The Dangers of Defining Yourself Against Other Disciplines

4 12 2014

Marion Fourcade, Etienne Ollion and Yann Algan have published a piece on the ‘Superiority of Economists’ that has become a sensation in the academic blogosphere (see here, here, and here). The paper offers a great deal of evidence about how the economics profession operates and how it has achieved societal dominance at the perceived expense of other academic disciplines. Not only are economists paid more than other social scientists, they have a demonstrably greater impact on the making of public policy. [If we assume a zero-sum world of academic resources and influence over the public sphere, the success of the economists must necessarily be at the expense of other academics]

Among other things, the paper shows that the discipline of economics is far from being  purely competitive market place of ideas. Rather ironically, it is run on the basis of a sort of intellectual mercantilism: the role of elite journal editors as gatekeepers makes it very insular and hierarchical, despite the existence of double-blind peer review For instance, the Journal of Political Economy which is published out of the University of Chicago allocates about a tenth of its coveted page space to authors based at that institution.  The economics discipline is dominated by just few PhD-granting programmes, all in the United States. Heterodox voices are muffled. Occasionally economists based in other societies, such as France, get global recognition, but the case of Thomas Piketty suggests that to do so they need to bypass the top US economics journals by publishing their research in book form.  The role set-up sounds suspiciously like the protected or non-export-competitive sectors of the Japanese economy (e.g., retail).  Despite this industrial structure, the disciplines of economics has been able to achieve massive societal influence.

As Henry Farrell notes in a recent blog post, “economists’ dominance has led other fields either to construct themselves in opposition to economics (economic sociology) or in supplication to it (some versions of rational choice political science).”

It seems to me that there are dangers on defining oneself against the approach of another discipline. As a Business Historian, I have a natural tendency to borrow from a wide range of disciplines, including various branches of economics, but also sociology, strategy, org studies, political science, and economics. Whenever a historian borrows theory from another discipline and then applies it to what he or she has found in the archive, they run the risk of being accused of being a collaborator  in the intellectual imperialism of the other discipline.  Personally, I think that the threat of methodological imperialism to Business History is overrated since we live in a multipolar academic world of countervailing disciplinary influences.

That’s why I’m somewhat concerned that some historians, both Business Historians and people in the parent discipline of History, are now starting to define themselves in opposition to other disciplines.

Exhibit A is The History Manifesto (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014) by David Armitage and Jo Guldi.

The core argument of this laudably ambitious work was summarized by Annalee Newitz as:

Fifty years ago, historians advised politicians and policy-makers. They helped chart the future of nations, by helping leaders learn from past mistakes in history. But then something changed, and we began making decisions based on economic principles rather than historical ones. The results were catastrophic.

Armitage and  Guldi are calling for a “historic turn” in the public-policy process.  As I said in a blog post about this book, I’m certainly inclined to think that more input from academic historians would improve public policy (as would more input from psychologists, scientists, and other experts). Moreover, their efforts to promote a historic turn in policy is very interesting to me in light of the ongoing “historic turn” in management-school research: a small but growing number of management academics are turning to  the historical record and historical methods, rather than economics, to make sense of present. Management academics are concerned, primarily, with decision-making in the private sector, whereas policy academics are interested, primarily, with decision-making in government. In both areas of research, there is obviously some push back against perceived economic imperialism (i.e., the tendency of neo-classical economics to colonize subject matters that were not traditionally considered to be within the purview of economics). One interpretation of the historic turn in management and Armitage-Guldi book is that history is engaged in a form of counter-imperialism against economics, which was long the most imperialistic of the social sciences.

The Armitage and  Guldi  book has some great ideas in it. That being said, I don’t like the idea that historians should write programmatic and  methodological works defining themselves primarily in opposition to another discipline rather than on the basis of the core strengths of their own discipline (e.g.,  attention to social context, deep immersion in the primary sources). It seems like an unduly negative mode of proceeding. It’s like  basing one’s self-esteem on negative thoughts like “I’m thinner than the fat people around me” rather than on more positive ideas such “I’m very good at driving, even when the winter weather is working against me.”

Moreover, while Armitage and  Guldi   are clearly respectful of economics and other disciplines, and of the individuals who work in these fields, there is a danger that defining oneself in opposition to a discipline can lead down the slippery slope to personal attacks and outright negativity.

This point leads me to Exhibit B, the feud between Harvard history professor Jill Lepore and Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen. This dispute, which was reported in the press, went well beyond a friendly disagreement about research methodologies and got emotional and even a bit nasty.  Such disputes are counterproductive and generate more heat than light.

For an excellent and fundamentally positive discussion of the core strengths of historical approaches to organizational studies, see Marcelo Bucheli and R. Daniel Wadhwani, eds. Organizations in Time: History, Theory, Methods. Oxford University Press, 2013.