What Do Economists Talk about? A Linguistic Analysis of Published Writing in Economic Journals

By Goldschmidt, Nils; Szmrecsanyi, Benedikt | The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, April 2007 | Go to article overview

What Do Economists Talk about? A Linguistic Analysis of Published Writing in Economic Journals


Goldschmidt, Nils, Szmrecsanyi, Benedikt, The American Journal of Economics and Sociology


I

Introduction

AUTHORS SUCH AS D. McCloskey (e.g., McCloskey 1983, 1985b), Arjo Klamer (e.g., Klamer 1984), and Uskali Maki (e.g., Maki 1988), among others, have sparked a broad debate on the relationship between economics and language. (1) While this discourse is still ongoing, it seems to have arrived at a dead end, or at least turned into a circle: instead of new analyses, there are a growing number of essays that reflect on the intra-rhetoric approach debate (e.g., McCloskey 1995, 1998; Maki 1995, 2000), that deliver anecdotal episodes (e.g., McCloskey 2001), or that come up with (autobiographical) stories on the origins of the movement (e.g., Klamer 2001)--perhaps the first signs of a decline in research activity. Besides this tradition, it is worth mentioning that there is a second field in which the study of language and the study of economics meet: the relevance of economic principles to the shape and development of human language, viz., the economic approach to language. There is a long and venerable tradition in linguistics that deals with "economy in language." (2) For instance, Stephen Levinson succinctly stated that the reason why so much in human language goes by implicature is that "inference is cheap, articulation expensive, and thus the design requirements are for a system that maximizes inference" (Levinson 2000: 29). Recently, Ariel Rubinstein (Rubinstein 2000), an economist, restated the importance of economy for language in a more formalized fashion and pointed out its relevance for understanding how judgments and decisions are formed in economic theory and policy.

In the present study, we propose another approach to economics and language, one that is thoroughly empirical and uses up-to-date linguistic methods. (3) We will conduct (1) a synchronic analysis of contemporary economic scholarly writing and (2) a diachronic analysis of how academic prose has developed and changed since 1965. More specifically, we will examine linguistic variation across published writing, using a sizable database, including several economic journals with differing emphases. In addition, we will use samples of academic prose from three other disciplines (sociology, microscopy, and mathematics) as benchmarks to further specify the "character" of economic prose and to explore how economic journals differ in their self-conception. The research questions that will guide the present study, then, can be summarized as follows:

1. What are some important characteristics of economic scholarly writing? Are there differences within the discipline, that is, between different economic journals?

2. How does terminology usage and the choice of stylistic features in economic scholarly writing compare to usage in other disciplines such as sociology, microscopy, or mathematics? In other words, do economists consider their discipline a rather socio-scientific discipline, an applied natural science, or a formal-abstractive discipline?

3. Has published economic scholarly writing changed linguistically during the past 40 years? If so, how?

Note, though, that our primary intent is to portray the potential of our method; more research will be necessary to further elucidate the nature of language usage in economic academic discourse. Yet, in spite of the somewhat programmatic nature of this study, we are able to present clear linguistic evidence of how economic academic discourse is different linguistically from other disciplines and how there are divergent methodological approaches in economics, as far as can be inferred from language usage.

II

Data

TO ANSWER THE RESEARCH QUESTIONS laid out above, we composed a corpus (a collection of linguistic data), tailored to make possible a comparison between economics and other disciplines on the one hand and an analysis of differing emphases in economics--now and over time--on the other hand. Our corpus spans seven journals (four of which are economic) and, for economics, the period from the mid-1960s until today, with samples taken from 1965, 1980, and the 1990s. …

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