Passion and Craft: Economists at Work. (Book Reviews)

By Forget, Evelyn L. | Review of Social Economy, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Passion and Craft: Economists at Work. (Book Reviews)

Forget, Evelyn L., Review of Social Economy

Passion and Craft: Economists at Work. Edited by Michael Szenberg, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998, xvii, 314 pp. $22.95 (paper), ISBN 0-472-06685-4.

Lori Arviso Alvord, the first Navajo woman surgeon, introduces her autobiography with an explicit recognition of the ways in which cultural norms shape autobiographical revelation:

Even as I type these words, I am going against a basic understanding of my tribe. The Dine strongly discourage talking about or drawing attention to themselves. We are taught from the earliest age to be humble, not to brag or speak of our accomplishments. To talk about myself in a book ... brings me discomfort....

(Alvord and Van Pelt 1999: 10)

Humility is not among the more commonly recognized virtues of the academic economist. Indeed, Michael Szenberg must have wondered, when he charged his subjects "to reflect introspectively on their methods of working and to offer us details about their private revelries, discoveries, and ravishing illuminations, if any", whether he would end up with twenty annotated CVs (Szenberg 1998: xv). In fact, the nineteen mid-career academic economists and one economic journalist who are represented in this volume have, for the most part, written entertaining and useful reflections on their careers.

In 1992, Szenberg published Eminent Economists: Their Life Philosophies, which focused on an older generation of economists. This time, the editor deliberately recruited younger economists who have achieved some measure of success in the field, but still have another fifteen or twenty years of active scholarship ahead of them. Inevitably, some of the stories are more interesting than others. Claudia Goldin, for example, in "The Economist as Detective" evokes the passion and excitement of archival discoveries. She remembers reading Paul de Kruif's The Microbe Hunters (1927), a popular history of biology, in junior high school and recognizes the importance of this volume in attracting her to scholarship. William Darity, Jr, in "Why I work", recounts the personal importance of visiting Palestinian refugee camps as a child with his father who then worked for the World Health Organization. Could that account for his career focus on "why a few people were rich, and so many were poor, why some people had a wide rang e of life options and others were faced with limited opportunities"? (p. 58). And Susan Rose-Ackerman, in "Work, family and odd topics: on being a female economist", tells the story of the least formulaic academic career in the collection. Her parting advice ought to be engraved in gold and handed to every new Ph.D. in the field:

Do not lose sight of the reasons why economics interested you in the first place. If you are bored by your work, your readers and your students will know it, and you ought to consider a change of career or at least a change of topic. (p. 242)

Surely there is no better advice a mid-career academic can share with a newly minted economist.

I sald this book was fascinating, but it is also valuable. Autobiography is a challenging genre, and it requires a sensibility that our academic training as economists does nothing to impart. Nevertheless, there are two reasons why these essays are important to economists. The first is that autobiography is a source for understanding the social history of a discipline. The second is that we all need models of people who have struggled and succeeded in the difficult career we share.

Dainty expresses considerable discomfort with the first reason:

I have been skeptical about a recent tendency among academics and various public intellectuals to utilize autobiography as a device to illustrate grand social themes. I have been especially skeptical when no serious attempt is made to establish the boundaries of the generalizability and uniqueness of one's own self-reflected life history.... [S]ocial analysis by personal anecdote has not been the way that I have engaged in research in the past, and I do not expect it to become the way I do research in the future. …

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