“Cliometrics: A term formed by compounding the muse of history and the concept of measurement, devised by its practitioners to describe the ‘new quantitative economic history’ which developed in the United States during the late 1950s, and rapidly became controversial in the American and European historical community. Cliometricians applied sophisticated statistical techniques (such as regression analysis) to historical data, and (to cite the example of the most prominent studies) attempted to calculate the profitability of slavery in the period before the American Civil War, and to quantify the contribution of the American railroads to economic growth (see R.W. Fogel and S.L. Engerman, Time on the Cross, 1974, and Fogel’s Railroads and American Economic Growth, 1964).
Cliometric work was controversial, not only because of the usual distrust of the (usually reconstructed) numerical data and the (occasionally questionable) use of advanced statistical techniques, but also because the most prominent studies framed their hypotheses in the novel form of explicit counterfactuals. That is, for example, they asked the question ‘What would have happened if the railroads had not been built?’ Most also rested on what were deemed to be the rather narrow behaviorist assumptions of neo-classical economics.
With hindsight, it is easy to see that the new quantitative history was not in fact all that novel, since many of the leading economists and economic historians of the early twentieth century made liberal use of quantitative historical data and neo-classical theory respectively. The use of large-scale data-sets, further encouraged by developments in computer technology, is now established practice in modern history. In contemporary usage, the term cliometrics is still commonly applied to attempts to apply social science theory and statistical analyses to historical data, but it no longer describes a sharply defined school. Cliometric analyses are now found across a wide range of substantive historical subject areas.
Excerpted from: Marshall, Gordon, ed. Oxford Dictionary of Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.