Kieran Healy on economics

In the researches set off by Don Arthur’s critique of my article on ‘acting tough’ I came upon Keiran Healy’s excellent review on Crooked Timber of Steven Levitt’sFreakonomics. I’d actually raved about the symposium they’d held at the time, but reserved Healy’s review for subsequent reading and we all kow what happens to that these days. Anyway, the end of the para really hits home so I reproduce it below the fold.

Economics has a bad habit of routinely re-discovering (and taking credit for) ideas that are well-established elsewhere. Sometimes, whole fields are victimized in this way ¢â¬â social networks, institutional analysis, culture ¢â¬â as smart economists assume an idea that’s new to them is new to everyone and go off and reinvent some wheels. Freakonomics does have some sociologists and psychologists lurking in its footnotes (a stronger engagement with Stan Lieberson’s work on names would have made Chapter 6 a lot more interesting, for instance), but to be fair there are only one or two instances where a well-researched idea is presented as though no-one had ever thought of it before. Roland Fryer’s working paper on “The Economics of Acting White” is cited as the source of the notion that “some black students ‘have tremendous disincentives to invest in particular behaviors “¦ due to the fact that they may be deemed a person who is trying to act like a white person.'” This idea was articulated in just this form in the mid-70s by John Ogbu (as the “oppositional culture” hypothesis) and arguably also by James Coleman in The Adolescent Society, published in 1961. A mention of the large literature on the topic would have detracted from the Freakonomic buzz, I guess. The broader point: Economics is well-positioned to innovate in the social sciences, because it attracts very talented graduate students and provides excellent training in formal modeling and quantitative methods. But it is hamstrung by its lack of interest in teaching the same students much of anything else (such as its own intellectual development as a field) and its tendency to look down on cognate disciplines as poor relations, even as it borrows some of their ideas. The result is that Economics farms out reflections on its own foundations to a small cadre of methodologists and philosophers, who talk amongst themselves, and to occasional “We Can’t Go On Like This” speeches by Presidents of the AEA or Nobel Laureates. Meanwhile, it’s business as usual for everyone else.

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Mark Bahnisch
15 years ago

Good points by Healy – I seem to recall that he made similar arguments about sociobiology.

Btw – this post has appeared twice, Nicholas.