Quantitative Methods, Historical Micro-Data and the Interpretation of Canadian Economic History

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Quantitative Methods, Historical Micro - Data and the Interpretation of Canadian Economic History

In evaluating the application of quantitative methods to historical micro - data in Canadian economic history, the authors focus on contributions to that branch of "micro" economic history marked by the collection and analysis of data describing personal and household economic and social characteristics. This approach involves the use of primary historical records, such as census manuscripts, probate records, assessment rolls, land records, and parish records. The authors outline several illustrative studies, and offer a number of reasons why such studies have failed to make more significant impacts on the interpretation of Canadian history. They conclude that there has been a cautious underinvestment in such studies in Canada, partly as a result of the poor quality and incompleteness of the surviving census data, which have limited the applicability of formal economic models by economic historians. They offer several suggestions for better coordination of multi - disciplinary research efforts and wider dissemination of micro - data sets among quantitative historians.

Introduction

The purpose of this paper is to evaluate the contributions of applying quantitative methods to historical micro - data in the study of Canadian economic history. In particular, it examines the significance of these techniques and data sources for the way in which economic historians have practised their craft by referring to some of the major research themes that have been explored in recent years. The paper is meant as a guide to the state of quantitative economic history using micro - data, and does not make claims to a comprehensive bibliographical survey. Economic history is interpreted loosely, to include themes often considered as belonging to social history or socio - economic history.

Broadly stated, there are two dimensions to the application of quantitative methods in Canadian economic history, which can be summarized as the macro - and micro - dimensions. These dimensions apply to the nature of the data and the theoretical and empirical tools used as well as to the types of issues examined. The macroeconomic dimension has been concerned mainly with the collection and construction of historical time series data as well as the study of the performance of broad economic aggregatesover time. The key issues have been the size, determinants and composition of economic growth, long - term trends in economic output and structural changes in output performance.(f.1) The micro - dimension of quantitative economic history has focused on individual and sectoral responses to economic phenomena (with individuals defined as persons, households and firms). Notwithstanding the many remarkable contributions to sectoral microeconomic history at past Conferences, beginning with Chambers and Gordon's (1966) modelling of the prairie wheat economy, we want to concentrate on that branch of microeconomic history marked by the collection and analysis of data sets rooted in personal and household economic and social characteristics.

Our historical micro - data approach involves the application of systematic statistical techniques to individual - level data collected from primary sources; the main steps include the compilation of large quantities of data on individual persons or households by transcribing or sampling primary historical records, the creation of a database, and the analysis of that database using statistical techniques. Primary historical records, such as census manuscripts, probate records, assessment rolls, land records, parish records and company records, are employed to construct sets of socio - economic data, which are then used to examine the social and economic characteristics and behaviour of those individuals and their society, both cross - sectionally and over time.

The beginning of historical micro - data studies in Canada around 1970 was a result of academic demand and supply factors. …