Economists and Society

by Kieran Healy on January 31, 2004

This should really be a comment to John’s post, because he beat me to the punch on this story. Nevertheless I will abuse my privilege as a CT member and rail at the Times item about McCleary and Barro’s paper on religion and economic growth. Religion is now officially relevant to economic growth because the McCleary and Barro paper “uses a sophisticated analysis of a huge set of data to quantify the arguments of anthropologists, sociologists and political scientists.” Just as a place cannot really be said to exist until it has been photographed by Japanese tourists, it seems no research question in the social sciences can be said to have been investigated until the economics department hears about it.

This attitude is characteristic of media coverage of the social sciences. It’s an open question how many economists subscribe to it. My feeling is that there might be a strong negative correlation between the credence attached to the proposition and number of visits to the library in the past five years. Two field-level features of Economics reflect this belief, in turn. The first is the tendency periodically to hit upon some aspect of social life — e.g., culture, small-group dynamics, networks, the empirics of decision making, politics, kinship, take your pick — and announce its discovery as if no-one had ever thought about it before. The flux of academic fashion makes some strain of this disease endemic to most disciplines, but Economics suffers from a particularly chronic case. The second is the periodic appearances of Grand Old Men of the field, perhaps in their AEA Presidential addresses, reflecting on the heroic assumptions upon which economic theory is founded. They sagely ask whether it isn’t time to reassess the costs and benefits of these assumptions, and suggest that perhaps the recent exciting discovery of [pick an item from Point 1 above] bodes well for the future. This seems a largely ritual event with no substantive impact on day-to-day practice.

These features are explained, I conjecture, by two tendencies pulling in opposite directions. On the one hand, economists — at least, the ones in the best programs — tend to be very smart people indeed. Standards of entry and all-round work rates are very high. So some of these smart people are naturally driven to ask foundational questions. On the other hand, the social structure of the field does virtually nothing to encourage reflection on such questions as part of one’s professional identity. Quite the opposite. Fundamental theoretical problems are assumed to be settled. Alternative views are marginalized as “heterodox.” Worries about the underpinnings of the field get delegated to the Methodology of Economics specialists, who are assumed to be taking care of it. Economics even manages — on the pretext that a real science must forget its founders — to lose its collective memory of cases where current wisdom was definitively on the losing side. (It is both a pathology and a possibly saving grace of the field that some of the oddballs win Nobel Prizes, in the end, even as life otherwise goes on as normal.)

This is all in contrast to Sociology or much of Political Science, where graduate students are exposed to a wider range of controversies about basic questions in their fields. Note that this doesn’t really make these disciplines better. Often it makes them worse, as everyone is tempted to be their own theorist-of-everything, usually with little success. It is a passing irony that Economists avoid this problem by collectively delegating it, whereas Sociologists and Political Scientists approach it in a much less efficient, more individualized way. Facing these problems more directly may make them less prone hubris, however. (“And with good reason,” economists will be tempted to mutter at this point.)

Mark Chaves (the head of my department, as it happens) is quoted early on in the Times article, praising the ASR paper but politely making the point that systematic studies of the effects of religion on economic life have been around for just about literally a hundred years. Abba Lerner once remarked that “Economics has gained the title Queen of the Social Sciences by choosing solved political problems as its domain.” Occasional bursts of steam as economists (or the media) hit on importance of religion, or what have you, are a direct consequence of this successful choice of focus. They’ll often manage to say something pretty interesting during these hot flashes. (Like I said, they’re a smart bunch.) I only wish they wouldn’t sound so impressed with themselves every time it happens.

I should close by making explicit what should already be obvious: Most of this analysis is driven by sour grapes, because it ticks me off that the Times will bother to read ASR or AJS only when an economist publishes in them.