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Reading Recommendations

Two books on the relevance of historical migration for today

Professor Chris Minns

Chris-with-booksProfessor Chris Minns

Chris researches historic migration and how that shapes labour markets and economies over time. This is reflected in his choices - the first is a ground-breaking book on this topic and the other focuses on the catastrophic circumstances that drove one particular migration. Find out how they inspired him and why they are currently missing from his bookshelves. 

"My first choice is The Age of Mass Migration, by Timothy J. Hatton and Jeffrey G. Williamson. Tim was my PhD adviser and had just finished writing this book when I turned up to do my PhD at Essex. He gave me a copy which I ended up lending to a student. When it disappeared I bought another one which disappeared too, so that tells you how good the book is.

I read it from cover to cover. It inspired me to pursue the type of work I still do today - the economic history of migration and labour markets - just in terms of the questions we ask, how we use evidence to answer those questions, what we know or don’t know. It’s also a book which makes clear the relevance of historical migration for today so it touches a lot of importance themes for me. It’s wonderfully written and I also like it because it’s a collaborative book written by two people together. When you get to know these people you see how it’s a blending of different strengths and ways of looking at the world. You can see that come through as you read the book. 

 Why do I keep giving it to students? It’s been on my reading list for  many courses and when students want to explore issues you can’t get from similar articles, I’ll say ‘Have a look at Chapter 7 of Hatton and Williamson’ and then it goes off and doesn’t come back. Some of these people are professors in the United States now, so it’s worked out OK. 

I read my second choice  later in my career when I had a job as lecturer at Trinity College Dublin. It's Black 47 And Beyond: the Great Irish Famine in History, by Cormac O’Grada. I really love this book. (Again it’s one that’s disappeared because I lent it to a student.) because it really does economic history in all the ways it can be done, whether crunching numbers using quantitative evidence, or whether it’s looking at qualitative material – at what government officials said they did or didn’t do, oral histories of famine survivors, and having a battle of the quotes. It really showed me all the different ways we use different kinds of evidence to look at a big issue, the Famine. 

I’m trained as an economist and it made me appreciate how all the different ways of doing historical scholarship can fit together in one not too big book. It’s not just about downloading data and running a few regression models. That sort of research should cohere with what you read officials say they were doing to relieve famine in Ireland, with oral histories of people who managed to survive. A battle of the quotes doesn’t settle things, a battle of economics doesn’t settle things, but somehow we put this all together and make a mountain of evidence about what happened and why."