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Building interdisciplinary partnerships

from Frank Stilwell

Even if the economics profession continues to deflect the challenges posed by heterodox economists, substantial progress can be made in relation to cognate social sciences. This is a necessary element in a strategy for progress because mainstream economists working in universities usually resist attempts to reconstitute their discipline on genuinely pluralist principles. Marxist political economy, for example, can usually only get a hearing as an historically discredited view; while “old” institutionalism, if mentioned at all, is merely a precursor to “new institutional economics”, which is more compatible with a neoclassical approach. Heterodox economists may get jobs in economics departments: some do, especially if their “deviance” develops after secure employment has been achieved, but they are often not replaced by people of similar inclination when they retire or move on.

Establishing more secure territory for teaching and research in political economy can be easier in other areas within the social sciences where there is concern to deal with the economic dimensions of social problems and public policy. In my experience, political economists are usually welcomed into the latter territories (if they eschew the imperialist ambitions that have been evident when neoclassical economists seek to invade other territories in the social sciences). Thus, it is the mutual-learning relationship of political economy with subjects like sociology, geography, politics or history that is crucial. Interestingly, it is the commitment to interdisciplinary studies, rather than the commitment to pluralism in economics, that is more important in building these partnerships.

In other words, establishing a foothold for political economy, whether as a university department separate from economics (as in the University of Sydney’s Department of Political Economy where I taught for over four decades) or in conjunction with other social science disciplines, is a precondition for heterodox economics having a sustainable place in university education and research. Having established any such foothold, good teaching can show that political economy has the potential to provide a richer learning experience than straight mainstream economics (O’Donnell 2014). Similarly, research and policy advocacy can usually get a good hearing where political economists contribute to interdisciplinary studies on matters of public significance and concern.

Frank Stilwell, “Heterodox economics or political economy?”, real-world economics review, issue no. 74, 07 April 2016, pp. 42-48, http://www.paecon.net/PAEReview/issue74/Stilwell74.pdf

  1. blocke
    April 11, 2016 at 10:19 am

    Despite the heroic attempt by the editor to include an historian like myself in the dialogue, Fullbrook’s efforts have not succeeded because few historians are mentioned in the rwer blog, despite the fact that they have a long and distinguished history in discussing economic events. I think the real work economists need to reach out to historians, i.e., through their economic, business, and world history associations to bring them into the dialogue about the historical shortcomings of orthodox economic analysis Asad Zaman has awoken historical consciousness through his work on Polanyii, but even this falls short because he was not an historian. We had some hefty debates about the invasion of neoclassical economics and econometrics into economic history in the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s among historians (see Locke, The End of the Practical Man, Introduction) but nobody pays much attention to that debate in the rwer blog. If there is sufficient receptivity, we also need to encourage historians to develop closer cooperation with members of the blog. The university community needs to wake up to the shortcomings of economics and to be brought into reform efforts about its teaching.

  2. April 12, 2016 at 7:29 am

    Stilwell makes a good case for interdisciplinary work. A better solution would be to reunite the study of human actions and ways of life into a single effort once again. It was united such until the social sciences came along with dozens of academics all of whom wanted a realm of their own from which they could build their separate “disciplines” and gather money and political support to remake academia and if possible to remake the entire world in each of their own images. Not many worthwhile goals here. But lots of bravado and over selling. Now some of these academics are angry with others of the same bunch. They’re angry at the academics who have been more successful than them at selling their version of “visions to save mankind and world” and make us all “better off,” if not downright perfect. Their targets are neoclassical economics, operations research, systems theory, computer modeling, quantitative sociology, etc. Their attack combines anger, envy and fear. Anger at losing inside and outside of academia. Envy of those who are feasting while they suffer shortages. Fear of having their disciplines shut down for “lack of relevance.” Many of them feel persecuted and disrespected. At bottom they have lost in a political process for relevance, influence, and public support.

    Blocke’s comments are relevant. History was a study long before the “social sciences” were invented. In fact, much of what the social sciences “study” overlaps, intentionally I think with concerns long addressed by historians. So perhaps historians could bring some common sense and pragmatism back to the study of humans and human ways of life. They certainly couldn’t make it any worse. Social scientists are so tied down and handicapped by their focus on theory and methods they not only can’t see the forest for the trees, they think the trees are algorithms and the forest a matrix of forces. Unfortunately, except for clinicians and policy analysts social scientists really have no interest in the actual events and actors who make the worlds they supposedly want to study and understand. If it wasn’t such a big “social science” word I’d have to conclude social science and social scientists have become delusional.

    • blocke
      April 12, 2016 at 12:49 pm

      “Social scientists are so tied down and handicapped by their focus on theory and methods they not only can’t see the forest for the trees, they think the trees are algorithms and the forest a matrix of forces.”

      A Very good point, Ken, one made by H Thomas Johnson in his critique of managers educated in MBA programs, which I quote in the current issue of the rwer, p. 55 in my article “History as a source of economic policy,” Johnson noted: “Increasingly after 1970, managers lacking in shop floor experience or in engineering training, often trained in graduate business schools, came to dominate …manufacturing establishments. In their hands the ‘map was the territory.’ In other words, they considered reality to be the abstract quantitative models, the management accounting reports, and the computer scheduling algorithms….”

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