November was a busy month ! On the 10th November I was in Perth and gave the keynote at the Western Australia Economic History Summit, and a fortnight later at home in Sydney I was in conversation with Professor Carl Rhodes discussing how to redesign universities for an interdisciplinary future. Both events used the insights of my book – Australian Economic History: Transformations of an Interdisciplinary Field – to inform university policy. Universities say they want interdisciplinary knowledge, but the reality is that the structures of the universities and the incentives for work and promotion still favour work produced and published within the tribe. Essentially, everyone wants interdisciplinary research, but very few understand the mechanics of how it is produced, and even fewer actively implement policies to encourage it.
It is important to understand the nature and purpose of universities in this conversation. Universities are one of the most important organising structures for research, with the policies, programs and incentives allowing scholars to establish certain types of teaching and research activities. Universities structure the physical space where scholars interact, such as the placement of offices, the location of tea rooms and seminars. Universities determine groupings – faculties, departments and so on – that match scholars with like-minded or colleagues. Universities also control the cash – they decide who to hire, the incentives for funding and promotion, and the degrees on offer. Universities are thus responsible for the overt barriers and covert inconveniences that influence the way knowledge is produced.
The underlying logic of universities has been centred around three distinct systems of learning. Medieval universities in the UK and Europe were elite enclaves tied to the clergy. This ‘English’ or ‘Oxbridge’ model of higher education aimed to provide a common moral, intellectual and social experience for the ruling elite, with students grounded in general intellectual skills. The ‘Scottish’ model was more secular and egalitarian – universities were there to serve the professions, and educators were responsible for imparting practical knowledge to students. Scottish-led universities placed emphasis on academic disciplines as a way of organising knowledge into discrete categories. Finally, the ‘German’ or ‘Humboldtian’ model of higher education focussed on scientific training and research. The university professor, in this system, develops new knowledge and supervises postgraduate research students, with instruction in undergraduate knowledge a secondary or tertiary activity. The Humboldtian university model strongly emphasises research at the frontier of siloed academic disciplines.
Australian universities combined these systems of learning. The older sandstone universities, one in each Australian state capital city, were established in the nineteenth century on principles similar to the Oxbridge elite Liberal Arts education. However, the ‘Scottish model’ soon took over, and has been prevalent, with nineteenth- and early twentieth-century tertiary education designed to prepare students for professional work. Postwar mass expansion of higher education was designed along similar lines: to multiply the supply of skilled labour, particularly in the professions. Universities came to command greater space in professional work, and simultaneously a much greater proportion of Australia’s workforce trained as professionals through universities. Postwar universities also incorporated the German model of higher education. The war had demonstrated the importance of basic, primary research, and this became part of the compact of the establishment of new universities and the expansion of old ones, with governments funding a greater proportion of research through universities, and the role of university workers expanding to include both professional instruction and research. The Australian National University (ANU) was the only true ‘Humboldtian’ university, with work at the institution consisting of frontier discovery and supervision of graduate students. Since the late 1980s, neoliberal reform corporatised Australia’s higher education system. While the underlying logic of universities – focusing on professional education and frontier research – remained the same, principles of ‘New Public Management’ were introduced to encourage performance through competition in new and expanded markets for students and research.
Against that background, the book charts the progress of Australian economic history, a small field that was at times bigger, wedged between disciplinary juggernauts economics and history; the humanities and the social sciences. 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 universities. Key scholars worked across a variety of different disciplinary groups, and across the three types of institutions. This ‘tripartite’ structure, and the very porous boundaries between disciplines meant that the knowledge produced was very interdisciplinary – it was diverse, it was practical, and it integrated and communicated well. However, the field had virtually no collaboration, no professional structures, no real identity or shape.
In the immediate post-War period, within the context of the ‘golden age’ of higher education, economic history experienced their ‘big bang’. Economic historians started arriving in Canberra to the research-only ANU from the late 40s, and in 1951 they hired 29 year old Noel Butlin. He soon began work on his magnum opus, what I call ‘the numbers’ and ‘the words’. In the former, Butlin compiled Australian historical national statistics within a national income accounting framework. In the latter, Butlin used these statistics to describe the sector-by-sector mechanism of growth in the latter half of the nineteenth century.
Butlin’s contribution to understanding Australian economic history was remarkable. However, the institutional context enabled not only the production of the work itself, but also its promotion as an intellectual movement. It is hard to overstate just how much money the ANU had. Butlin hired a small army of junior scholars as research assistants or PhD students, who were crucial in the production and promotion of the words and the numbers. They were either directly involved in data collection, or they dealt with matters Noel knew would be criticisms. Butlin’s program was also congruent with, and supported by, both the economics and history programs in Australia, and key scholarship in economic history overseas such as Simon Kuznets’ national income accounting and economic historical work from the UK. There are also a number of other contributions that emerged at the same time that adopted a similar approach but were unconnected to Butlin and the ANU. So although he was lauded as this totally new, totally fresh take on Australian economic history, his work was so successful because of its integration with what was going on elsewhere, rather than its distinctiveness. I make the point somewhat cheekily that if it wasn’t Butlin it likely would have been someone else. Shortly after the publication of the numbers, Trevor Swan in ANU economics granted Noel his petition for a separate department, and through graduate supervision, seminars, joint projects and so on, he established a team or centre for economic historians in Australia. This was the ‘big bang’, with the work of the ‘orthodox school’ giving the field recognition, resources, identity and legitimacy, plus plenty of new material to debate and refine.
Overlapping with this was economic history’s ‘moment in the sun. As part of the expansion of higher education and the general logic of fragmentation of university units, departments of economic history were established on the basis of compulsory undergraduate business/commerce subjects. Departments were 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. Around 1980 the field, overnight, went into a hiring freeze. Growth of students had tapered off, departments were full of scholars unlikely to retire anytime soon, and universities (and most public institutions) were entering a period of audit and austerity. This was pretty unfortunate for folks entering the job market at this point, and also meant that we had groups of 6 to 12 people, together, with tenure, and very little turnover, for literally decades.
In Canberra the group integrated with the economics discipline and the cliometrics revolution that had made waves in the US. In Melbourne, a kooky bunch of leaders encouraged a more diverse, interdisciplinary research program. In Sydney, most were hired from overseas, and continued to contribute to their global networks rather than conducting Australian research. There were also important heterodox perspectives, with Labour History and Political Economy research ‘fellow travellers’ with economic history. All of this was terribly exciting, except there was a lot of conflict. Even at the height of the field’s professionalisation and ‘disciplinary-ness’, the fragmentation between these small communities makes it so difficult to even discern a basic ‘Australian’ approach to economic history.
After about 20 years, we enter the period of resistance. There were some existing vulnerabilities in the way the field was organised, with the fragmentation from the earlier era meaning folks weren’t great at engaging in collective action or advocacy. The field had become very closely tied to the economics discipline overall, though departments meant economic history was administratively separate, and thus met with derision from economics and ignored by history. Key leaders died or retired, and those remaining were pretty conservative in their approach, with very little interest in meeting either parent discipline at its frontier as it emerged in the 90s. Against these existing, building problems, the Dawkins reforms introduced neoliberal market reforms to the higher education sector. The creation of revenue markets and accountabilities between units meant groups were forced to become territorial and competitive. Compulsory economic history subjects were amongst the first to be booted, and the resulting funding deficit meant that eventually all departments folded, with members leaving for business departments, or remaining in economics.
There was a very real chance the whole field would collapse in on itself. However, economic history survived, in part, by leaning into the reasons for the crisis itself – the transition towards a neoliberal university model forced professional broadening, removing the ‘protections’ of separate departments and other disciplinary structures forced members to look outwards to economics, to history, to business disciplines, and to the world. They adapted, they survived.
There are signs of a moderate renaissance since the 2010s – the publication of big projects, increased engagement from parent disciplines and emerging scholars, and an increase in diversity of work and practitioners. There has been a rush of interest and new work, however several of the field’s traditional structures have been conservative intellectually, which has meant other groups that have popped up have tended to bypass traditional professional structures in favour of their own. We also still work in the global, neoliberal university, with the professional enclosure of tertiary education, university and journal rankings (particularly ERA and ABDC rankings), and the ARC still encouraging disciplinary knowledge. This has forced interdisciplinary groups such as economic history to fall through the cracks (or has encouraged members to hide their interdisciplinary identities).
So what does this mean for universities and encouraging interdisciplinary research?
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. Firstly, if economic history is going to fulfil it’s interdisciplinary function – integrate material from, and then communicate between, larger groups – we need to consider the sorts of activities we engage in. These are communicating infrastructures, or the places, events, ideas, and methods that bring folks into the interdisciplinary space and facilitate that integration and communication. So, a collaboration, a workshop, a journal, a publication, a theme, a curriculum, a conference. All of these can either reinforce connections within the disciplinary tribe, or facilitate interdisciplinarity, depending on how they are set up.
The main characteristic we need to look out for is the constraint of the communicating infrastructure. How easy is it to enter the group, move in, out and around. If there is a higher barrier to entry you are going to attract folks heavily committed to that activity or that group, so it will probably be a smaller group with more intense connections. Think of the level of commitment needed to be awarded and then take a new job. Or work with a co-author. Higher barrier to entry, more investment of time, closer interactions. On the other hand, activities with lower constraint, so more porous boundaries and lower investment of time and energy, will attract those with less commitment to the area. Because of that lower commitment and corresponding commitments elsewhere, it’s more likely they will have distinct or complementary knowledge or contacts. This is the ‘strength of weak ties’, as Mark Granovetter has detailed.
Remember there is always opportunity cost – no one is only an economic historian anymore, we have to work with our relevant parent disciplines as well as within this interdisciplinary group, and that’s ok. But capacity doesn’t only look like departments, or say, the Cambridge Economic History of Australia. Activities with more flexible or porous boundaries that allow people to move in and out and around based on competing responsibilities is the way forward. Spaces where people have time (money and workload) to dedicate to the interdisciplinary space, but also integration with various parent disciplines. At the UTS event I discussed opportunities for teaching of specialised subjects in other degrees or majors, joint teaching common subjects, and the importance of a broad base of research evaluation to accurately capture the quality and range of interdisciplinary research.
The second thing is, how do we know we are doing a good job of interdisciplinarity? What we choose to count matters. Markers of success look different in our field, and they look different to disciplines, but we need markers in order to demonstrate our specific value to funders, to promotion committees, to our universities and so on. I make some suggestions in the final chapter – it could be measuring diversity of degrees or majors who take our courses, the fact that we use 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. The fact that we as practitioners are not simply attending AHA or the conference of economists, but are agents in creating conversations and networks across those groups.
It’s important to note there is only so much agency we have – as academics we are stretched, we are tired, and its 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 advocate to leaders for a broader range of research evaluation measures, or use 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 Economics Society to come to my event. So I would recommend exploring the boundaries of that agency, if you are able to.
I’ll leave you with this: philosopher Karl Popper once said “we are not students of some subject matter, but students of problems. And problems may cut right across the borders of any subject matter or discipline”. The progress of Australian economic history demonstrates the unique features of interdisciplinary fields and the crucial position they occupy in the knowledge landscape, for solving major problems and training the next generation to be active and engaged citizens. I hope my book does justice to the field’s extraordinary past and diverse futures, as Glyn Davis said I am tough-minded but optimistic. My major hope, for universities and for practitioners, is that the book illuminates how we can create broad, vibrant cross-disciplinary spaces as the key to ensuring economic history’s continued value and relevance.