My Thoughts on Lipartito on “The Ontology of Economic Things”

9 10 2020

The distinguished business historian Ken Lipartito has published a very thoughtful piece in Enterprise and Society about the advantages and disadvantages of adopting methodological individualist lenses in the course of doing business-historical research. In the paper, Lipartito demonstrates a high degree of theoretical fluency. I agree with much, perhaps 95%, of what he says. It is clear that we like to read the same types of theory (NIE, Schelling, Foss on microfoundations, Latour, etc). Let me focus on the 5% disagreement I have with Lipartito. I think that my disagreements with specific statements in his paper stem from slightly different meta-theoretical assumptions (that is assumptions about the production and use of theory): I tend to judge whether to use a given theoretical lens based on whether doing so is instrumentally useful to the researcher’s career and helps the researcher to create knowledge that is useful to non-academic stakeholders, such as firms and policymakers.  I’m also operating in slightly different cultural context (I live and work in the homeland of Charles Darwin, where evolutionary thinking and evolutionary psychology are more socially acceptable than they are in many parts of American society, including those that think of themselves as liberal in US terms). I’m also at a different career stage than Ken is and have a different incentive structure.

Lipartito (2020, p.597), writes “We can also expand the scope of methodological individualism by looking more deeply at human motivations, rather than just assuming a narrow, instrumental rationality. Critiquing economic models for treating people as “rational fools,” economist Amartya Sen points out that people in fact have a wide range of goals, strategies, and desires. They may be interested in loyalty, solidarity, and morality, all things that subordinate self-interest and own-goal seeking to the interests of the group or a shared principle.”

I totally agree with this statement, but believe in that accounting for why human beings are not as selfish as the Econ 101 model of human nature might suggest, it would be very useful to draw on evolutionary psychology, particularly the newer variants grounded in Multi-Level Selection Theory, explains why a desire to take care of one’s group is deeply ingrained in human nature, thanks to millions of years living in small hunter-gatherer bands that punished individuals who were purely selfish.  I therefore think that Ken should engage more fully and sympathetically with evolutionary psychology than he does in this paper.

Evolutionary psychology emerged in the 1970s and 1980s in an attempt to explain certain features of human nature as the functional products of natural selection in the evolutionary environment (Dawkins, 1976; Wilson, 1999). Initially controversial, the main premises of evolutionary psychology now enjoy widespread support in psychology and political science and in behavioural finance (!!!!) and in medical schools. The currently anti-obesity campaign run by the NHS and Public Health England was designed by people who explicitly acknowledged their debts to evolutionary psychology, which teams that our evolutionary heritage predisposes people (including me!!) in the modern, calorie-rich environment to overconsume foods, particularly sweet foodstuffs that were scarce in the evolutionary environment. (That insight would, I think, be useful to any historian want to write about the history of the junk food industry). Anyway,  MLS theory, which posits that natural selection sometimes involves competition between individuals, and simultaneously acts on multiple levels ranging from the gene and the cell, up to communities and entire species (Kramer & Meunier, 2016). MLS thus differs from the older versions of evolutionary theory that conceptualise competition as taking place primarily between individuals (e.g., Dawkins, 1976; Nicholson 2008). I think that Ken’s target should be this older version of evolutionary psychology, not the MLS theory developed more recently in the wake of the seminal work of David Sloan Wilson and others.

On page 616, Ken writes appears to endorse the adoption by business historians of “new social ontologies” to replace the variants of methodological individualism whose faults he identifies earlier in the paper. He writes:

Agency and structure, materialism and mentality, subject and object were the dichotomous problematics that models of the social had to address. The new social ontologies seek to bypass these dichotomies by recognizing the wide variety of entities,material and human, that constitute any social fact or thing we care to identify. The result is to shift the emphasis to the ways that social things are constructed, and the contingent nature of those constructions.

Right, this passage prompts me to ask two genuine, non-rhetorical questions.

First, what would be the practical advantage to business historians seeking to develop their careers and to contribute knowledge that is useful to non-academics of adopting the new social ontologies? Would doing so help us to get papers into the top journals needed for promotion? Would discarding all of the existing variants of methodological individualism and adopting an approach similar to the Latourian actor-network ANTi-History lens associated with Gabby Durepos help us to produce knowledge that is more useful to, say, MBA students or policymakers or managers in firms?  Or would we be better served by the using some variant of methodological individualism, albeit one that is rooted in the findings of biologists such as David Sloan Wilson, psychologists such as Joseph Henrich, and the work of Nicholas A. Christakis of the Human Nature Lab at Yale? I’m genuinely agnostic on that question, at least right now.

Second, what are the methodological implications of adopting the theoretical lens proposed in this paper? Although I am more agnostic about which theoretical lenses we as business historians use, I am a strong advocate of the use of corporate archives. In the past, Ken has written brilliantly and influentially about the use of historical primary sources (a recent historical paper in ASQ draws on his methodology paper). Would adopting a Latourian ANTi-History lens require us to shifting to using different sources and research methods? His paper, perhaps because of space constraints, doesn’t talk about Durepos and the methodologies used by other ANTi-history scholars in Canadian and other business schools.


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9 10 2020
Kenneth Lipartito

Hi Andrew, thanks for your thoughts on my article. I have no objections to what you wrote, except perhaps being called “distinguished.” Sort of like when men reach the age of being called “sir” and women “madam.”

More seriously, I’ll admit to not knowing much about MLS theory. I am skeptical of most social Darwinism/socio-biology for due to the ease with which it can slide into eugenics or racism, and also the tendency to construct “just so” stories when applied to history. But as I say I’m less familiar with the versions you are discussing. I have read and still do read the work of evolutionary economists. But maybe that’s a topic for a different conversation.

As I wrote in the paper there is no reason for stopping at “fully constituted” individuals, or worse assuming that people are by nature and definition “fully constituted.” So adding in insights from psychology and other disciplines that more closely examine mind, identity, and consciousness seems fair enough. I personally would look at the work of sociologist Andrew Abbott on these matters. I think behavioral economics is rather anti theoretical and psychology seems to have a bit of a problem with replication these days. As for your example of diet, I’d reply that yes, we may well be disposed to certain dietary patterns due to our evolutionary history. On the other hand, much, in fact most of the history of food and diet has more to do with culture than biology, even though it has a biological basis. I take this lesson from one of my teachers, the late Sid Mintz. It’s perhaps more interesting to see how some of the basic biological aspects of diet and calories are continually shaped and reformulated in different cultural settings. Clearly no culture can survive long if its diet does not allow for sufficient calories, but that basic boundary leaves lots and lots of room for improvisation, and even degrees of violation of the boundary.

I don’t have any easy answer to your point here: the “practical advantage to business historians seeking to develop their careers and to contribute knowledge that is useful to non-academics of adopting the new social ontologies?” I’d just say, part of what being in an academic setting is good for is to explore theories and ideas, methods and practices that may or may not have some sort of payoff in the non academic world. I mean if we don’t do it in universities, where does it ever get done? I think at least we have to ask fundamental questions about ontology and then see how the answers might be useful in generating new knowledge, and who knows where that could lead. My essay was avowedly theoretical, though I did try to offer at least some idea of how it might be applied to the study of business history (and by implication other types of economic institutions). Put another way, are we really doing a service to MBAs, policy makers, and managers if we DON’T try to develop new theory and push the boundaries of how research might be done?

To me methodological individualism has become a straightjacket, often posing as a suit of armor against criticisms from people working with different epistemologies. Part of the goal of the Bucheli and Wadhwani volume, I recall, was to make a theoretical space available in management and related journals so that articles of history and narrative would not immediately be seen as “lacking theory” because they did not conform to a narrow, MI based model of social theory. Here too I’d recommend Andrew Abbott’s trenchant critique of the “variables” approach in social science.

Actor Network theory was attractive to me because it started from two presumptions. First, that nothing is explained by “reducing” one thing to another. Second, that one can incorporate a wide range of material and mental or non material phenomena. Maybe third, its scalability, which could well reach into the sub individualistic realms you are interested in, as well as higher order entities. That said I don’t think it must be adopted as the answer or the new thing we must all do. For a more pragmatic take on social ontology and epistemology in social science I’d recommend the works of Daniel Little, whom I cite in the article, as well as his long standing blog, Understanding Society. Little, with a background in physics and sympathy to microeconomics, nonetheless advocates for diverse explanatory frameworks and close attention to causal pathways that do not presume a single method to truth for all things and all cases.

Regarding archives, I too still believe in them, but I also agree that sometimes it can seem difficult to adapt Latour to archives based history, even though many historians, especially historians of science and technology, use Latour. But thanks for calling my attention Durepos’s work, which I will now read. I actually had been in contact with her at some point during her dissertation, since the archives of Pan Am are in Miami. One final thought though, and that is there is now a much work, and much cutting edge scholarship, going on in history in critiquing and unpacking “the archives,” critical archives studies, much of it driven by scholars working in colonial archives, but with ideas that could be applied to any archives, maybe business archives in particular.

22 10 2020
andrewdsmith

Hi Ken,

Evolutionary economics (Nelson, Winter) is separate from evolutionary psych, which is in turn separate from “sociobiology” (a term from the 1970s and 1980s that I don’t see used that much anymore, certainly not in management journals). I do think that evol psych is relevant to business history and that we need to engage with it for three reasons 1) first, evol psych is congruent with and reinforces behavioural strategy/behavioural economics (Kahnemann and Tversky stuff) and behavioural strategy is both big right now and potential ally of business history 2) evol psych and business history share the same premise that the past matters 3) many business historians are interested in biology and the natural environment, in situating human beings as organisms in ecosystems, and in breaking down mind-body dualism.

Evol psych is powerful reminder that human beings are animals, social primates to be precise and that our evolutionary heritages explains common cognitive biases and the fact we don’t always behave as Econ 101 models suggest. Business historians say that if you want to be able to understand business today, you need to understand the evolution of business over the past (the last year, decade, century, millenium). Business history thus goes against the temporally myopic idea that the distant past is totally irrelevant and all that matters is pretty much the last quarter and the next quarter. Evol psych says that if you are to understand how people think and feel today, you need to understand not just how people behave in labs today but millions of years of evolutionary history as well.

I think that the most important point you raise is the one that you touch on this passage:

“I’d just say, part of what being in an academic setting is good for is to explore theories and ideas, methods and practices that may or may not have some sort of payoff in the non academic world. I mean if we don’t do it in universities, where does it ever get done?”

I would say that which theories and research methods of the many available to us we adopt will determine whether or not we get to remain in the university or academic setting in the first place. Ultimately, it’s about getting and staying hired. If the business history community collectively makes the wrong choices about theory and methods, members of the community won’t be able to do academic research: they will be relegated to institutions and departments in which there is little time for research, or they will be forced to leave the “academic setting” entirely. As a community, we business historians need to think very carefully about how choices about which theories and methods we use will impact the employability of people with the business history brand on their CV. Ultimately, we want to get to a point where doing a PhD in Business History is as likely to land you tenure-track job at a research-intensive university as is doing a PhD in, say, Marketing or or in Organisation Studies. At least before the pandemic, you if you did a PhD in one of those other disciplines and were a citizen of an advanced economy, you were virtually guaranteed to land a stable, full-time academic gig in the same year you graduated, even if you were a weak researcher. We all know cases of great PhDs in business history who eeked out an existence for a few years before heading to law school or government or who ended up an universities where they were stuck with massive teaching loads that meant they effectively dropped out of the research game. If we as a community embrace the wrong theory and/or research methods, the academic labour market will punish our younger members. However, if we play our cards right, we can improve the situation.

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