The Guardian asks: “Economics has failed us: but where are the fresh voices?”

April 17, 2012

Aditya Charakborrty writes: “Mainstream economic models have been discredited. But why aren’t political scientists and sociologists offering an alternative view?”

“Sociologists are reliably good at analysing the fallout from crises: the recessions, the cuts, the dispossessed, the repossessed. I’d expect them to be in for a busy few years. But on the upstream stuff, the causes of this crisis, they are practically silent. At Oxford, Donald MacKenzie has pulled off remarkable close-up studies of financiers in action but without context or politics: the view is all cogs and no car. Indeed, leave aside three remarkable books from Karen Ho, David Graeber and Alexandra Ouroussoff, all of whom are anthropologists (and all discussed here previously), and the bigger picture is still in the hands of those formerly shamefaced, but now rather assertive, economists.”

For the full article see here.


8 Responses to “The Guardian asks: “Economics has failed us: but where are the fresh voices?””

  1. I have a few issues with the article.

    First, I’m not sure I agree with the claim that *academic* economists have been especially influential in policymaking, if that’s how we can interpret the following:

    “[N]o discipline has so profoundly shaped Britain or America over the past 30 years as mainstream economics, with its almost unshakeable faith in markets, and its insistence on taking politics out of the public sphere. Displace that narrow, straitened form of economics from its position as the orthodoxy on modern capitalism, and you have a shot at changing capitalism itself.”

    Economics as an academic discipline saw in the last 30 years the behavioral revolution and the rise of imperfect information economics, not to mention climate change economics (Mankiw’s Pigou club, etc.) and so many other critiques of market fundamentalism. Maybe economists needed to do more to get that message out, but I think the real story is the growth of the conservative think tank as source of economic expertise for policymaking. Yes, these folks are trained in economics, but they are conservative hacks, not cutting edge, top profs.

    As for Soc’s contribution, partly there’s a numbers game at play here. There are about 1000 members of the economic sociology section of ASA, including graduate students. Many econ soc’ers have written about the crisis – see the Markets on Trial volume for starters – but their writings would still barely fill a single issue of AER. So, on the one hand, this piece felt like it had a bit of a shoddy lit review (where’s Gerry Davis’s book or Greta Krippner’s, to mention just two Michigan faculty). On the other, it feels like too much to ask for a discipline that’s not huge and has aimed most of its energy elsewhere.

    Finally, I think economic sociology is characterized by far more humility than economics – perhaps too much. We aren’t used to model-building, that’s not how we do theory. So, in some sense, I think the author is looking to sociology to provide “economics but better” and I don’t know that we even want to do that (at least, for the part of economics focused on building big, complex models of the whole system).

  2. subhrodas Says:

    Dear Sirs/Madams,
    I have wriiten some theses, theories in this regard, some of them long time back, here those are for your needful :-

  3. danielbeunza Says:

    Glad you put this up Martha. It would be good to hear your opinion too.

  4. yuvalmillo Says:

    Dan, you are absolutely right. Comparing the research output of a discipline that is focused on markets (financial economics) with that of a discipline that analyses sociality in general (sociology) is comparing apples and oranges. But, that’s just the start. It is obvious that this piece is not based on a good review of what was happening even within sociology. You mention the US side, but the writer, evidently, did not do a good job even here in UK, where the piece is focused. I mean, he puts Donald MacKenzie in Oxford, while he was in Edinburgh for the last 30 years. There is another DM in Oxford, but that’s a different person (thanks Paolo for this info). Shows how good fact-checking is at the Guardian… Lastly, it is obvious that the writer was fed a line by one of the interviewees, anonymously of course, probably someone who does not like SSF very much: MacKenzie’s work is ‘without context or politics’. Really? Sounds exactly like one of the age-old criticisms of STS.
    SSF is at the cutting edge of providing a comprehensive, multi-faceted picture of markets’ behaviour and yes, one has to understand the details and the mechanics to provide such a picture.

  5. marthapoon Says:

    Dan – Is economics the really the benchmark by which to evaluate the humility of research groups? Really? (I’m teasing you.)

    Daniel – While we may have our issues with the content of the piece, I think the appearance of this article is really encouraging. It’s a great piece for thinking through the relationship of the social sciences to public reporting. It tells us a lot about what the world of journalism understands ‘sociology’ to be. And it’s important to look at the kind work the reporter endorses (all of them anthropologists of finance) and think about why.

    What is it about the ethnographic form that is appealing? Does the recognition of these texts open up doors for continued reporting? Can we relate to this body of work to explain what technical studies in more accessible terms?

    An anecdote: A few months ago NPR did a story called ‘Who Killed Lard?’. The story emphasized economic interests but did not talk about the role of health activism in making lard an undesirable consumer product. My colleague, David Schleifer who writes about fats in industrial manufacturing wrote to Planet Money and they immediately posted this review of his work:

    Journalism’s purpose is to report. The onus of making clear and reportable statements is on us.

  6. I’m chiming in since Martha so kindly mentioned my work.

    What I’d add is the sort of obvious idea that sociology and economics are like fashion, music or art in that journalists are by definition not insiders to any of these fields. Therefore they necessarily miss a lot of what’s happening and miss a lot of the subtleties in what they do notice. That may be more of a problem for fields like music, where journalists really can play a significant role in publicizing new work. In sociology, we don’t need the journalists to tell us about what each other is doing or to publicize our work. But that probably also means that we’re less adept at communicating our ideas to them than musicians, who works for record companies who have PR departments that specialize in getting digestible messages out to the press.

    I’m not saying that we should write in ways that are digestible to journalists, or that journalists are not smart enough to understand what we write. But we also shouldn’t be surprised that a different field, with different priorities and pressures, sees our work differently than we do.

  7. zsuzsannavargha Says:

    What I liked about the article, besides the “learning” points Martha mentioned, is its assumption that other disciplines have had legitimacy and support to conduct studies of finance, they just simply didn’t do it.

    Whereas the successful claim of economics on being the academic voice on finance has actually made it more difficult for other disciplines to chime in. (Warning: what follows is a heroic account.) Here we can point out that until recently there has been a more or less tacit “division of labor” between economics and sociology, whereby the study of economic life was assigned to economics and economics only. Sociologists have increasingly focused on finance but are not yet publicly heard (partly due to the hearing of policymakers and journalists, and partly to the louder voices of dissent within economics, i.e. behavioral).

    Moreover, the sociological voices have not typically come from the obvious places where journalists look, such as the biggest professional associations — rather from smaller groups working across disciplines. For example, I believe currently none of this blog’s members, except for Dan H., are located in sociology departments. The research is also often not published in sociology journals.

    In sum, we do not have to accept the terms of the Guardian’s critique but rather note that it was a quick survey of the most official professional outlets. It is not evident that sociologists do not publish on finance (they do), that if they did this would be published in the leading journals (it’s not), and that sociology voices would be heard just by virtue of being published (they won’t).

    The apparently higher visibility of anthropological (ethnographic) research in journalism suggests that there is much more that goes into making research count. For one, anthropologists are perhaps more removed from the economics/sociology tensions; ethnographic methods and a typically narrative form can in no way be seen as challenging or comparable to economics, unlike many sociological methods. There are many ways to discredit non-economics studies on methodological grounds, which assumes that the only way one can conduct a study is with the tools of economics.

    So now when there is a so-called opening for non-economics research to flow in, it’s no surprise that there isn’t a legion of alternatives — if we look for alternatives in narrowly defined disciplinary outlets (the two-three top professional journals and associations). While sociologists took it upon themselves to increasingly challenge the historical demarcation line with economics by simply doing their own studies, it is a long process to gain recognition for this kind of work even within sociology.

    Perhaps both sociologists and journalists would benefit from learning how to recognize each other.

  8. Will Davies Says:

    The Guardian piece mentions the Uneconomics debate, which is here: I’m editing it.

    If anyone would like to submit an article to that, please get in touch –

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