What Does ‘Historical’ Mean in Historical Political Economy?

By Daniel S. Smith and Thomas R. Gray

Historically-oriented political science has risen to the fore as a dynamic genre in the discipline.  Within this growing literature, the historical political economy (HPE) research agenda is notable for its topical variety and methodological ecumenicism, drawing scholars together from across disciplinary divides. These qualities are all represented in the rich variety of Broadstreet posts covering such topics as the economic consequences of Sherman’s March and Afghan property institutions. Yet it’s clear that temporal and geographic coverage varies, with most attention paid to Anglo-American and Western European contexts during the 19th and 20th centuries.

On one hand this makes perfect sense. Coverage is a function of data availability, reliability, the comparability of historical and contemporary contexts, and overall legibility of more familiar “near-historical” contexts. Beyond those considerations, the community of Broadstreet contributors represents a collection of scholars with similar interests and areas of expertise. Given all of those factors it should come as no surprise that certain times and places are disproportionately represented! However, the current composition of Broadstreet posts might lead one to believe that scholarship addressing pre-1815 or non-Western contexts is rarer than is the case. This goes beyond the so-called “deep-historical” scholarship addressing ancient (or pre-colonial, etc.) factors and norm persistence. Recent work also explores the contemporaneous implications of historical political economies.

Our goal in this post is two-fold. First, we want to characterize the temporal and geographic coverage of Broadstreet posts to date. Which contexts typically serve as the motivating or illustrative cases in posts? Which contexts have received less coverage? Second, we briefly survey recent scholarship that fills some of the gaps we find. Mainly, these are articles or working papers that focus on pre-industrial, non-Western contexts.

To gain a bit of an empirical perspective on what “historical” has meant in Broadstreet’s output so far, we went through all of Broadstreet’s posts through Monday’s of this week. It has been quite the output, full of interesting and varied articles! We have been regular readers, but have missed articles here and there, so it provided a great opportunity to get a sense for the exceptional breadth and depth that Broadstreet articles have provided.

For each post, we read the article and coded its geographic focus and its temporal focus, if any. We count a historical focus when there is some extended analysis on a particular place in a particular time, not merely a short anecdote or a citation to a paper that may cover a time period.  We counted 121 Broadstreet posts. Of those, 31, or about a quarter, were actually time-period agnostic, arguing about concepts that apply across time and to modern contexts as well. Of the remaining 90 posts that had one or more historical periods of focus, we break them down into three periods: everything up through 1815, 1816-1945, and post-1945. A small number of posts featured multiple time periods, but most pieces only featured one.

17 posts (14.0% of all posts and 18.9% of posts with a historical focus) were centered on periods before 1816, 62 (51.2%, 68.9%) on the 1816-1945 period, and 23 (19.0%, 25.6%) on the post-War period. Overwhelmingly, the “historical” in historical political economy at Broadstreet has meant the 19th century and early 20th century. In fact, more posts pertained to the modern, post-war period than to any historical period prior to 1816. We present these results in Table 1 below.

Number of Posts Percentage of All Posts Percentage of Posts with a Time Focus
No Time Focus 31 25.6%
Pre-1816 17 14.0% 18.9%
1816-1945 62 51.2% 68.9%
Post-1945 23 19.0% 25.6%

Note: Columns may not sum to 100% due to individual posts having multiple periods of analysis.

We were also interested in where the focus of Broadstreet articles has fallen, and so coded the same set of posts by the geographic region analyzed. Again, we do not code mere passing mentions or citations, but only posts that gave some extended space to an analysis specific to a region.

Similarly to the time-period analysis, 30 posts, about a quarter, did not pertain to any place in particular. Of the remaining 91 posts, 45 (37.2% of all posts, and 49.5% of posts with a geographic focus) pertained to what we call “Anglo-America,” which is the English speaking portions of North America. Almost universally, this means the United States or the British colonies. By comparison, 5.8% of posts focused on Latin America. About 25.6% of posts analyzed Europe, about evenly split between western and eastern Europe. The remaining regions of the world received a few scattered posts – five on places in Africa and 13 about Asian polities. Our Table 2 (below) breaks down the regions more precisely.

Number of Posts Percentage of All Posts Percentage of Posts with a Geographic Focus
No Geographic Focus 30 24.8%
Latin America 7 5.8% 7.7%
Anglo America 45 37.2% 49.5%
Western Europe 17 14.0% 18.7%
Eastern Europe 14 11.6% 15.4%
North Africa and the Middle East 1 0.8% 1.1%
Sub-Saharan Africa 4 3.3% 4.4%
Central Asia 1 0.8% 1.1%
South Asia 7 5.8% 7.7%
East Asia 4 3.3% 4.4%
Southeast Asia 1 0.8% 1.1%
Oceania 0 0% 0%

Note: Columns may not sum to 100% due to individual posts having multiple periods of analysis.

Our back-of-the-napkin analysis indicates that Broadstreet posts overwhelmingly focus on Western industrial (or post-industrial) contexts. However, we want to highlight some of the interesting HPE research focused on other world-historical contexts. This includes recent scholarship (published and unpublished) on contemporaneous effects of historical political and economic processes as well as analyses that fall under the “persistence” header.

One distinct topic area is that of pre-industrial urbanization, its causes, and its consequences. Recent articles draw attention to the role of urban centers in fostering early European representative institutions (Abramson & Boix 2019) and the impact of urban political institutions on city growth (Wahl 2019; Cox & Figueroa 2020; Dittmar & Meisenzahl 2020). Interest in pre-industrial urban growth extends to non-Western settings such as medieval Central Asia (Blaydes & Paik 2021) and early modern South Asia (Dincecco et al. 2019 [working paper]; Tóth 2019 [working paper]). David Rubin discusses recent work on early modern trade links that fits well with pieces discussed here in his excellent Networks in History post.

“Procession of Raja Ram Singh II of Kota”

Another sub-genre focuses on the politics, economy, and religion. Mark Koyama and Noel Johnson’s (2019) book Persecution & Toleration on the political and economic conditions that gave rise to religious liberty. One fascinating working paper focuses on the relationship between weather shocks and Hindu temple desecrations under Muslim rulers in medieval India (Ticku, Shrivastava, & Iyer 2018). Mohammed Saleh’s post on identity taxation describes the political economy of religious affiliation in medieval Egypt and illustrates a creative application of pre-industrial administrative records.

HPE and HPE-adjacent scholarship also expands the “persistence” research agenda by investigating the long-run economic impacts of state centralization in late 19th century and early 20th century Siam (Paik & Vechbanyongratana 2019) or contemporary legacies of civil service degree concentration in dynastic China (Chen, Kai-sing Kung, & Ma 2020). Morgan Kelly’s working paper The Standard Errors of Persistence (2019) is an especially noteworthy methodological contribution. He explores the problems posed by spatial autocorrelation when estimating persistence effects, finding that extant studies’ estimates are less robust when accounting for spatial correlations. Another research agenda, one focused on pre-industrial pandemics, gained traction after the onset of COVID-19. Recent working papers in that vein explore the contemporary economic (Jedwab, Noel, & Koyama 2020) and political (Gingerich & Vogler 2020) impacts of the Black Death.

One understudied aspect of HPE is the impact of leaders on economic outcomes in pre-industrial contexts. The literature on modern leaders and national economies already includes a robust collection of scholarly contributions (Jones & Olken 2005; Grier & Maynard 2016; Easterly & Pennings 2020). In a forthcoming article in the Journal of Historical Political Economy, we explore leadership effects on economic growth in pre-industrial England and foreign policy decisions in Imperial Rome. Data on leader tenure and characteristics are relatively accessible compared to other political phenomenon and we encourage other scholars to engage with this topic.

While the aforementioned list is far from exhaustive we hope that Broadstreet readers explore some entries in the growing body of HPE scholarship that tackles fundamental questions in underexplored world-historical contexts. As other guests and regular authors continue to contribute to Broadstreet, more of these contexts – both geographic and temporal – will continue to be filled out.


  • Daniel Smith

    Daniel Smith is a PhD student specializing in Comparative Politics and International Relations. His primary interests include the mechanisms by which historical institutions impact contemporary developmental outcomes and the relationship between economic organization and political systems. Prior to joining the PhD program at Ohio State, Daniel worked at the University of Maryland's National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). He received a B.A. in Foreign Affairs and a M.A. in Comparative Politics from the University of Virginia.

  • Thomas Gray

    I am an Assistant Professor of Political Science in the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas. I study American political institutions.

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