Boldizzoni, Francesco. The Poverty of Clio: Resurrecting Economic History.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Almeida, Richard A.
Pub Date: 03/22/2012
Publication: Name: International Social Science Review Publisher: Pi Gamma Mu Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2012 Pi Gamma Mu ISSN: 0278-2308
Issue: Date: Spring-Summer, 2012 Source Volume: 87 Source Issue: 1-2
Topic: NamedWork: The Poverty of Clio: Resurrecting Economic History (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Boldizzoni, Francesco
Accession Number: 294895887
Full Text: Boldizzoni, Francesco. The Poverty of Clio: Resurrecting Economic History. Princeton, N J: Princeton University Press, 2011. xi + 216 pages. Cloth, $39.50.

Despite its prestigious Princeton University Press imprint, The Poverty of Clio is less a work of scholarship than a polemic. Historian Francesco Boldizzoni sees "Cliometrics," the use of theories and tools from neoclassical economics in the study of economic history, as a "threat" (p. 169), and argues from the outset that economic history is "going through a deep identity crisis" (p. 4). Indeed, the very title of the work implies that economic history is dead. While there is nothing wrong with polemics in and of themselves, they often do not meet traditional standards of objectivity found in the best academic works. Boldizzoni flirts with powerful and relevant critiques of economic theory, reasoning, and methodology, but the style and slimness of this volume ultimately result in a critique that sacrifices depth for breadth and generates far more heat than light.

At his best, Boldizzoni deploys powerful examples that problematize and undercut key assumptions and predictions generated by neoclassical economic perspectives. He is quite successful in demonstrating that many preindustrial economies, particularly the feudal Polish and Italian economies, fail to show features and behaviors common to neoclassical economics. For example, using Witold Kula's An Economic Theory of the Feudal System: Toward a Model of the Polish Economy, 1500-1800 (1962), Boldizzoni adeptly demonstrates how feudal social structures and economic dynamics map poorly onto basic expectations from microeconomics. Such examples are instructive, varied, and articulated clearly. There is little doubt that foundational concepts of microeconomics translate imperfectly at best to reality, and it is perhaps in this regard that Boldizzoni misses a key opportunity.

Many of the criticisms of the types that Boldizzoni levels have been raised within the discipline of political science when approaches inspired by economics gained popularity and eventually became mainstream. This is worth mentioning because those criticisms influenced substantive and important changes in the study of political economy. Specifically, the rise of the "new institutionalist" economics in the 1980s can be seen in part as an evolution in economic reasoning which tries to maintain certain analytic methods and theoretical constructs while moving away from abstraction and toward, for want of a better word, "reality." Given Boldizzoni's skepticism toward earlier works of Cliometric scholarship, this should be a welcome shift. However, the opposite appears to be true.

Boldizzoni seems to hold the new institutionalist economic history in lower esteem than he does the previous generation of work. While traditional neoclassical economics resulted in "deleterious" effects (p. 18) and a "fanciful" Cliometric world (p. 54), the new institutionalist scholarship is "in fact an attempt at product differentiation ... dictated solely by the requirements of academic politics" (pp. 5-6). Singling out Douglass North's seminal attempts to build political and economic institutions back into economic reasoning (work which earned him a share of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Economics) for criticism, Boldizzoni argues, inter alia, that markets themselves are social institutions and that allocation systems exist in societies that do not view economic considerations as important. Even if one accepts the latter statement for argument's sake, there appears to be little in Boldizzoni's critiques that actually engages, let alone rebuts, claims made by North and subsequent scholars.

It also appears that Boldizzoni simply rejects the entirety of economic reasoning rather than its application to substantive questions. At its best, the new institutionalist scholarship preserves a small number of economic assumptions (such as those of uncertainty, scarcity of resources, and goal-directed behavior) and attempts to show the effects of those assumptions on observed behavior, filtered through the context of specific economic, political, and social institutions. As such, it is surprising that Boldizzoni holds this entire enterprise in such low regard and even more surprising that he selects James Scott's The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia (1976) as an exemplar of work that "is so stretched as to lose any significance" (p. 112). Scott's work is centered on the observed unwillingness of peasants in subsistence economies to engage in resistance or violent revolution, and explains this "conservative" tendency by describing and explaining non-market institutions and norms which evolve to preclude starvation.

Boldizzoni concludes his book with what he terms a "manifesto" (p. 150) for an alternative framework for economic history. He encourages economic historians to maintain a "direct relationship with primary sources," to have a "thorough background" in the discipline of history, to explore insights from other disciplines, and to prefer inductive thinking to deductive (pp. 150-51). Other than the final exhortation, there is little that a "Cliometrician" appears likely to resist.

The Poverty of Clio is a forceful denunciation of the impact of economic reasoning and techniques in the study of economic history. It is not, however, a particularly illuminating one. There is ample room for deeply engaged criticism of the impact of neoclassical economics on a variety of disciplines--Donald P. Green and Ian Shapiro's Pathologies of Rational Choice Theory (1996) is a noteworthy example. Boldizzoni's work will likely appeal to readers who already share his perspective, but offers less to a potentially persuadable audience.

Richard A. Almeida, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor of Political Science

Francis Marion University

Florence, South Carolina
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2012 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.