Your research paper is due on the first Friday after the end of spring classes: May 16.
Aim for roughly 20 pages for the final paper.
We take the word "research" seriously: the paper should provide new information or evidence on a topic in economic history. It should not merely summarize an existing literature in the field. The writing and submission process requires that you meet an intermediate benchmark: submit approximately ten pages' worth of a literature review and a statement of your hypotheses by the last day before spring vacation.
The paper should go beyond summarizing or synthesizing an already-existing literature: students should use the tools of economic theory and empirical analysis to pose and answer an historical question. Warning: the paper must have historical substance. This is not a requirement in applied economics or econometrics that can be satisfied by relabeling the variables in theoretical models taught elsewhere or by mechanically applying modern statistical techniques to old data.
Topic: The paper may cover almost any topic in economic history. You are certainly not limited to the material covered in 210a. You may, for example, work on time periods or countries of particular interest to you. The only requirement is that the topic must genuinely involve the past. Comparisons of past and current events are certainly fine, but studies of developments solely after 1973 are not.
Evidence: As the readings on the syllabus make clear, historical evidence comes in a wide range of form and styles. It is often empirical, but not always. Sometimes the key evidence is just a list of goods traded or what policymakers said they were trying to accomplish. With empirical evidence, tables and graphs of important variables are often enough to make a compelling argument.
Length: Good papers do come in a wide variety of sizes. However, for this assignment aim at a length of ten pages or so for the literature review, and more for the final paper. A final paper less than 15 pages tends to make your instructors suspicious, while a final paper more than 25 pages (unless it is very good indeed) tends to make your instructors cranky.
Successful Paper Topics from Previous Years: Coming up with a promising paper topic is arguably the most useful part of this exercise. Your entire graduate career (indeed, for most of you, your entire career) will center around identifying interesting questions to be answered. For this reason we will not give you a list of topics (though we often toss them out in the course of class discussion). Instead, we will describe the type of topics that have been successful in the past and suggest ways of finding similarly successful topics.
- A comment on an interesting paper: Perhaps the easiest type of paper to write is a comment on an existing paper. Such comments often turn out to be more important than the original work. Think about flaws in some paper that you read. Is there selection bias? Has the author left out a potentially crucial variable? One year a student noticed a footnote in a paper by on the reading list that said one observation had been left out of the figure because it was so large relative to the others. This same extreme observation was included in the empirical analysis. The student got the data and showed that his results depended crucially on this one observation.
- A comparison of past events with present events: Few economic events have no historical antecedents. If there is a modern development you are interested in, you could look for its historical roots or counterparts. For example, so much has been written about the rise of the Internet and the revolution in communication in the 1990s. How do these developments compare to the rise of the telegraph and the telephone? The rise of TV and radio? Did investment and financial markets response in similar ways?
Analysis of an interesting source: While it is not a good idea to let data availability drive your topic, it is perfectly reasonable to let serendipity play a role. Have you come across an unusual source in the library or during your undergraduate years? Is there an interesting question that this source could be used to answer?
- One year a student came across the catalogs for the 1851 World's Fair. She had the idea that these descriptions of what each country exhibited could be used as a measure of innovation. She wrote a paper looking at the industrial composition of innovation across countries.
- Another student was looking through newspapers from San Francisco in the 1870s. He found many classified ads that read something like: "Wanted - man to work in store and loan store $1000." This student wondered why companies would tie employment and loans. He wrote a paper investigating whether ads such as these were a sign of credit market imperfections or a way of ensuring worker loyalty and honesty. (Both of these papers have since been published in high-profile outlets.)
A new test of an old debate: Take some interesting debate in economic history and come up with a clever, alternative way of testing it. Usually, such a test involves using a new type of data. For example, if everyone has been using quantities, think about a way to use prices. An example of this type of paper involves the debate over how business cycles have changed over time. One researcher suggested that instead of fighting over very imperfect estimates of real GDP, one could look at stock prices as an indicator of the volatility of the macroeconomy.
- A natural experiment: Just as one should be on the lookout for interesting sources, one should also be thinking about interesting events. History is full of natural experiments--some weird tax is passed, a war is fought, a new regulation is imposed. Often such experiments can be used to answer crucial questions in economics--for example, what the changing speed with which liberty ships were built during World War II tells us about the size of learning-by-doing effects.