Economists' Opinions of Economists' Work

Article excerpt

I

Introduction

DURING THE 1990s THE MEDIA CRITICIZED ECONOMISTS for their study of esoteric topics and their lack of attention to important economic issues (Epstein 1997; Cassidy 1997; Ormerod 2000; Vogel 1995). The criticism has not been limited to the media and lay public, however. Many in the economics profession also have expressed concern about much economic research and instruction, citing an increasing reliance on mathematical abstraction and a reluctance to employ alternative methodologies. (1)

Student perceptions about economics may be changing as well. A 23 percent decline in undergraduate economics degrees conferred at American colleges and universities occurred during the period 1990 to 1998 (Siegfried 1999). Although there has been an upward trend in undergraduate degrees conferred since that period, a decline is expected in the number of economics doctoral degrees conferred in the United States during the next several years (Salemi et al. 2001). The reasons for the expected decline are unknown but an investigation by economists is ongoing. Recent work by Becker and Watts (2001) suggests that economists' failure to keep pace with practitioners of other disciplines who have implemented modern teaching methods may, over the long term, discourage many from pursuing a career in economics.

While economics has much to offer in public policy formulation, economic literacy, and other socially desirable goals, the profession's pejorative reputation may be adversely affecting its potential to do so. As a result, many believe that the profession's image could improve with changes in the discipline's approaches to methodology, research, and instruction. Economists' insight into their discipline is essential for improving the profession's credibility, assuming economists would prefer that improvement. The purpose of this article is to contribute to the existing fund of knowledge required for that task through an investigation of the profession's views on various aspects of economic research. In an earlier study, Davis (1997) quantitatively surveyed economists on the subject, attempting to establish certain benchmarks for which the degree of consensus among economists could be measured and compared over time. The results of that survey, which was conducted in 1994, suggested that economists believe their work produces some benefits that are limited to certain groups--primarily economics professors and graduate students pursuing advanced degrees in economics. This article presents the findings of a follow-up survey of economists that provides some additional insight into their perceptions of the economics profession.

II

Survey Audience and Design

A SURVEY QUESTIONNAIRE, composed of 20 propositions related to various aspects of economic research, was mailed to 900 economists living in the United States and Canada. The respondents were randomly selected from the American Economic Association's (AEA) 1997 membership directory, the most comprehensive listing of professional economists in North America. Before its delivery, the questionnaire was pretested among 20 economists with various professional backgrounds. Suggestions from the pretest, including the deletion of some and addition of other propositions, were incorporated into the survey to avoid biased and/or unclear interpretations by the respondents. (2) To measure the strength of responses a five-point Likert scale was employed, with 1 corresponding to strong disagreement and 5 corresponding to strong agreement with a statement. (3) All propositions were phrased as positive (as opposed to normative) statements. Many propositions from the earlier survey appeared on the questionnaire.

During a six-week period in early 2001, 323 responses were received that closely approximated the sex and employment compositions of the AEA, yielding a response rate of 36 percent, a sufficient representation of the AEA membership population for drawing statistical inferences. …

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