Postmodernism, Institutionalism, and Statistics: Considerations for an Institutionalist Statistical Method

By Luker, Bill; Luker, Bill, Jr. et al. | Journal of Economic Issues, June 1998 | Go to article overview

Postmodernism, Institutionalism, and Statistics: Considerations for an Institutionalist Statistical Method


Luker, Bill, Luker, Bill, Jr., Cobb, Steven L., Brown, Robert, Journal of Economic Issues


In this paper, we outline and advocate the use of an approach to statistical measurement and evaluation informed by the link between postmodernism (as a general way of thinking about the world) and institutionalist economics, which is practically suited to an intervention-oriented empirical economics. Such a statistical method, of course, would be different in spirit and intent from contemporary econometrics. Much of current econometric theory is an exercise in logical rigor, a kind of "positivist idealism" in search of modern-day versions of the noumenal. Institutional economists have been justifiably dubious, treating it and its antecedent, mathematical economics, as ideological tools of neoclassical conformity and immobility. At the same time, much of what passes for econometric practice is a mostly unspoken and consequently inconsistent set of research protocols without a unified method or a self-conscious methodological stance. Most important, however, neither econometric theory nor practice is currently conducted in the belief that the privileged mission of measurement and evaluation is to humanely - and successfully - intervene in the institutions that shape the direction and content of economic life.

Jacob Cohen [Cohen and Cohen 1982; Cohen 1968] and John Tukey [1962] labeled an approach that remedies these absences "data analysis." Data analysis uses theory of both classical and mathematical statistics in a postmodern spirit and with an institutionalist's intent to intervene for more reasonable social outcomes. Pure rigor yields to a rigorous interventionist relevance. And the babel of contradictory research protocols that puts the "con [into] econometrics" gives way to unified empirical practices across a community of committed researchers; and the reproducible discovery and widespread acceptance among researchers and practitioners of social melioration, of meaningful (i.e., useful for ameliorative purposes) empirical regularities in economic systems and outcomes.

In focusing on interventionist applications, data analysis clearly eschews the mathematical economists' search for an ultra-rational, supra-empirical version of "the truth" about economies and economic life. But more important for institutional economists, it also circumvents the cherished institutionalist assumption that its approach to understanding the economic realm is uniquely scientific and therefore uniquely truthful. In what follows, we address these issues in modest detail.

The Link between Institutionalism and Postmodernism

The works of Clarence Ayres [1961; 1962] and Veblen [1948a; 1948b], despite disclaimers, always had a strong materialist/realist/positivist grounding. Ayres believed that his distinction between ceremonial/technological behavior authenticated an institutionalist vision that put to rout "irrational," self-adjusting, unscientific claims of neoclassical economics. In contrast, the postmodernist vocabulary(1) that serves as a touchstone for our arguments is a liberal irony that simultaneously undermines Foucault's claim that reformist policy is nothing but an argument for existent power structures and materialist/idealist/realist declarations that values and social criticism must flow from universals, variously conceived as noumenal or phenomenal. Or, as Patrick Diggens [1994, 16] puts it:

Postmodernism (1) refutes "essentialism and foundationalism which presume the truth of things prior to knowledge;" and (2) asserts that "all knowledge is mediated by forms of representation," and (3) "the self is a social construction."

Roland Hoksbergen's [1994] canonical article has drawn a sharp line between institutional postmodernists and Ayresian traditionalists. Hoksbergen's piece coincides with the philosophic recrudescence of Dewey, James, and Pierce in the works of Richard Rorty [1982; 1989], Gavin Kitching [1994], Philip Mirowski [1988], and others. This postmodernist wheel, we believe, is congruous with institutionalism's pragmatic roots because, as Rorty contends, Dewey and James are waiting at the end of the road for Foucault and Deleuze [Rorty 1982, xviii]. …

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