Interdisciplinarity & Australian Economic History

In a time of pandemics, war and climate change, fostering knowledge that transcends disciplinary boundaries is more important than ever. Economic history is one of the world’s oldest interdisciplinary fields, with its prosperity dependent on connection and relevance to disciplinary behemoths economics and history.

 This project started through my PhD project on the story of Australia’s economic history field. Using an intellectual communities and social network lens of knowledge, I mapped the main economic historians and their location, PhD supervision, and collaboration between 1950 and 1991. I also interviewed several of the important economic historians active in the post-WWII decades, and spoke to them about their approach to research, the nature of their collaborations, and their vision of economic history. Publications on these interviews, the importance of informal scholarly spaces, and the progress and possible futures of Australian economic history followed. 

In order to do work like this, you need to read. A lot. One of the ‘outcomes’ of these intellectual clusters and cliques, I argued, was convergence in their ideas and approach to the subject. I examined this through an extraordinarily laborious citation analysis (coded manually, wowee), and a content analysis of research theme, approach and conclusion. Alongside my maps of people, I also mapped the main research themes for the field, and in the process read more or less everything ever written on the subject.  

One of my early publications related the long-run progress of economic history relative to Australia’s higher education policy. We looked at the hypocrisy inherent in most universities’ advocacy for knowledge that transcends disciplinary boundaries, finding that most university structures reinforce disciplines. Through the process of revising this work for a book, this central tension stuck out in my mind, I kept returning to it as slowly began to realise it was more important than I had given it credit for in the thesis. I focussed less on social networks and more on the way university structures, policies and incentives influence the sort of knowledge produced (there are no networks if no one has a job). Using the history of this interdisciplinary field, I demonstrate that universities actually have very little idea how to encourage interdisciplinarity, and that most higher education structures (hiring and promotion, curriculum, funding, and so on) actively do the opposite. 

The result is my book: Australian Economic History: Transformations of an Interdisciplinary Field. It does two main things: At its heart this book is an account of a small Australian intellectual community – economic history – that has gone through a series of very interesting transformations. From individual satellites, disciplinary-style growth, neoliberal crisis to a more recent renaissance. I discuss the people, ideas, projects, data, conclusions and frameworks. The conceptual index is my pride and joy, and for anyone interested in economic history or looking to teach it, I think this is a good overview of the way research in the field has progressed over time.

The second thread is about the way universities affect knowledge. I trace the way economic historians have operated within a changing Australian higher education sector, and I argue that many of the field’s challenges are tied to the fact that universities only (or mostly) encourage disciplinary rather than interdisciplinary knowledge. I am, as Glyn Davis put it, “cautiously optimistic”, arguing that the field’s greatest opportunities lie with embracing its interdisciplinary character.


Latest happenings

UTS redesigning universities interdisciplinary research Australian economic history university policy disciplines Carl Rhodes Claire Wright

Event: Redesigning universities for an interdisciplinary future, UTS Business School (23rd November 2022).

Everyone wants interdisciplinary research, but very few understand the mechanics of how it is produced, and even fewer actively implement policies to encourage it. This was a panel conversation with myself and Professor Carl Rhodes (Dean of UTS Business School) exploring how we can radically rethink universities – including rankings and key performance indicators, the structure of degrees, and even the physical space of universities – to encourage flexible, innovative, cross-disciplinary knowledge in the future.

Australian economic history book launch speech interdisciplinary research university policy

Book launch and symposium: Australian economic history - Past reflections and future opportunities, Australian National University (26th August 2022).

Coinciding with the 10th Anniversary of the ANU Centre for Economic History, and the publication of my Australian Economic History: Transformations of an Interdisciplinary Field (2022, ANU Press), this symposium considered future research and teaching opportunities for economic history in Australasia and about Australasia. Drawing on participants’ expertise across disciplines, time periods and topics, contributions discussed new themes, data and methodologies for economic historical work; connecting with co-authors across disciplines; future directions in teaching specialised economic history courses; and strategies for incorporating economic history material into economics, history, and business coursework.

Blog: Economic history and interdisciplinarity: lessons from the Antipodes, The Long Run (28th July 2022).

Contribution the Economic History Society’s blog, The Long Run, on the insights of my new book, and lessons for economic historians, university managers, and interdisciplinary practitioners around the world. 

Book! Australian Economic History: Transformations of an Interdisciplinary Field, ANU Press (2nd June 2022).

This book is the first history of an interdisciplinary field in Australia, and the first to set the field’s progress within the structures of Australian universities. It highlights the lived experience of doing interdisciplinary research, and how scholars have navigated the opportunities and challenges of this form of knowledge.

Radio interview and podcast: ‘The Importance Of Tea Rooms In Australia’, ABC Overnights with Rod Quinn (6th May 2018).

In the years after World War 2 new universities opened across Australia, and one of the developments that came out of that was the collaborative environment that is the tea room. Why was this so important and what effect did it have on our universities as places to work? Rod Quinn speaks to Dr Claire Wright about the importance of informal collaborative spaces for interdisciplinary knowledge.

Article: The university tearoom: Informal public spaces as ideas incubators, History Australia (8th May 2018).

Informal spaces encourage the meeting of minds and the sharing of ideas. We address the role of one such institution – the university tea room – in Australia in the post-WWII decades. Drawing on a series of oral history interviews with economic historians, we examine the nature of the tea room space, demonstrate its effects on research within universities, and analyse the causes and implications of its decline in recent decades.

Article: Neither a discipline nor a colony: Renaissance and re-imagination in economic history, Australian Historical Studies (19th May 2017).

Examines the intellectual and professional changes in the economic history field, particularly the failed experiment of economic history as a separate discipline, and the impact of major economic events have conspired to produce a renaissance in the field of study in the last decade and a half. We argue that economic history derives its main strength from its role as an interdisciplinary research field that draws upon and integrates with its closest disciplines.

Article: Visualising Interdisciplinary Agency: the life cycle of economic history in Australia, Minerva (31st March 2017).

Examines the nature and progress of interdisciplinary research fields. It argues that disciplinary and interdisciplinary research are complementary and that communicating infrastructures foster communication and integration between disciplines and the interdisciplinary research field to generate innovative knowledge. We apply this to the experience of economic history in Australia in the second half of the twentieth century to demonstrate the life cycle of a semi-permanent interdisciplinary research field.

Article: The evolution of an intellectual community through the words of its founders: Recollections of Australia’s economic history field, Australian Economic History Review (20th July 2016).

We interview a broad selection of academics who worked in the field of Australian economic history, approximately 1950–90, to provide a fuller understanding of the evolution of this interdisciplinary field. Our results confirm, complement and, in some cases, challenge conventional views.



ARC DECRA Fellow at UTS Business School


I acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of country throughout Australia and their connections to land, sea and community. In particular, I acknowledge that I live and work on the unceded lands of the Dharawal and Gadigal people. This always was, and always will be Aboriginal land. I pay my respect to their Elders past and present and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander peoples today.

All thoughts and opinions posted on this website are my own, and not reflective of the institutions I may represent.

Copyright 2022 Claire E. F. Wright