Blog Post

The superiority of economists

What’s at stake: Marion Fourcade and her co-authors (Etienne Ollion and Yann Algan) have made a big splash this week in econ departments and in the blogosphere with a paper giving a sociological perspective on the economics profession and arguing that economists’ objective supremacy is intimately linked with their subjective sense of authority and entitlement.

By: Date: December 11, 2014 Topic: Global Economics & Governance

What’s at stake: Marion Fourcade and her co-authors (Etienne Ollion and Yann Algan) have made a big splash this week in econ departments and in the blogosphere with a paper giving a sociological perspective on the economics profession and arguing that economists’ objective supremacy is intimately linked with their subjective sense of authority and entitlement.

Paul Krugman writes that Fourcade’s  basic point is that successful economists tend to be intellectually arrogant because they live in a social setup that is very hierarchical, with steep gradients of prestige, widespread agreement about what constitutes good work and who is doing it, and pretty big rewards by professorial standards for climbing to the top of the heap. 

Livio Di Matteo writes that this is a rather unflattering portrait of the profession as a self-centered, financially privileged, male dominated clique of academic imperialists. Crooked Timber writes that a lot of economists are reading the piece don’t really get Fourcade’s argument, which is a Bourdieuian one about how a field, and relations of authority and power within and around that field get constructed. 

How economists see themselves (and how others see them)

Marion Fourcade and al. write that economists see themselves at or near the top of the disciplinary hierarchy. In a survey conducted in the early 2000s, Colander (2005) found that 77 percent of economics graduate students in elite programs agree with the statement that “economics is the most scientific of the social sciences.” They see the field’s high technical costs of entry and its members’ endeavors to capture complex social processes through equations or clear-cut causality as evidence of its superior scientific commitment, vin­dicating the distance from and the lack of engagement with the more discursive social sciences.

Marion Fourcade and al. write that from the vantage point of sociologists, geographers, historians, political scientists or even psychologists, economists often resemble colonists settling on their land. Lured by the prospect of a productive crop, economists are swift to probe the new ground. They may ask for guidance upon arrival, even partner-up with the locals (with whom they share some of the same data). But they are unlikely to learn much from them, as they often prefer to deploy their own techniques.

Noah Smith writes that a lot of academic disciplines look down on other disciplines – that’s part of the fun of academia. But psychologists certainly don’t think economists reign supreme over them. Nor, I assure you, do finance professors. It’s mostly sociologists who seem to have an inferiority complex. Peter Dorman is surprised by the data that suggests that economists are not collaborating more across disciplinary boundaries than they used to. One possible source of omitted evidence is that their list of external disciplines does not include psychology or biology, two fields where it seems to me that collaboration has been most fruitful.

Tyler Cowen writes that economists are in fact the smartest of the social scientists (on average), but this also has led economics to degenerate somewhat into a game of signaling smarts, to the detriment of breadth and knowledge of facts about the world.

The clubby character of the economics field

Paul Krugman writes that academic economics is indeed very hierarchical; but it’s important to understand that it’s not a bureaucratic hierarchy, nor can status be conferred by crude patronage. The profession runs on reputation — basically the shared perception that you’re a smart guy. Reputation comes out of clever papers and snappy seminar presentations. While it may seem like a vague concept, within each subfield everyone knows who the top guns are, and there’s a very steep slope downward from the few people at the very pinnacle and the next level. In my original home field, international trade, we used to joke that senior hires were difficult because there were only four people in the top ten. Because everything runs on reputation, a lot of what you might imagine academic politics is like — what it may be like in other fields — doesn’t happen in econ.

Crooked Timber writes that the paper provides good evidence that economics hiring practices, rather than being market driven are more like an intensely hierarchical kinship structure, that the profession is ridden with irrational rituals, and that key economic journals are apparently rather clubbier than one might have expected in a free and competitive market. What appears to economists as an intense meritocracy is plausibly also, or alternately, a social construct built on self-perpetuating power relations.

Marion Fourcade and al. write that several leading economic journals edited at particular universities have a demonstrable preference for in-house authors, while the AER is much more balanced in its allocation of journal space. Look­ing at home bias figures since the 1950s, Coupé (2004) finds a consistent pattern of over-representation of in-house authors over time. Between 1990 and 2000, for in­stance, the Harvard-based QJE “assigned 13.4 percent of its space to its own people” and 10.7 percent to neighboring MIT (against 8.8 percent to the next most prominent department, Chicago). Conversely, 9.4 percent of the pages of the Chicago-based JPE went to Chicago-affiliated scholars. This was equivalent to the share of Harvard and MIT combined (4.5 and 5.1 percent, respectively). Wu (2007) shows that these biases actually increased between 2000 and 2003.8 Our data (2003–2012) confirm this domination of Cambridge, Massachusetts over the QJE and (to a lesser extent) Chicago over the JPE.

Peter Dorman writes that the treatment of organizational structure focuses entirely on the AEA in relation to the professional organizations for American political scientists and sociologists.  This material was quite interesting, but aren’t they leaving out something important?  I’m thinking of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), which provides support and especially networking for “core” researchers in economics.  From where I stand, many rungs beneath, this looks like a nomenklatura for the profession.  Perhaps this is a misinterpretation.  But if not, we ought to document how members of NBER are recruited and what the career consequences are for inclusion versus exclusion.

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