Sunday, September 09, 2007

Judging A Book By Its Back Materials

I simple way of deciding whether one wants to persue reading a paper or book is to look at its bibliography. If it is on a topic that one is interested in and lacks certain references, one might put a low priority on reading it.

I get an ambiguous conclusion in the case of Steven Landsburg's "The Methodology of Normative Economics". From the introduction, I see that Landsburg argues that normative goals cannot be imposed exogenously. People care what a central goal-setting authority does, and the authority must account for that in setting his goals. The reference I look for here is Amartya Sen's "The Impossibility of a Paretian Liberal" (Journal of Political Economy, V. 78, N. 1 (Jan.-Feb. 1970): 152-157). And Landsburg is lacking. But he does reference a later Sen paper that I do not know. Perhaps Sen summarizes his earlier work there.

I get a negative conclusion when looking at Roger Farmer's draft book on old Keynesian economics. Farmer says he presents a model in which the level of economic activity is determined by "animal spirits." This is an allusion to chapter 12 of the General Theory, but Farmer's bibliography lacks any references putting forth a Post Keynesian reading, as far as I can see. Authors I look for include A. Asimakopulos, Victoria Chick, Coddington, Paul Davidson, and Joan Robinson.

And I get a negative conclusion for Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz's "Long-Run Changes in the U.S. Wage Structure: Narrowing, Widening, Polarizing". This paper looks at skill-biased technological change. Here I find lacking the failure to reference James Galbraith, such as his book Created Unequal. (Goldin and Katz do reference a number of authors I respect.)

I realize that authors put out drafts just to get these sort of comments. One wants to know if there are elements of a literature on topic that one has missed.


Gabriel M. said...

I disagree.

Clearly it's scholarly standard to have a section dedicated to previous work on the topic and to end your material with 20-30-40 pages of single-spaced references.

Beyond the fact that this sort of requirement leads to uninspired practices such as copy&paste-ing huge blocks of references from other papers, it leads to bloated texts.

If the author decides not to engage in any way previous work on the subject, why shouldn't that be fine? He must have his reasons. Why should we have original contributions padded with academic pomp? Think of the trees!

Bruschettaboy said...

JK Galbraith used a modified version of your technique, claiming to be able to judge the worth of most books on contemporary politics with a glance at the "G" section of their index.

Anonymous said...

In response to gabriel m.:

Research is not a monologue, but a dialog, a dialog with both the living and the dead who have written or spoken on the subject in question. An author is free, of course, to ignore, or to refuse to engage with, some or all of those who have previously participated in the dialog. But we, too, are free to ignore the contributions of people who refuse to respect past contributions.

One consequence of authors refusing to engage with previous contributions is the reinvention of things long known. The economist Ariel Rubinstein, for example, has written a book ("Economics and Language") on argumentation theory which manages to ignore the 2300 or so years of research on the subject of argumentation in philosophy, political theory, jurisprudence and computer science. How should one view an author such as this -- arrogant, lazy or simply ignorant?

Whatever one's view of the author's motivations, his contribution is best ignored, for failing to engage with the existing literature: For if he did not bother to position his work in the context of the existing dialog, why should we?