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Economics Representations

from David Ruccio

An example I often use at the start of my introductory economics courses is a “man sitting on a street corner, with no job.” I ask the students to tell a story about the man: who he is, and why he has no job. As readers can imagine, they tell a wide variety of stories—imagining different ages and races, and different reasons why he has no (apparent) job. He’s alternately black, white, and hispanic; he’s young, old, and middle-aged; he either doesn’t have a job or he’s doing something illegal; and, if he doesn’t have a job, it’s because he’s lazy, uneducated, or the economy isn’t supplying enough decent jobs at decent wages. 
What I teach them is, first, different stories have different consequences, and, second, economics comprises many different stories—about that man and the economy more generally.
What I call different “representations” Daniel Little refers to as  different “mental models for the social world.”

Each person is exposed to a dense stream of experiences of the social world, at various levels. We have ordinary interactions — with friends, bus drivers, postal carriers, students — and we want to interpret the behavior that we observe. We read news reports and tweets about happenings in the wider world — riots in Athens, suicide attacks in Pakistan, business statements about future sales, … — and we want to know what these moments mean, how they hang together, and what might have caused them.  In short, we need to have a set of mental resources that permit us to organize these experiences into a representation of a coherent social reality.

Exactly. Different people construct different representations of what they see and hear. Little’s conclusion is that there is no single ontology underlying all the different stories that can be told, and our stories are always changing.

Rather, there are likely to be multiple starting points, all of which can result in a satisfactory account of the social world. So there is no transcendental metaphysics for the social world. . .

our social cognitions are always a work in progress, and our conceptual frameworks are more like a paradigm than an ineluctable conceptual foundation.

In my case, I ask the students to consider the existence of the different economic theories they use to make sense of instances like the unemployed “man sitting on the street corner,” what the different consequences of those different theories are, and where those different theories come from.

Then, we can settle into discussing the hegemonic economic theory in the world today—neoclassical economics—and some of the main criticisms of and alternatives to that theory. That’s a way of teaching economics without presuming a single, unchangeable social ontology, which also demonstrates that social ontologies matter.

  1. May 8, 2010 at 2:45 pm

    When I ask students the reason for unemployment, other than frictional, some say that the non-working person is lazy. I then explain that to be unemployed means to be actively seeking work, but not able to find work. So laziness is excluded. Someone then says, there are “not enough jobs.” My response is, is there a fixed number of jobs, or can employment be created? Obviously, the latter. You have to keep digging beneath superficial responses to find the root causes. One would think that at some wage, everyone could be employed. There must be some barrier between employment and resources. Could it be governmental interventions that make it more costly to become self-employed or to employ others?

  2. David Ruccio
    May 8, 2010 at 3:06 pm

    This is exactly one of those teaching moments, Fred. Instead of distinguishing between “superficial responses” and “root causes,” I present the analyses of different schools of thought and the consequences of those different analyses. So, for example, the analyses can run from Austrian government interventions and neoclassical individual decision-making through radical power inequalities and feminist gendered labor markets to Marxian reserve army of the unemployed. Each one is based on different assumptions and methodologies, and of course leads to different policies and solutions. That’s what they learn—or, at least, what I hope they learn. . .

  3. rushcocoa
    May 9, 2010 at 9:08 pm

    This is exactly the way the teaching ought to start.

    I studied economics at UCLA. Originally when learning the basic profit maximization & cost minimization principles, I remember intuitively not liking the idea of paying the worker the very smallest amount possible. Then, in my junior year, in a feminist studies class I read critical analysis of capitalism & patriarchy, & saw documentaries on factory conditions such as the maquiadores (factories) in Mexico, & Roger & Me, where the Nike company is highlighted paying their workers pennies per shoe. As a child, exposed to Nike media, I thought Nike was a great corporation &, as a business for whom I would like to work. Seeing those films, I realized, this is the economic model that I am being taught, this is the principle at work. Around this time I read Fast Food Nation & saw the film Supersize Me, & started to analyze the food system. These things made me become very disillusioned with my economics education, to the point where I turned away from it almost completely. I went so far as to believe that the public university was attempting to teach a system that would keep the status-quo in place.

    Five years later, I was speaking to a friend about the problems with my education & he told me to read The Worldly Philosopher’s, Veblen, Marx, & Van der Pijl. When I read in Van der Pijl’s ‘An Introduction to Global Political Economy’, that the economic student must be a student of anthropology, sociology, philosophy, etc., I had my initial curiosity in economics renewed. And, my readings started to expand to sites like this.

    Six years after graduating with a Business Economics degree, I have been admitted to a program for a ma in political economy. Your students are so lucky that they are getting the wide span of theories up-front instead of being in the forest for years on end.

  4. Danny L. McDaniel
    May 10, 2010 at 1:39 am

    I had a Benedictine priest for a college professor who used to do a similiar exercise at the first class held each semeester for his “symbolism in the modern world” class. He would have every student student write their own obituary as if they would be dead by morning. It was an experience on how you want to be remembered, and what do you want to accomplish in life before the ends comes; because in Fr. Boniface Hardin’s O.S.B. words, “nothing is worth living if you have nothing to die for.” In many respects, economics is on the same plain with that particular academic exercise. There is more to life than telling people, “look what I have collected over the years.” It is more about what you did with those things that made a difference in other peoples lives that is most important. Economics has a bigger purpose in the lives of people than most economist realize, give credit to, have an imagination to see, or fail (the inability) to attempt to explain at all. Or in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “… to know that one life breathed easier because you have lived, this is to have success.”

    Danny L. McDaniel
    Lafayette, Indiana

  5. J. Scott
    May 12, 2010 at 6:59 pm

    Where do I sign up for your course?

  6. David Ruccio
    May 12, 2010 at 7:55 pm

    For the time being (even though, as you’ll read elsewhere on this blog, the department in which I work has been dissolved), at the University of Notre Dame. . .

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