The François Simiand Center for economic and social history (Centre d’histoire économique et sociale François-Simiand) analyses economic and social phenomena in a historical time perspective. This formulation is not self-explanatory and involves a series of structuring analytical hypotheses. The Centre has a dual ambition: to promote a historical approach to economics and to open up economic history to the full range of social factors at play.
An initial premise is that economic history is defined by its object, and not by the methods it applies: the economic phenomena and spheres of economic activity that exist today all have a history. It cannot be defined in terms of methods, be it those of historians or those inspired by the routine practices of economists. The aim is certainly not to begin by identifying economic mechanisms with a view to determining their mode of operation in specific historical situations.
The Centre François-Simiand follows a historical tradition whereby the economy and its place in society is a historical object in its own right, and in which the very definition of what does or does not belong to the economic domain forms part of the analysis.
In this respect, the Centre challenges the still dominant notion in economics that history can be seen as a field for applying ahistorical models, generally designed for present-day situations, by adjusting their parameters to fit the distinctive institutional and legal characteristics of past societies.
Yet this perspective does not deny the existence and importance of economic mechanisms. Quite the contrary, one of the ambitions of the Centre François-Simiand is to focus on comprehending these mechanisms, notably by drawing upon economic analysis (including through quantitative or formalized models) in order to understand them and identify their properties. Provided that their conditions of validity are verified, using economic models – such as those applied by economists to contemporary situations – or referring to analytical frameworks of this kind provides a means to develop explanatory mechanisms and to reveal the points of similarity between different historical situations; comparative history can also be approached in this way.
The proposed definition of economic history highlights a key analytical dimension of economic phenomena, namely their temporality, be it at micro level (duration of individual trajectories, in saving and investment for example) or at macro level (duration of accumulation and growth processes, of economic cycles, etc.).
Analysing the duration of these phenomena, in return, brings to light and takes into account moments of rupture, crisis and regime change that are central to their historicity. The succession of events and their sequencing is another question powerfully conveyed for historians by the notion of chronology. Inertia, irreversibility and path dependency mean that history still counts, that the past remains with us through everything that is passed down through time. It is important to understand that no variable of state adequately sums up the trajectory of a phenomenon, and that certain moments in the past trajectory of “landmark” events weigh heavily upon the future trajectory, though within the limits of the selective memory effects characteristic of historical dynamics.
All these heritages, which take an extraordinary variety of forms, must be central to the work of both historians and economists when they seek to write economic history.
Defining economic history via its object rather than its method has another consequence. It implies that economic historians must examine the link between their object and the context in which it appears, not only by considering all economic manifestations of the spheres of social life, but also by identifying the existence of mechanisms and interests that are not economic. Analysing the interplay between these economic and non-economic dimensions is key to understanding the historicity of economic phenomena. This interplay, which should interest economists and historians alike, is a factor of both the continuity and disruption specific to the dynamics of economic phenomena.
The research conducted at the Centre François-Simiand thus seeks to place maximum emphasis on the duration of phenomena – sometimes over very long periods – as a framework for analysis, and to promote a certain proximity with economic analysis, be it through an exploration of ways to apply some of its concepts or methods, or to propose a critical analysis of such methods with a view to adapting them for use by historians.
The second ambition of the Centre Simiand is to open up economic history to the full range of social factors at play. Though the problems studied call for a common approach, a dangerously wide gulf has formed between economic and social history over recent decades. When we study the history of different forms of forced labour, or disparities between social classes, the boundary between economic and social becomes meaningless. When we are interested in the relationship between credit, development and geographic and social mobility in 19th century France or 20th century Africa, it serves little purpose to begin by having to show one’s credentials. It is more urgent to mobilize relevant sources and the right analytical tools, whatever their provenance. The same is true for attempts to renew the history of monetary forms and of trade in the Greek and Roman worlds, the history of tax and inheritance regimes in the American Republic, or the history of debtor-creditor relationships under the Ancien Régime.
The Centre Simiand aims to promote new dialogue between these fields and their representatives and, in doing so, to show that objects must take precedence over methodological stances and disciplinary boundaries.