Interview Mary O'Sullivan on Uses of the Past

Question: How has the Uses of the Past framework shaped your research? And how has this research improved your understanding for policymaking?


I think the Uses of the Past in International Relations project has  shaped my research in quite a fundamental way. Before the project began I had found some really rich archival sources at the FEDNY, and what I had been struck by, when I was reading them, was how references to the past and the role of history kept recurring as policymakers and reformers talked about some things they were doing with respect to monetary and financial reform in the USA at the time of the creation of the FED system. So, in part my interest in being part of the project stemmed from that, and I was looking for a framework, and discussion with colleagues, that would help me illuminate some of the things that I was finding in the primary source material.

I can definitely say that the project has helped me work through those issues. It has pushed me to think more deeply about the records I was studying in the archives; but it  has also prompted me  to read  the  historical literature on the uses of past, and memory, and forgetting, and this has been very stimulating. It has shown me how I could help to bring to life the challenges that the people who I have been studying face in the policymaking process, which I think is a very satisfying outcome of the research.

I am now starting to thinking about the way academics, and specifically economic historians, use the past, and how they tend to invoke certain features of it in their writing.

Question: How do you think policymakers could benefit from the past to take better decisions?


I think that is a really good question, and one that makes a lot of sense, given the increase in interest in uses of the past within economics and economic history; and I think we have examples of very prominent policymakers saying that during the recent crisis they looked to the past, because economic models could not tell them how they should behave. So clearly, I think there is a role for using the past to help people make sense of what they are confronting. But I think the research I have done for the UPIER project also suggests that as historians, we need to recognise that this approach has its limits. In fact, the major study I did for this project on policymaking in the USA suggests that ways of understanding the past can sometimes be an obstacle to understanding the specific challenges in the present. So when change occurs, it may take longer to recognize it, if you continue to turn to the past and use it to provide the models that you are trying to replicate in a particular situation. That was something I didn’t necessarily see before I went into the project, it only became clear during the course of my research.