Next week, economic historians from across the globe will descend on Kyoto for the triennial World Economic History Congress. The previous time the event was held, Stellenbosch played host. (Despite a very successful academic programme, most visitors seem to remember the bitterly cold weather. Fortunately, we won’t have that problem with Kyoto next week. I arrived in Tokyo on Wednesday, and it is hot and humid.)
So what happens at the World Economic History Congress that justifies flying half-way across the world? First, there are lots and lots of paper presentations. I don’t have the exact number, but I would guess close to 1000 papers will be presented over the five days of the conference. To give you a sense of the size, there are 18 parallel sessions (sessions running concurrently) at a time. This is an ideal opportunity for scholars to see what’s new in the field, what topics are of interest, which methods are popular, and who is carving out a name for themselves. Second, it is an opportunity to mingle. Many research ideas are molded in conference corridors and refined over dinner drinks. The most fruitful comments and critiques on my research I’ve received during teatime. Third, it is an opportunity to showcase your own work. A conference deadline is fixed, so it structures your research. And conferences are a great way to test new ideas and possibly gain the interest of an editor.
So here is my pre-conference marketing: I’ll participate in four sessions next week. First up I’m involved in the dissertation sessions on Monday morning. Here I’ll present a brief outline of my dissertation, completed at Utrecht University in 2012. That afternoon, I chair a session on the history of wealth and health in South Africa. The session includes papers on fertility, intergenerational mobility, concentration camps, credit markets and my own work (with Kris Inwood and Martine Mariotti) on white living standards during the mineral revolution. On Thursday morning, I chair another session on microdata in African history. Here I present a (very much working) paper with Dieter von Fintel on the precolonial roots of structural unemployment. Finally, that afternoon, Alfonso Herranz-Loncan will discuss work on Cape Colony railways. The full programme is available here.
A number of other LEAP members will be in Kyoto too: Sophia du Plessis and Dieter will present, as will our research associates Martine Mariotti, Leigh Gardner and Alex Moradi, and our honorary professor, Jan Luiten van Zanden. But I’m most excited for the four Stellenbosch students that will join us in Kyoto, because it was at the World Economic History Congress in Utrecht during August 2009 where I first experienced what can best be called an ‘optimistic vibe’ within the field of economic history. Economic historians, perhaps because they harbour no ambitions of making money or impressing anyone with their math skills, are a placid tribe. Not submissive, but placid. We know data sources have constraints, we understand that context is as important as numbers, we are skeptical about big theories of anything, and we are careful to propose big push policy interventions. And so we help, guide, support and, when necessary, critique with kindness. In short: economic historians tend to be a bunch of nice people.
But the WEHC is not only about the people, but also the place. And there are many wonders to explore in Kyoto. It tops the 2014 Travel+Leisure list of the world’s best cities to visit and, much like the rest of Japan, is steeped in history and mystery. Like Mount Fuji. I write this not having slept for 28 hours. Dieter and I climbed The Land of the Rising Sun’s most famous mountain last night to watch, well, the sunrise. Take my advice: don’t believe any of the online guides who describe the climb as ‘easy’. It’s not. I’ve done some pretty strenuous things in my life (like marking second-year papers), and this was easily in the top two. Maybe top three; I’ve marked first-year papers too. Maybe our experience was worse because we did fly in from South Africa the day before (another sleepless night). But still, don’t bargain on just sprinting up the steep slopes of a volcano. It ain’t happening. (For those actually interested in more detail: roughly 6 hours up. Start at around 9pm. Arrive at 3am.
Hang around in the dead of night at very low temperatures till sunrise at 4h30am. Then hike down for another 3 hours. It can all be made worse by torrential rain and loud Americans.
Fortunately we only had one of those.) But despite all the strain and swearing, it was great to make it to the summit. Teary-eyed special. I’m selling the movie rights.
I need some sleep. See you in Kyoto on Monday.