Interview: Emma Rothschild

Iravati Guha 2 July 2012

Emma Rothschild is a British economic historian, who currently works as the Jeremy and Jane Knowles Professor of History at Harvard University and also directs the Joint Centre for History and Economics. She has written extensively on economic history, and the history of economic thought.

Rothschild has previously served as a fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, and continues to be an honorary Professor of History and Economics at the Cambridge History faculty, as well as a fellow of Magdalene College. She also sits on the Board of Directors of the United Nations Foundation. In 2000, Rothschild was made a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George for her services to Britain’s international cultural and academic relations.

At the age of 15, Rothschild became the youngest woman ever admitted to Somerville College, Oxford, where she studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics. She later attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a Kennedy Scholar in Economics.

Rothschild is a member of the Rothschild banking family of England, and is married to the Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen.

To what extent would you say that your ancestry has influenced your academic research interests?

My mother’s family were academics and clergyman, including mostly classical scholars, ancient philosophers and ancient historians. I think I have been influenced by that.

How get you get interested in Adam Smith – and 18th century economic history in general?

I’ve always enjoyed reading 18th century writers, but I got particularly interested in Adam Smith at the time of the bi-centenary of The Wealth of Nations in 1976 and the bi-centenary of his death in 1990, because it seemed to me that people were talking about a figure who was entirely different from the Adam Smith who really existed. I was fascinated by trying to recover both what Adam Smith really thought and intended, and trying to understand how such a gap could have arisen, between the modern uses of Adam Smith, and Adam Smith’s own writing in his own times.

Can you tell us about the work of the Centre for History and Economics? What is it that binds these two academic disciplines together?

It’s more trying to encourage a space in which the two academic disciplines can meet occasionally. The centre has existed at Cambridge since 1991 and has also been at Harvard University since 1997, and in both places what we’ve tried to do is have meetings and seminars and workshops and informal meetings over tea where occasionally historians and economists and political scientists can talk across disciplinary boundaries. It’s been interesting that in the past four years of the economic and financial crisis, there has been a renewed interest, not only in economic history but also in the history of economic thought, and trying to look even at Adam Smith in a historical context.

Historically, Cambridge has had a tradition of world-leading research in the field of economics. Is the university still a leader in the subject? If not, why?

I think in general, US research universities at MIT and Harvard particularly have come to the forefront of economics worldwide over the last generation, and all UK universities have been affected by that to the extent that it matters what world rankings say. But there are wonderful economists at this university and just a few days ago I heard a marvellous talk by Professor Sheila Ogilvie who is one of the leading economic historians in the world and is a member of the economics faculty here. She is someone who really does speak to both historians as well as economists.

You’re on the Board of Directors of the United Nations Foundation, which is a grant to support the UN in executing its programmes across the world. What are the advantages of a fund that supports the UN, rather than private NGOs?

One of the things that the United Nations foundation does is to support activities which involve both the United Nations and civil society organisations and other NGOs. For example, this week there are United Nations Foundation activities around the Rio Conference on sustainable development, very much involving NGOs and civil society organisations. The UN itself is unavoidable. There’s always going to be a need for an official inter-governmental agency, and the greater the UN’s connections to universities, and to individuals and civil society groups, the better the UN is going to be able to fulfil its many essential roles.

What prompted your move from Cambridge to the Harvard in 2006?

Well, I went to graduate school in the US – in fact, I went to MIT to study economics before I became a historian, and I taught at MIT for ten years. So I have felt very at home there. But basically, we moved back because Amartya Sen, my husband, who had been Master of Trinity for six years, at the end of his term decided to go back to teach at Harvard, and at that point I was also offered a professorship at Harvard and we thought it would be nice to move together. But I’ve kept very close ties to the University – I’m a fellow of Magdalene and I’m also an honorary professor of History and Economics in the History faculty, so I feel very much part of this university as well as part of Harvard. I think it’s a very interesting enterprise to try and create a research centre with strong graduate student and undergraduate involvement, which is genuinely in two different universities, Harvard and Cambridge. We’re hoping to be able to start a programme of undergraduate research exchange between Harvard and Cambridge. The idea is that Cambridge students would go to Harvard for the month of September to do research for their third year dissertation, and Harvard students would come here during May and June, also to do research for their dissertations.

You’ve spent many years working and living in Cambridge, England and Cambridge, Massachusetts. How would you compare the two Cambridge’s as towns?

I grew up in Cambridge, England, so I feel that this is my home – but Cambridge Mass has a wonderfully exciting and dynamic atmosphere, with several universities and so many new projects all the time. I don’t think the contrast between the two Cambridge’s is as great as Cambridge economists in the 1950s used to think. Harvard, MIT and the University of Cambridge are three of the greatest universities in the world and they have many similarities.

What is your most favourite and least favourite thing about Cambridge?

My most favourite is walking along the river. My least favourite is scary bicyclists.

Iravati Guha