An Ethnographer's Credo: Methodological Reflections Following an Anthropological Journey among the Econ

By Yonay, Yuval | Journal of Economic Issues, June 2000 | Go to article overview
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An Ethnographer's Credo: Methodological Reflections Following an Anthropological Journey among the Econ


Yonay, Yuval, Journal of Economic Issues


The author of this article is a sociologist of science, who has chosen economics as his primary subject for investigation; that is, I am studying economists, rather than studying the economy. I assume that this fact alone differentiates me from other authors in this journal, and I would therefore like to begin this article on a somewhat personal note.

Elsewhere [Yonay, forthcoming], I have recounted how I was compelled to revise my thesis once I actually began my research and discovered that institutional economics had been the ascending paradigm in American economics during the 1920s. Having no suitable historical account of that period to serve as a basis for my research, I set out to describe and explain the way in which economic science had changed its nature. There were many partial accounts and some useful personal testimonies--the Journal of Economic Issues was one of my most invaluable sources--but I had to synthesize a coherent and impartial story, and I did the best I could. The result of that project was my book The Struggle over the Soul of Economics [Yonay 1998], for which I believe I was selected as the Clarence E. Ayres Visiting Scholar. In that book, I describe the debate between economists during the interwar period, regarding how economic science could be best reformed. Neoclassical economists felt it necessary to add historical and stat istical dimensions to economics, to relax classical assumptions, and to adjust economic policy to the needs of a new economic structure. Institutionalists demanded more far-reaching changes: a greater emphasis on empirical studies, a more extensive overhaul of accepted theory, and more daring interventionist policies. In my book, I used the sociology of science to argue that such a struggle cannot be resolved by pure and absolute scientific criteria. This argument could only be resolved if a group of economists were able to convince the majority of the professional community that their economic program was more useful, more valid, or was in other ways better than competing programs. In order to explain such closure of a scientific debate, we have to consider the social aspects of the community involved and the rhetorical parameters of the debate.

My bachelor's degree was in economics, and my interest in political sociology has led me to focus on the influence of economists on economic policy making on the one hand, and on the influence of politics upon economics on the other hand. My original goal for my doctorate dissertation at Northwestern University was to explain the contribution of political factors to the rise of mathematical economics in postwar America. Prior to beginning my project, I read almost all the textbooks relating to the history of economic thought that could be found in Northwestern University's excellent library. I considered that I had mastered the history of economic thought from Adam Smith to Paul Samuelson. I "knew" that the period from 1870 to 1936 was dominated by neoclassical economists. I also "knew' that there were three institutional economists who found flaws in the neoclassical doctrine, but who had no theory with which to replace it; consequently this institutional "school" eventually failed.

My book drew a great deal of criticism for performing only the second task, a shortcoming I have previously admitted but still believe to be unavoidable. [1] The exploration of the full institutional arena necessitated the coordinated and prolonged research of more than one researcher. Fortunately, initial steps in this direction have recently borne fruit [Morgan and Rutherford 1998; Rutherford 2000]. In any case, my research led me to conclude that neither side had won the interwar debate concerning the reforms necessary to the field of economic science. Instead, a third group--the mathematical economists--managed to capture the discipline by storm. Such an approach had been suggested long ago, most notably by Leon Walras, but had been rejected by most practitioners, including neoclassical theorists such as Alfred Marshall, John Maynard Keynes, and Frank Knight.

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