Greif on Economic History

by Henry on July 19, 2005

I see that Avner Greif has made his forthcoming book on economic history “available for download”: It tackles the transition from a mediaeval economy in which people traded with identifiable others whom they knew well to a modern economy based on impersonal exchange. A considerable nuisance for me, as I’m trying to write a book that talks to some more-or-less related themes, and now have a few hundred more pages of weighty ideas to ingest (which isn’t to say that the ingestion won’t be beneficial). I’ll be especially interested to see how the book is received both by Greif’s fellow economists and by economic sociologists. Greif argues that the two ought to be talking to each other much more than they do, and the book seems to be at least in part intended as an object lesson in how the two approaches can inform each other. On the one hand, I have the impression that most economists refuse on principle to believe that economic sociologists could have anything useful to tell them. On the other, when economic sociologists see game theorists and rational choice types writing about sociological themes, their first reaction is often to “man the barricades”: against the imperial oppressor. However, there’s a very interesting literature building up in the no-mans-land between the trenches – economists who are beginning to realize that they need a stronger theory of cognition and of the kinds of informal order that sociologists have been exploring for decades, and sociologists who are interested in the kinds of action-oriented theories of human behaviour that more thoughtful rational choice types have been trying to develop. Greif’s book is likely to attract attention from both sides and from those in between; with a bit of luck it’ll help push on the process of dialogue a little.

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Ultima Thule » I love the medieval period. Yet economics tempts me, but I would not serve her needs.
08.02.05 at 12:43 am



ricardo reis 07.19.05 at 2:27 pm

“A considerable nuisance for me, as I’m trying to write a book that talks to some more-or-less related themes . . . ”

Henry – a reality check: Professor Greif you ain’t (yet).


Maynard Handley 07.19.05 at 2:33 pm

I ask this as a serious, not a facetious question:
Does economics really, really, really, in terms of what it teaches and what it rewards, see itself as the study of how REAL PEOPLE deal with the problem of scarcity, or does it see itself as the study of how PERFECTLY RATIONAL AGENTS deal with scarcity.

Yes we’ve all heard the excuses about how perfectly rational agents are used because that way the math is easier; or that it only takes a few rational agents to drive the direction everyone goes (a claim frequently repeated but not, as far as I know, actually proved). And this was all fine in 1950 before computers. But damn, it’s been possible to simulate for a long time now, there’s plenty of real world evidence that people aren’t rational, there’s starting to be plenty of real world information about HOW they aren’t rational, and yet the impression I, as an outsider get, skimming textbooks and seeing their occasional discussions, is that that’s all interesting but kinda out there on the side, not REAL economics but a kinda of mutant sociology.
As the economists are so fond of pointing out, incentives matter, and the incentives in academic economics seem biased to rewarding ever more obscure treatments of perfect rationality, NOT to rewarding ever more accurate treatments of the behavior of real humans.


abb1 07.19.05 at 2:47 pm

Even in the modern economy exchange is impersonal only when you’re exchanging cheap mass-produced junk. Once you need something custom: to fix your car or your teeth, to make your anniversary dinner, to re-model your kitchen – pretty much any artisan work – you’ll be interviewing tradesmen and taking references; or, perhaps, looking for an artisan who attends your church or synagogue or something like that.

So, it’s only cheap mass-produced junk that’s faceless. But why would you want to know the guy who made it?


Matt 07.19.05 at 3:37 pm

I wish I could convince my DMO that I should be able to interview someone or have much choice at all before I let him or her work on my teeth, but they think I should consider myself lucky that I get it done at all. Given all the hoops I have to jump through to get any dental work done, I’m starting to agree with them.


Henry 07.19.05 at 3:58 pm

bq. Henry – a reality check: Professor Greif you ain’t (yet)

Indeed. To my chagrin, there’s a pronounced lack of MacArthur genius awards on my resume. What I was trying to say (and maybe not articulating very well) was that when you’re writing on cooperation and informal institutions, and invoking vaguely game-theoretical ideas, and Avner Greif comes out with a new book, you’re liable to have to make substantial revisions to what you’ve written, to accommodate, assimilate, reply to etc. Not trying to make claims as to equivalences etc etc.


david 07.19.05 at 5:06 pm

I’ll be interested to see what historians make of it. Not that either economists or economic sociologists will pay any attention.


chris edmond 07.19.05 at 6:28 pm

“Not that either economists or economic sociologists will pay any attention.”

Of course! — economists would never pay attention to a tenured professor of economics at Stanford. I guess they probably won’t cite him either:



Kieran Healy 07.19.05 at 6:42 pm

He meant pay attention to what the historians think of the book.


chris edmond 07.19.05 at 6:53 pm

My bad. Sorry David. Blame my poor reading comprehension.

I guess I’m so used to hearing throaway lines alleging that economists don’t care about history/institutions etc (when there is enough evidence to the contrary that the proposition is at least debatable). I presumed that David was saying something similar. Apologies once more.


david 07.19.05 at 7:59 pm

It’s alright, Chris; I was saying something about as snipy. I’m a historian married into the social sciences, and I compulsively work the rap.


scott c. 07.20.05 at 9:33 am

Maynard – It’s definitely trying to be. See Becker’s nobel prize acceptance speech in which he notes that he’s been trying to pry his colleagues to let ago of their myopic view of homo economicus. My impression is that you do see a trajectory in rational choice models moving towards flexibility – staying general and tractable but being able to handle a variety of phenomenon well. Economics is a science like any other, and is a rather young one at that, and so is growing. The economics of religion of Iannaccone is revitalizing the sociolical study of religion through the work of Stark, Finke and others, and that’s basically a Beckerian approach.


Tracy 07.21.05 at 12:11 am

Maynard – my experience of economics is that there’s a fair bit of discussion about how people are irrational, particularly when it comes to making risky decisions. I also hadn’t noticed that there was a bias towards rewarding ever more descriptions of perfect rationality. There’s a work thread of papers on hyper-rational behaviour, and the arguments over whether Riccardian equivalence holds, but then there are work threads on behavioural economics and heaps and heaps of real world studies.

Also don’t knock the rational work too hard. People are not completely irrational, and an approach of “hmmm, people keep choosing that, which looks irrational, I wonder why” can lead to some interesting results. And it’s a lot more humble than “Huh! Yet more proof that everyone who isn’t me is an irrational idiot.”

Abb1 – things I purchase on a faceless basis, that aren’t junk, include travel (air, train, sea), electricity, banking, access to the internet (who’s running the routers used to get this message to you? Beats me), postal services, antibiotics and other medicines, books, furniture, clothing (I have a mass-produced ski jacket that is still going strong 10 years on), prints, etc.

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