A good friend (and a new PhD student) asked me today what I thought of Cliometrics and Cliodynamics. To answer this, I will briefly define these fields as I understand them, describe their substantive and methodological components, and provide advise for the study of both.
Cliometrics is a form of economic history that relies on statistical analysis and data visualization. One of my favorite books, Nature’s Metropolis, is arguably Cliometric. While the methods are relatively simple (memorably focusing heavy on geovisualization of debt records), the book is a fascinating history of the United States in which the greatest impact of the Civil War was accelerating the development of the agricultural futures markets.
Cliodynamics extends cliometrics to the entire study of history. In other words, it attempts to make history a social science, instead of a school within the humanities. For instance, Chinese historians and Chinese leaders have been deeply influenced by the “dynastic cycle” in which an honest rebel band that promises a better world seizes power, creates havoc, develops excellent leadership capabilities, descends into extracting wealth from the population, puts down rebellions, and eventually falls to an honest rebel band that promises a better world.
A cliodynamist would ask, how would you operationalize that claim? What is the null hypotheses? Where you can find a body of evidence to support or disprove such a claim? What testable predictions would it make? And so on.
All of this sounds fascinating to me.
The methods of cliometrics and cliodynamics seem useful. Not the substance, but the methods.
It strikes me a very useful skill to have is to be able to measure what is happening and what has happened. Questions like, “Will this make money?” “How well-off will this make people?” and “Are they planning to kill us?” all are being asked by data-rich organizations. The cliometric and cliodynamic approaches — which both focus on rigorously giving meaning to large amounts of data — seem like an application of the same focus on measurement as psychometrics and econometrics.
Academia runs on money, prestige, and power. In different proportions so does corporate life. And government. A good way to acquire these things to do enjoy what you do, be the best in the world at it, and make money on it. If it fits your temperament, learning the substantive of cliometrics and cliodynamics seems like a fun way to learn the more useful methods of cliometrics and cliodynamics, which certainly can help you along your path.
There’s a lot of interesting things in the world. There are some useful things in the world. I think the substance of cliometrics and cliodynamics are interesting. I think the methods of both are useful. My advise for someone thinking of studying cliometrics and cliodynamics: How many times in the world do you get to do something both interesting and useful?