Sunday, April 05, 2009

The Sociology Of Mainstream And Non-Mainstream Economics

"I admit that my criteria of falsifiability does not lead to an unambiguous classification. Indeed, it is impossible to decide, by analyzing its logical form, whether a system of statements is a conventional system of irrefutable implicit definitions, or whether it is a system which is empirical in my sense; that is, a refutable system. Yet this only shows that my criterion of demarcation cannot be applied immediately to a system of statements - a fact I have already pointed out... The question whether a given system should as such be regarded as a conventionalist or an empirical one is therefore misconceived. Only with reference to the methods applied to a theoretical system is it at all possible to ask whether we are dealing with a conventionalist or an empirical theory. The only way to avoid conventionalism is by taking a decision: the decision not to apply its methods. We decide that if our system is threatened we will never save it by any kind of conventionalist stratagem." - Karl Popper (1968): 81-82

John Davis (2009) distinguished between two ways of dividing economists up: based on the content of their theories and based on more sociological criteria of citation networks, conference attendance, professional society membership, textbooks, etc. I think Davis' taxonomy remains of interest even if one does not agree with his views on trend in the economics profession.

Davis distinguishes between orthodox and heterodox economics on the basis of the substances of their theories. In the last column of Table 1, I have listed some distinguishing precepts of orthodox economics. The last three precepts roughly correspond to the opposite of the distinguishing features, according to Davis, of heterodox economics around 1980. I think one could also call orthodox economics "neoclassical". Heterodox economics rejects some combination of the precepts of orthodox economics. For Davis, mainstream economics is a sociological category. The first two columns of Table list some examples. Mainstream heterodox economics may become orthodox in time, with game theory perhaps already having succeeded, at least partially. At any rate, mainstream heterodox economists have access to the leading journals, a presence in the graduate schools generally rated to be the top, and so on.

Table 1: Divisions Among Economists
Mainstream Economists
Heterodox EconomicsOrthodox
  • Marxism
  • Radical political economy
  • Institutionalism
  • Post Keynesianism
  • Austrian school
  • Regulation schools
  • Circuitists
  • Feminist economics
  • Game theory(?)
  • Behavioral economics
  • Experimental economics
  • Evolutionary economics
  • Neuroeconomics
  • Complexity economics
  1. Formal models
  2. Atomistic, non-socially embedded individuals
  3. Equilibrium models set out of historical time
  4. Methodological individualism, social structures explained by aggregation over individuals

Both mainstream and non-mainstream heterodox economics can be broken down further. This can be seen in the table. The first two columns each contain more than one school of thought as an exemplar of that category. Davis makes further schematic distinctions. One is between an inward or outward orientation of heterodox economists. Another is among differents ways schools of economists can become heterodox. With these distinctions, Davis argues that the content and understanding of mainstream, non-mainstream, orthodox, and heterodox economics has been evolving over time.

Davis argues that non-mainstream economists should work harder to engage mainstream heterodox economists and that mainstream economists are more open to theoretical innovation than some non-mainstream economists claim. Without such engagement, he thinks, mainstream economists might be excessively conservative, with consequences that mainstream economists will continue to fail to incorporate worthwhile insights of non-mainstream heterodox economists. In the present historical conjuncture, I think, the odds of mainstream economics being suddenly swept away have increased. If so, Davis's strategy might be unnecessary, though I am not very optimistic either way.

By the way, I could have cited previous work by Davis for this post. I wanted to mention that Davis's is the second essay I've read in Fullbrook (2009). McFarling (2009), which is at least a stretch for me, is the first essay I read in this book. So far, I find in the little I've read in this book a broad agreement that heterodox economists reject the orthodox overemphasis on social explanations from atomistic, non-socially embedded individuals.

  • John B. Davis (2009) "The Nature of Heterodox Economics", in Fullbrook (2009)
  • Edward Fullbrook (editor) (2009) Ontology and Economics: Tony Lawson and His Critics, Routledge
  • Bruce R. McFarling (2009) "Finding a Critical Pragmatism in Reorienting Economics", in Fullbrook (2009)
  • Karl R. Popper (1968) The Logic of Scientific Discovery, Revised edition, Harper


BruceMcF said...

Do you count reading Tony Lawson's replies as part of reading the essay, or are you saving those for later?

Robert Vienneau said...

I only have begun Lawson's replies and am not counting on them. I'm not sure that this format works. Guerrien writes less than four pages, and Lawson's reply is more than 12 pages. Shouldn't you have had a chance for a rejoinder to Lawson's reply to your article?

Even if one rejects the category of "mainstream heterodox", Davis' distinction between the content of theories and the sociology of economists, if I understand correctly, seems useful to make some sense out of current disputes.

Did you notice that over here Brad's commentators take him for task for blaming a New York Times reporter for treating Robert Lucas and Edward Prescott as if they were sane and serious? Maybe the problem is with the economics profession, not the press.

Sam said...

Actually that Davis distinguishes between orthodox and heterodox economics on the basis of the substances of their theories is a good approach.
Sociology research paper

Emil Bakkum said...

I miss in this scheme the Historical-Ethical School, which was influential in Germany during the nineteenth century (among them the Catheder-Socialists). Or does she belong to Institutionalism?

Emil Bakkum said...

Although both Institutionalism and the Historical School employ the sociological approach, they seem to take a different perspective. Institutionalism assumes that the productive forces shape society (the managerial class, the technostructure). In this sense it is a successor of Marxism. On the other hand the Historical School believes that society is guided by the development of the human mind and culture. The superstructure determines the productive institutions. Of course you can still apply historical materialism, but only if you understand the functioning of the human mind. This was too much for the Historical School, since the analytical tools were too primitive. But in our days happiness economics and behavioral economics provide some fruitful first results.

Robert Vienneau said...

Does the historical school currently exist in Germany? I only know of the (old and new) historical school through secondary literature, and think of it as existing in the early 19th and early 20th century.

I guess Germany provided the model of a research university, and quite a few early American economists visited there.