“Using word analysis to track the evolution of emotional well-being in nineteenth-century industrializing Britain”

This is the title to a paper in Historical Methods that I believe should convince you of two things. The first, and this applies to scholars in economic history, is that the journal Historical Methods is a highly interesting one. It tends to publish new and original work by economists, historians, sociologists and anthropologists who are well-versed in statistical analysis and data construction. The articles that get published there often offer a chance to discover solutions to longstanding problems through both interactions of different fields and the creation of new data.

The second is that it is becoming increasingly harder to hold the view that the industrial revolution was “a wash”. I described elsewhere this view of the industrial revolution as a wash as believing one or more of the following claims: “living standards did not increase for the poor; only the rich got richer; the cities were dirty and the poor suffered from ill-health; the artisans were crowded out; the infernal machines of the Revolution dumbed down workers”. Since the 1960s, many articles and books have confirmed that the industrial revolution was marked by rising wages and incomes as well as long-run improvements in terms of nutrition, mortality and education. The debates that persist focus on the pace of these improvements and the timing of the sustained rise that is commonly observed (i.e. when did it start)

The new paper in Historical Methods that I am mentioning here suggests that these many articles and books are correct. The author, Pierre Lack, takes all the 19th century pamphlets published in Britain and available online to analyze the vocabulary contained within them. Lack’s idea is to use the fact that books became immensely cheap (books were becoming more affordable through both falling prices and rising incomes — see table above) to evaluate emotional well-being by the words contained in them. What Lack finds is that there were no improvements in emotional well-being as proxied by the types of words in those pamphlets.

But how could this be positively tied to the industrial revolution as not being a wash? This is because, if you believe that there is such a thing as a hedonic treadmill (i.e. more income only allows us to actualize upward our preferences so that the income has no impact on happiness), you cannot hold many of the beliefs associated with the industrial revolution being a wash. For example, if you think that living standards for the poor did not rise while other dimensions of their well-being (e.g., health, environment of the city, working conditions) fell, then there the graph produced by Lack should have exhibited a downward trend!

This is not the only belief associated with the “industrial revolution was a wash” view that cannot withstand Lack’s new paper. One frequently advanced factor that purportedly affects emotional wellbeing is inequality. Because we care about our relative position (e.g., I am happier if my neighbor have a worse car than me), rising inequality should be associated with falling emotional well-being (that was for example the case that the Spirit Level of Wilkinson and Pickett tried to advance). However, if you believe that Britain enjoyed rising inequality (it did at first and it then fell according to Jeffrey Williamson who shows that inequality rose to 1860 and fell to 1913), then Lack’s data should show falling emotional well-being. It does not which means that it is quite hard to hold the view that the revolution was a wash.

This is probably my favorite paper at Historical Methods and I hope you will like it too. I also hope that you will add it to your list of articles to inform your own research.

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