Friday, August 8, 2008

Economics versus sociology: economic imperialism again

The BBC, or at least Alan Connor in the Magazine, is of the opinion that economics is thieving turf from sociology:

There's actually nothing new in explaining how people decide or why people believe - it's called sociology. But if your boss wouldn't want to be caught with a sociology book in their luggage, there is now a range of delicious bite-sized chunks in books with titles like The Undercover Economist, The Rogue Economist and The Hidden Side Of Everything. Economics - once academia's dry "dismal science" - has decided to get tough.

The article's talking about some of the hot books, books from that sublimely irritating 'big idea' genre, that might be making waves among whoever reads them. At very least we know that they haven't learned the true history of the phrase 'dismal science'; more importantly, is the economics/sociology charge justified?

The question of economic imperialism is a familiar one, and I think one that comes from the supreme flexibility of economic modeling to be applied - for better or worse - to things that are pretty far away from what 'economics' is perceived to be. The gulf separating what economics is 'supposed' to be about from what its method can be used for is wide, and in it we can find the charge that economics is stealing from all over the place.

I wonder if the Connor quotation couldn't equally well read "it's called psychology", anyway. The kind of back-to-basics positivist modeling economists do these days naturally blurs the boundaries between disciplines that, maybe, were only ever separated by their topic of interest rather than their idealized toolbox for investigating those topics.

One of the titles specifically mentioned in the article is "Nudge" by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein; I haven't read the book, but I am irked by the Magazine article's summary of it. See if you can guess why:

The Buzzwords:

Econs (people that are perfectly rational but sadly imaginary)

The libertarian paternalism ideas are sometimes quite neat, the idea being that freedom of choice can be maintained but the framework of the choice changed - the famous example being requiring opt-out instead of opt-in to increase enrollment in pension funds - but, of course, even the brains behind something like that shouldn't be claiming to have proved irrationality. Just use a different word! Please! Mechanical or something, maybe?

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