Thursday, March 15, 2012

Andrew Gelman against economic exceptionalism

Andrew Gelman has a great post (mentioning me) that discusses the incoherence of "economic exceptionalism" - the idea that economists are some kind of (to use Gelman's phrase) "elite group of fearless truth-tellers". I agree very much.

"Thinking like an economist" is not the same thing as saying "I am an economist, therefore I can make pronouncements about human beings that no one can question". No, "thinking like an economist" describes a particular way of looking at the world which is taught to economics students, which incorporates a lot of things, but basically says:

1. To a certain extent you have to think of human beings as subjects of study and detach yourself from taking things personally - you have to separate normative statements from positive statements about humans.

2. You have to recognize that order is a property of a system that doesn't necessarily emerge by a design. Order can be an emergent property of a system, and

3. People respond to incentives

To name a few of the many nebulous components of what it means to "think like an economist". But as Gelman stresses here, this is not a license to think that economists are exceptional in anyway - the way they think and talk about things is probably a little distinctive (I'd argue), but certainly not exceptional. Gelman thinks a sense of exceptionalism is common among economists. Working off of my own decade of experience in the community (which I know is shorter than many out there), I feel like it's more rare. But the point is, it's not a good way of looking at the work of economists.

Now, a lot of this way of looking at things that economists have come to call the "economic way of thinking" ought to show up in other social sciences too, right? Most of it revolves around the fact that you have to treat human society as a subject of scientific study, so any scientific study of human society ought to be hitting on these sorts of insights.

And they do! Previously I've mentioned getting introduced to the topic of "thinking like an economist" as an undergraduate, but I was also a sociology major - and one of the things they impressed upon us as freshman was C. Wright Mills's idea of the "sociological imagination". I'm way too far removed from my sociology now to give a really accurate account of Mills's book, but what I do remember being impressed upon us was that if you are going to study social organziations and institutions, you can't think about things from the perspective of an individual agent. That's the way psychologists approach problems. This wasn't a denial of individual agency, it was just noting that the individual was not the subject of our study, and because we see the world from an individual's perspective, the sociological perspective can be hard to get used to.

Invoking the "sociological imagination" is very comparable to economics professors talking about "thinking like an economist".

I don't have a lot of experience with social sciences outside of economics and sociology - are there any other examples of this sort of thing from any other fields?


  1. A detached view that doesn't privilege the individual agent's view? That's in Marx.

    But "thinking like an economist" is more about being indoctrinated in a cult.

  2. re: "A detached view that doesn't privilege the individual agent's view? That's in Marx."

    Yep - a very important social thinker. Be careful not to confuse an analytic perspective with a claim that individuals don't have value, though.

    re: "But "thinking like an economist" is more about being indoctrinated in a cult."

    I'm not sure we're talking about the same thing here.

  3. "A claim that individuals don't have value". What would that have to do with Marx's ideas? Answer - nothing at all.


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