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Reading Recommendations

A new explanation of an old catastrophe, and the national importance of cheese

Dr Alejandra Irigoin

A couple of fantastic models of how to design and deliver an argument in a research project.


Dr Irigoin's research interests include early modern global economic and monetary history, the economic history of Latin America, especially in the colonial period, and the comparative political economy of Empire. 

Her most recent publication is ‘Revisiting the legacy of colonialism in Africa, India and Latin America: an introduction’.Revista de Historia Economica - Journal of Iberian and Latin American Economic History, 34 (2). pp. 163-167 (2016)

Dr Irigoin’s chooses readings which epitomise for her the craft of the economic historian. 

‘Return to Hispaniola: Reassessing a Demographic Catastrophe’
Massimo Livi-Bacci, Hispanic American Historical Review(2003) 83 (1): 3-52.

This article is a very good example of the craft of the economic historian. Livi-Bacci, a demographer, looks at the collapse of the native population of Hispaniola after the arrival of the Europeans, discusses the different estimates of contact population and considers four or five models that might explain that collapse. One is the capacity for agriculture at the time, one is the productivity of labour in mining imposed on the natives, the indigenous institutions of government and the effect of the establishment of different political institutions controlled by the Spaniards, and the extent to which the population adapted to this new order. He then arrives at new tentative estimates of numbers of the actual demographic collapse. From there he discusses the impact of epidemics and disease and offers another model which is more credible [than previous ones] which is, rather than collapse being due to a high mortality rate, it is due to the effects on the fertility rate because of disruption to reproduction patterns. 

The article shows how to develop an argument which is very sound empirically and well informed theoretically. He starts with a very well established idea, discusses it using the available economic models and produces a tentative population estimate. He then subjects these hypothetical numbers to empirical evidence of another sort and arrives at a very plausible explanation which overturns the received wisdom on that topic. It had a huge impact on the field and is still a fantastic model of how to design and deliver an argument in a research project.  

The Economic Origins of Cleanliness in the Dutch Golden Age
Bas Van Bavel, Oscar Gelderblom, Past and Present, 2009, Vol. 205(1), pp.41-69 

This article is a response to Simon Schama’s argument in his book The Embarassment of Riches, namely that the famed cleanliness of the Dutch arose from Calvinism and religious ideas about spiritual purity. They note that Schama points to a number of well-known images of butter making to support his case. The authors show that Schama’s arguments do not hold up chronologically and that Dutch cleanliness predated the arrival of Calvinism and was actually to do with material, economic reasons, ie the dependency of the Dutch population on extensive butter and cheese production. It’s fascinating reading - two Dutch historians taking on the arguments of a non-Dutch person about national characteristics.

Bonus recommendations

The Great DivergenceKenneth Pomeranz

Early Latin America: A History of Colonial Spanish America and Brazil,James Lockhart and Stuart B Schwartz 

When The Great Divergence came out it reshaped the research agenda of British economic historians. It was a completely new take on the familiar question of why the West left the East behind. 

The other book is more specific to my area of interest, a coursebook on the colonial history of Latin America. What’s great about it is that you can keep reading it and always find suggestions, leads, clues that will prompt further research. The potential for research in that book is amazing and it’s also an incredible as a synthesis because it’s a coursebook.