uphill battle. Most university policy and incentives are still geared towards research and teaching that reinforces disciplines. But I think reflecting on where we do have agency or not is an important practical step. I cannot entirely control who enrols in my courses – that’s based on majors and degree structure – but I can control the amount of history they get (which at the moment is a lot!). We can’t control the ABDC rankings, but we can do things like re-branding the journal to better connect with our contributors and readers. I can’t control the extent to which my work is congruent with the Conference of Economists, but I can invite folks from the Economic Society of Australia to come to my event. I would recommend exploring the boundaries of that agency, if you are able to.
In terms of building capacity, from a sociology of scientific knowledge perspective, different activities have different constraint. Different constraints foster different ties between participants, which then affects the sort of knowledge that is produced. Writing one on one with a co-author, or being a member of a small department with six people for 30 years, is entirely different in its capacity-building to an event like this. But there is opportunity cost, no one is only an economic historian anymore and we have to work with our relevant parent disciplines as well as within this interdisciplinary group. But ‘capacity’ doesn’t only look like departments, or say, the Cambridge Economic History of Australia. It doesn’t look like us all only contributing to the Australian Economic History Review, which at another time it kind of did. Activities with more flexible or porous boundaries that allow folks to move in and out and around based on competing responsibilities and so on, I believe is the way forward. The ANU Centre for Economic History is a really good example of that – folks are members of their own departments, but it is a place to come together for events and workshops. Essentially, we’ve been doing this for years, the book just legitimises it as a strategy.
This was a fantastic opportunity to get to know what folks are doing in their research and teaching in economic history, while exploring the various opportunities that await us in the future. Thanks again to all the participants, and the Economic History Society of Australia and New Zealand and the ANU Centre for Economic History for supporting the event!