Historical Natural Experiments: Bridging Economics and Economic History

38 Pages Posted: 18 Feb 2020 Last revised: 18 Nov 2021

See all articles by Davide Cantoni

Davide Cantoni

Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München

Noam Yuchtman

London School of Economics & Political Science (LSE) - London School of Economics

Date Written: February 2020

Abstract

The analysis of historical natural experiments has profoundly impacted economics research across fields. We trace the development and increasing application of the methodology, both from the perspective of economic historians and from the perspective of economists in other subdisciplines. We argue that the historical natural experiment represents a methodological bridge between economic history and other fields: historians are able to use the cutting edge identification strategies emphasized by applied microeconomists; economists across subfields are able to scour history for useful identifying variation; development and growth economists are able to trace the historical roots of contemporary outcomes. Differences in fields suggest differences in scholars' aims of studying historical natural experiments. We propose a taxonomy of three primary motives that reflect priorities in different fields: historians aim to understand causal processes within specific settings. Economists across fields aim to identify "clean" historical events (in whatever context) to test hypotheses of theoretical interest or estimate causal parameters. And, growth and development economists aim to identify past variation that can be causally linked to contemporary outcomes of interest. We summarize important contributions made by research in each category. Finally, we close with a brief discussion of challenges facing each category of work.

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Suggested Citation

Cantoni, Davide and Yuchtman, Noam, Historical Natural Experiments: Bridging Economics and Economic History (February 2020). NBER Working Paper No. w26754, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3539321 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3539321

Davide Cantoni (Contact Author)

Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München ( email )

Noam Yuchtman

London School of Economics & Political Science (LSE) - London School of Economics ( email )

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