The constructive tension between History and Economics – thoughts on my first year at Oxford

         It is a challenging but enjoyable experience to study History and Economics at Oxford

Lunchen Song is a first year studying History and Economics at Pembroke College. He is from Beijing, China where he attended a local high school.

lunchen photo

My main interest is in economic history, which applies quantitative approaches to analyse key historical processes such as agricultural revolution or industrialization. I applied to Oxford because it offered the combination of these two subjects, but it turned out that my experience as a first-year historian at Oxford was far more enriching than I would have thought.

My first year has been challenging, not least because aside from economic history, Oxford encourages me to explore a variety of fields. For examples, in Approaches to History, I studied the evolving implication of the term "art" in different societies and wrote about the tension between women’s history and gender history; in European and World History, I argued for the challenge posed by Renaissance humanism on early modern polities. These topics blew my mind; never had I realized that histories covered such a broad field.

I felt overwhelmed after getting my reading list for the first tutorial on gender history for approaches. Interested in economic history since high school, I was used to reading quantitative research such as reconstruction of 19th century European GDP, but less confident in reading several heavy books within a week and understanding complex historiographical debates. Unsurprisingly, I did not finish the reading list and barely finished an essay before the deadline.

“These readings were meant to help you, not for you to conquer,” my tutor encouraged me after I expressed my concern. The in-depth conversation on gender history in the tutorial prompted me to reconsider gender as a category for analysis and revaluate my understanding of economic history: too often had I taken for granted that all agents, workers, capitalist, etc. were males, while neglecting the role of women and how changing attitudes of gender affected the division of labour as well as the dynamics of international slave trade. With these thoughts in mind, I looked for common themes and key arguments in my second reading list for gender history and wrote an essay on the relationship between gender and power. In this process, I felt the joy of acquiring new perspectives of thinking and discussing it with my tutorial partners.

While the approaches paper was more about breadth, the study of European and World History required more in depth thinking. I studied the period of 1400-1650, Renaissance, economic recovery, and religious renewal. Graduating from a Chinese high school, never had I systematically studied this period of history before, so it was difficult for me to understand the difference between concepts like “transubstantiation” and “consubstantiation.” To familiarize myself with these topics, I read through the Early Modern Europe volume of Cambridge History of Europe and listened to relevant podcast on BBC In Our Times program. The process of systematically studying a section of World history in depth was a hard but fascinating process for me.

The Industrialization in Britain and France 1750 -1870 laid at the intersection between history and economics. Nevertheless, the comparison between two major economies in 18th and 19th century encouraged me to think differently on economic growth. For example, the growth theory I studied in Introduction to Economics predicted that industrialization was often accompanied by a fall in population. However, while Britain experienced faster industrialization, it was France that first experienced a steady decline in fertility in 18th century. This discrepancy between economic models and historical records prompted me to look at factors not entailed in traditional economic models such as different institutions of land inheritance and natural endowment. On the other hand, the emphasis on formal mathematical model and quantitative analysis in my economics course quipped me with tools to analysis history data and critically assess different theories advanced by contemporary authors travelling across the English Channel.

Historians like to talk about tensions: the tension between different historiographies, the tension between the interest of state and subjects, the tension between breadth and depth… In my view, the degree of history and economics builds a positive tension between the two subjects. It propelled me to study a breadth of different fields of history and take a more balanced view on the discipline. It also encouraged me to think in depth about the importance to incorporate historical facts in testing economic models and using quantitative models to assess historiographies.

It is a challenging but enjoyable experience to study History and Economics at Oxford. I am very grateful to the help given by all my tutors and tutorial classmates. 

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