Emerging Historians – Dr Claire Wright

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Dr Claire Wright – AHA member since 2017

My name is Claire Wright, I am an economic historian, and I have recently completed my PhD at the University of Wollongong. I am currently a casual academic at UOW, the biggest component of which is co-coordinating a first-year history course. My new position – as salaried researcher on an ARC Linkage Grant looking at the natural history trade – kicks off very soon.

1. Describe your PhD research.

My PhD research examines the development of Australia’s economic history field in the post-WWII decades, focussing on the way in which social relationships and institutional developments affected ideas in the field. I mapped geographic proximity and collaboration amongst scholars using social network analysis (SNA), using this alongside a range of other historical methods to look at the degree to which ideas reflected social or geographic groupings.

I argued that as members of an interdisciplinary field, the Australian economic historians engaged in a continual process of negotiation amongst themselves, and between the ‘parent’ disciplines of economics and history. Over time, the approach to economic history in Australia drifted more towards the economics discipline, largely because scholars were located in economics or business faculties, they tended to collaborate more with economists, and the interests of the history discipline moved away from economics and towards cultural matters. Having said that, the approach to economic history was localised a lot of the time, with unique ‘brands’ of economic history in different cities.

2. Why does it matter?

My research focusses on context in intellectual communities, highlighting the way in which local environments affect the research questions scholars ask, and the answers they find. This is important for contemporary intellectuals (that means you!), and higher education organisations. For instance, if we want to produce new ideas or innovative research, my research suggests that shaking up the local environment will help. This is particularly important for interdisciplinary fields like economic history, because although interdisciplinary research is really hot right now (some even go so far as to say it will save the world!) no one really knows how to encourage it properly within organisations. My research makes some suggestions as to how we can do a bit better in this space.

3. What are you researching now or intending to do next?

I have just received my examiners’ reports back, so my first job is to complete a few revisions and think about a book proposal. I am also working on pilots for two new projects in economic history. The first examines the global wool trade. Some collaborators and I have compiled a great dataset that lists the firms engaged in the wool trade, the cities they operated in, and the functions in the supply chain they performed. We have these data for a series of snapshots throughout the twentieth century. From this, we can use geographic information systems (GIS) methods to show the movement of wool from growing, to processing, to consuming nations, based on the location of woolbroking firms. This highlights the complex and global nature of the wool trade, the long arm of colonialism, and the interdependence of the global economy over time.

The second project examines interlocking directorates in large Australian corporations over the twentieth century. Company directors of course exert considerable influence over the operation and strategy of firms. Though they are ostensibly a source of objective decision-making, the involvement of non-executive directors across different firms may be beneficial through knowledge sharing and the mitigation of risk, or detrimental through collusion and the concentration of capital with elites. The project uses SNA to look at connections between individuals based on whether they sat on the boards of the same companies, and between firms if they shared common board members. This will (hopefully) contribute to a greater understanding of how Australian business has operated over the long run, and the role of elites in Australian business and society.

4. What do you love about being an historian?

The first aspect I love is common to all forms of research: the process of discovery. By definition, what we do is find new stuff or interpret things in a new way. I think this is very exciting! When you find a new archive, new data, or a new application of a particular method, you are theoretically one of only a very small group who could contribute that piece of knowledge. Alongside this, I enjoy communicating the results of my research. Presentations, articles, blogs, teaching, and discussions (I am a riot at parties, as you can imagine), are all great ways of getting other people excited about the cool stuff I find.

As an economic historian, I also enjoy being interdisciplinary. I think combining ideas from different places is important for developing new knowledge, and it is also important to then communicate these ideas back to ‘parent’ disciplines. Sitting on the border of economics and history, I hope I can change them just a little by highlighting the value of other paradigms. For my economics students, for instance, I blow their minds by showing them how the 2008 Global Financial Crisis had pretty much the same patterns as financial crises over the last millennia. Fostering enthusiasm for contributions outside the disciplinary silo is something I am very passionate about.

5. What’s the one aspect you find most challenging about being an ECR?

I will echo my fellow ECR contributors and say that it is the uncertainty. Plenty of opportunities have come my way, but not knowing exactly what I will be doing, or where I will be, in the next month or 6 months is a difficult thing to get used to. Being an interdisciplinary scholar is also pretty risky – it remains to be seen whether this expands my opportunities, or means that I am un-appointable in both economics and history.

I am optimistic about my future as an academic, but I do have a small ball of anxiety that what I have achieved is not enough to ‘make it’ in the industry.

I am trying to make this uncertainty work for me. The freedom that comes from finishing a PhD means I can pursue a number of different things at once. I am attempting to be strategic, by taking opportunities that contribute to new skills or responsibilities, and that will ultimately make me a more competitive hire. But this privilege may not always be open to me, which is a worry.

6. What do you find most exciting about being an ECR?

The upside of uncertainty is that you are no longer bound by one project (freedom!). Beginning new projects, and pursuing different opportunities, has been exciting and has reinvigorated my mind.

7. If you could go back to any historical period, where would you go and why?

I think I would like to experience the Republic of Venice in the high middle ages. There was a ‘buzz’ in the air at this time – Venice’s prominence in trade contributed to a cosmopolitan community, an obscene amount of wealth, patronage for art and architecture, and unprecedented financial innovation. I would be very cool to go and hang out there and talk to people.

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