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Why history matters to me

Manchester’s Dr. Chris Godden reveals his life long relationship with economic history, and the crucial importance of its study.

What first interested you in history?
Perhaps I shouldn’t say this, but my original interest wasn’t in history. I had always enjoyed it at school, but for quite a long time, my main interest was economics. The initial impetus to change came while studying economics at A-level. After being introduced to the Industrial Revolution I realised the role of economic forces in history. It was this that gradually increased my interest in history. It was also this that made me realise, for the first time, that I had grown in one of the towns that had been at the heart of Britain’s Industrial Revolution!

Why do you think that economic history is such an important discipline?
How long have you got? The scope of economic history is very wide. It deals with the processes behind economic development, and the numerous issues and problems that spring from this. Given that ‘economic history’ straddles two disciplines, there is always that question of where the emphasis should be. Should it be on ‘economic’ or on ‘history’? As you can imagine, my feet are firmly planted on the ‘history’ side of the divide. I don’t feel there is much use looking at the story simply through statistics and economic theory, because they never do justice to the wider human repercussions of such dramatic events.

What made you specialise in your field?
Well, it followed from this growing interest in economic history. I came to Manchester in September 1997 to study economic history and economics. My first thought was that it was a happy combination of subjects, as it allowed me to have the best of both worlds. A few things then developed from this. The first of these was that the more I studied history, the more uncertain I became about economics. The economics courses I took told me that people behave the same everywhere, and have done so throughout history. This goes back to the basic assumption that economists accept about universal models to explain human behaviour. But when I came the history lectures, I was told to avoid such present-minded assumptions about how individuals thought and behaved, and to explore different ideas and sources to explain wants, desires, identities, and so on. I was pretty confused at this point, as I was being told two different things about how the world operates! I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do, what I wanted to get out of my degree, and so on. In the end I came to the conclusion that a lot more can be learnt from economic history than from economics. I’m still working on that!

Which individual from the past do you
draw the most inspiration from?

My first thought is to say Keynes. I learned an enormous amount from reading him, and he was certainly an important inspiration when I was an undergraduate. A big impact on what I try to do these days has come from the likes of Weber, Ashley, Robertson, and Schumpeter. But beyond all this academic stuff, a more general source of interest would be someone like Orson Welles.

If you could go back and live in any historic era, what time would that be?
If one has some sense of historical inquiry, there would certainly be something to say for living in a different century, experiencing a different age, being an observer at famous events, things like that. But what worries me is, if I’d lived in a different century, I’d probably be dead by now!

Do you have any words of wisdom for current history undergraduates?
Little pearls of wisdom? I suppose the main thing I would suggest is to use your time at university to be inquisitive, to be curious, to explore different types of history, to look at things that are radically different from what you are familiar with. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it never harmed a history student!