Friday, July 4, 2008

Classifying economics: humanity or science?

How should the discipline of economics be classified within academia - does it belong to the arts, sciences, social sciences, humanities? A wonderful article called 'The Burden of the Humanities' by Wilfred McClay in the Wilson Quarterly got me thinking about that this morning.

Even if we go by something so simple as what degrees are offered in departments of economics there doesn't seem to be much consensus. While the Bachelor of Arts remains perhaps the most common undergraduate degree in economics, the Bachelor of Science isn't unheard of; indeed, the London School of Economics, one of the most recognizable schools for the subject, awards the BSc. At Oxford University, the undergraduate degree is the BA, but at postgraduate level the MSc - is this a good reflection of the journey up the hill of science, math and statistics that we economists make on the course of our study? If so, why do so many North American universities - NYU, Yale, Brown, Toronto, etc etc - award the MA as a postgraduate degree (albeit in the US usually as a consolation prize for those abandoning the PhD)? What about something like Economics and Finance? Is that more BSc-ish than just economics?

Do we belong to the humanities or to science? This question is obviously closely tied to the ethos of economics teaching, especially the positivist teaching method and the quantification of the discipline. If your economics education focuses on the political, moral, philosophical, historical, intellectual parts of economics, it sounds more like the humanities. If it focuses on the mathematical, statistical, empirical, experimental, computational parts, it sounds more like science, or at the very least, 'social' science. Maybe since there's no 'standard' blend of these two categories in an economics degree it's right that we don't know which degree is more appropriate; all I know is that the scientific categories are much, much more prevalent in the content of US undergraduate economics education than the humanities categories.

McClay's essay talks about the defining characteristics of humanities, borrowing first from the National Endowment for the Humanities definition which allows the humanities to include, among other things:

"those aspects of social sciences which have humanistic content and employ humanistic methods..."

This would seem to allow economics into the party, since it is closely concerned with human behavior, especially microeconomics which is obsessed with how people make choices and decisions. Or is it? Historically, macroeconomics has often relied on a characterization of a country as a big machine, to ask how, for example, exchange rates interact with interest rates, or whatever. There has to be a human element buried somewhere, unlike in the natural sciences, but it's not the focus. McClay addresses just this point:

"But this can be stated more directly. The distinctive task of the humanities, unlike the natural sciences and social sciences, is to grasp human things in human terms, without converting or reducing them to something else: not to physical laws, mechanical systems, biological drives, psychological disorders, social structures, and so on. The humanities attempt to understand the human condition from the inside, as it were, treating the human person as subject as well as object, agent as well as acted-upon."

You could plausibly argue that the history of economic thought has been a reduction of the human to something else; this is valuable because it allows us to abstract from the uncertain world of how people behave into a place where we might be able to draw plausible, tangible conclusions, but just as it's taken the discipline into a place of backlash where 'behavioral economics' wants to recover a keen interest in the way humans operate, it might have carried away much claim we had to be part of the humanities. Of course this also implies that a bunch of the psychological-type economics that's so very popular at the moment might arguably be 'humanities', but that probably overstates the case, since psychology itself isn't usually considered as such.

McClay argues further about the tendency towards science and away from the humanities:

"For many Americans... [the humanities go] against the grain. After all, we like to think of ourselves as a practical people. We don’t spend our lives chasing fluffy abstractions. We don’t dwell on the past. We ask ­hard headed questions such as Where does that get you? How can you solve this problem? What’s the payoff? If you’re so smart, we demand, why aren’t you rich?"

There's a strong similarity between this line of argument and the tendency towards science within economics itself, and perhaps all the same questions apply there. If I imagine arguing that we should have more normative content in economics courses, I immediately imagine being challenged, 'where does that get you?', 'what's the payoff?'. Plus, as a nice bonus, 'why aren't you rich?' could, in another context, be a very pithy summation of the boneheadedness of economists towards the normative metrics of happiness or success.

The weird paradox, however, is that, to this eye, the practical value of the majority of economics research is very difficult to find; I know science for its own sake is still science, pushing the bounds of knowledge etc etc, and I know the charge can be leveled at any subject, but still, for better or worse, 'what's the payoff?' is a question we could rightfully ask in response to any claim of economics to be a science.

And what do we lose when we drop the humanistic from economics? McClay says:

"For you can’t really appreciate the statuary of our ­country—­our political and social and economic ­institutions—­or know the value of American liberty and prosperity, or intelligently assess America’s virtues and vices against the standard of human history and human possibility, unless you pay the price of learning the ­stories."

This is certainly true of the abandonment of economic history and the history of economic thought as fields of study in so many departments of economics. If we can argue for economics as science or as humanity, why have we dropped all humanistic study of it? Won't we lose the 'stories', the lessons of the past, the normative context, the ability to critically evaluate the scientific results that we might be able to squeak out of our modeling and empirical analysis?

Finally, McClay ends discussing the role of the humanities in contributing to the attainment of 'happiness' or satisfaction in life.

"...the lure of a pleasure-swaddled posthumanity may be the particular form of that temptation to which the Western liberal democracies of the 21st century are especially prone.

One of those things left behind may, ironically, be happiness itself, since the very possibility of human happiness is inseparable from the struggles and sufferings and displacements experienced by our restless, complex, and incomplete human natures. Our tradition teaches that very lesson in a hundred texts and a thousand ways, for those who have been shown how to see and hear it."

In the context of the study of economics, can't we make a similar argument? It's not just that economics may have contributed heavily to the 'happiness as goal' business, or to the wedding of income, GDP and money to 'wellbeing'; By abandoning the humanistic in the teaching of our subject, don't we neglect to show the next generation how to see and hear the humanistic as it relates to the organization of our economies, our world? Economics is not a technocracy. We need to understand its humanistic foundations if we are to wield its tools and arguments as experts.

1 comment:

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