Fitzwilliam Fellow Dr Cléo Chassonnery-Zaïgouche is the 2021 winner of the European Society for the History of Economic Thought’s Young Researcher Award for her work on the history of economics.
Cléo is an historian of economics, focusing on the history of labour economics in the 20th century, particularly the United States after the Second World War, and the UK in the inter-war period.
She is currently working on a paper on comparable worth, brought into sharp focus by the low wages of key workers relative to the value of their work for society.
She works on the history of discriminations and wages, economic expertise and quantification. Her main line of research is in describing how economics and economists qualify and separate inequalities into legitimate differences and unfair discriminations, how this distinction evolved since the end of the 19th century, and the consequences of this knowledge.
“The history of economics is a very small field,” Cléo says. “And usually involves historians teaching history to the people practising economics.
“I’m interested in the societal effects of economic ideas. A lot of people will examine what people like JM Keynes or David Ricardo meant on page 3 of a certain publication, but I’m much more interested in the impact of various economic models than in the history of great men.
“Whenever there are names we remember, there were a lot of other people at the same time who were doing things about whom we know nothing. I’m more interested in studying pamphlets from the time, which often did not have authors. We know pamphlets were widely read. And maybe a modern equivalent was blogs, when blogs were a big thing in the mid-2000s.
“I’m also interested in the failure of ideas to influence society through whatever reason: when someone says something that might be true, but no one cares. Being right is not sufficient to influence society: it happens when you are in the right place at the right moment, and there is maybe an impact. That’s not to say that anything goes. I don’t think any idea can be implemented.
“Some ideas are better now: for example we now have better data than 200 years ago on anything. That shows us lots things, including that for a long time minimum wages, for example, were thought to reduce employment. This is something that has been shown to be false empirically - research shows that either raising minimum wage has no effect or has a positive stimulus effect. Some of these empirical analyses were done in the early 1990s, but it didn’t change economic orthodoxy for years and years. This year’s Nobel Prize winners were the one who carried out this research, and it is now the new mainstream.
“While prizes are for individuals, it is also a recognition for this type of history of ideas, that look at the practices of intellectuals and not only focus on canonical texts.”