May 19, 2004

Institutionalist Historians?

Anyone out there know of any historians worthy of being called institutionalists? The more contemporary the better (assuming any exist). What I'd like to find are historians looking at the world in terms of the interactions between large institutions (religions, governments, labor/guilds, armies, businesses, etc), sans dialectics and sans over reliance on markets as an end all be all.

Anyone know of a good jumping off point?

Posted by Abe at May 19, 2004 09:26 PM


Ummm... Foucault?

Check out his recently published lectures on Governmentality from the '70s.

Haven't read the Governmentality stuff. Foucault is important, but his focus tends toward the interactions between institutions and people, which is only part of the picture. I'm interested in finding a history focused mainly on the interactions between the various institutions themselves.

That sounds like classical history to me. Ie, "the history of great men" -- wars and business. Most history textbooks tell you exactly that. Ie, the history of Canada, when I went through that in elementary school, had long passages on the fights between the Hudson's Bay Company and the NorthWest Company. Or look at the colonial history of India under the perspective of Company rule, etc.-- that's a classic way of reading that history.

So it's ironic that what you're looking for is in fact the status quo in history, or perhaps was, up until about 20 years ago..


no, that is not it all... You are leaping to absurd conclusions my friend, based on who knows what. I know very well what 'great man' entail and I know where to find them to read. And its most certainly not what I'm looking for. Not in the remotest. In fact what I want could conceivable be written without any wars, certainly without any "great men" and possibly without any humans at all, although all could be present if the author so desired.

In the most basest of senses I supposed you could say an institutionalist history involves injecting Foucault back into a "great man" theory of history which has been stripped of all teleology and "great men". But that'd be a backward and distorted construction.

Instead though I'd say it more like history as an ecology populated by strange attractors. Foucault (in what I've read) focus upon the dynamics of the strange attractors. I'm looking for something that looks at the dynamics of the ecology itself, utilizing the work Foucault and others have done already of course. And no I don't think that's the 'status quo' in history...

Sounds like the classic Greek conception of history to me! ;)

Keep on explaining what you mean .. I'd like to hear more as I think it's a little unclear as to what you'd like to see -- perhaps you need to write it yourself -- as what you are doing is redefining 'institution' transhistorically.

hmmm, I think there is awkward convergence here. I have no interest in writing anything like this myself. I want to *read* an institutionalist history. There is context. The institutionalist economists sit in an odd place in economic history. At the turn of the century, before Marxism took real root in America, they represented the leftist economic critique of laissez faire, "free" market classical economics. By the 30's they were almost gone, although Galbraith and Heilbroner are often seen as carrying on their tradition. There is also a "neo-institutionalist" school, led by Coase and the "transaction cost" economists, but they often veer into this strange right wing law meet economics space. Coase teaches at UChicago, the intellectual dead center of neoclassical economics, but he's not at the econ school, he's in the law school. All a bit convoluted.

The most interesting figure in institutionalism though is Veblen, and even in this little school of thought associated with him he's a bit of an iconclast. He has no followers of note, but everyone respects him. I'm interested in the possibility of constructing a nomad economics in the way Deleuze constructed his nomad philosophy. By going back and finding the obscured flows weaving in and around the traditional discourses and focal points of the field. And Veblen it appears resonates stronger in this sense then anyone else I've encountered in the history of economics. Roughly akin to a Spinoza or Nietzsche in Delueze's nomad philosophies.

Back to an institutional historian, my interest is only that I would hope if some exist they too could play a role in a nomad economics, if it is indeed possible. Foucault certainly has a place in it, and in fact has a tendency to show up unexpectedly in recent economics texts...

I'm neither a historian nor an institutionalizer, but I'll nominate myself. And second my nomination!

You rock it out - more in there than your post lets on. Write!
Do your PhD on this! Or just sit down and begin. Constructing nomad economics = good. On a creative note, have you read b'olo b'olo (autonomedia)? Recommended - Planetary Work Machine.

'Institutionalist historian' makes me think of Hans Ulrich Wehler's _The German Empire, 1871-1918_. It was always presented to me as being an antidote to psychological 'great man' history on the one hand, and vulgar marxism on the other. It may still be a bit too focused on _political_ institutions for your taste, though.

And what, pray tell, is so wrong with dialectics? A dialectic doesn't have to be understood in the strong, teleological sense, you know.

catherine- there are occasions when dialectics are a useful tool. But far more frequently (in my opinion almost all of the time) dialectics require stripping out so much information, so much nuance, so much reality, that they wind up distorting far more then explain. Bush for one is a massive abuser of dialectics, good vs. evil, US vs. Saddam, us vs. the terrorists. "You are either for us or against us", that's a dialectic and its dead wrong.

tobias and Tim, thanks for the recommendations, the wish list grows....

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