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Why Economics Needs Pluralism

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By Edward Fullbrook

[Editor’s Note: The following draws on Edward Fullbrook’s WEA Book, Narrative Fixation in Economics, available as an ebook (free download for paid up WEA members) and for purchase as a paperback. Here the foundation is presented. The book proceeds to build on this foundation, highlighting, inter alia, the way that perceptions, in economics and elsewhere, are process-dependent.]

Einstein’s revolution led philosophers and historians of science to abandon 19th-century views of scientific progress as a smooth accumulation of tested facts. Scholars came to focus instead on the processes by which one theory displaces or subsumes another. By the 1960s, obsession with competing theories became so extreme that increasingly all science was defined and interpreted relative to its infrequent revolutions (Kuhn 1962). This narrative Gestalt has spread through contemporary culture, dominating its perceptions of the advancement of knowledge.

Generally – and the present case is no exception – the natural sciences ignore outsider analysis, but the narrative fixation on the dialectical side of scientific development has had and continues to have a deleterious effect on the human sciences. Of course theory displacement offers a true characterisation of important chapters in science history. But there are many major advances in science for which the narrative of scientific revolutions, including its intervals of “normal science”, has no explanatory power. More to the point, in the human sciences those “extraordinary episodes” which have “necessitated the community’s rejection of one time-honoured scientific theory in favour of another incompatible with it,” are virtually unknown (Kuhn 1962, p. 6). In economics, for example, the absence of such episodes weighs so heavily on its pursuit of understanding that no sensible overview of its fundamental ideas is possible without abandoning the traditional narrative structure.

The notion of narrative provides a central organizing concept. The term is deployed inclusively, so as to encompass everything from the theories of micro physics to the myths of traditional societies. Narratives commonly taught in universities, “knowledge narratives”, will receive primary attention. It frequently happens that in a field of empirical enquiry there emerge several narratives which rather than being contradictory or incompatible are complementary in the sense of offering different windows for observation of the same or overlapping domains of phenomena. Every narrative – and, therefore, every theory, paradigm and research program – launches itself from a conceptual framework, including a set of presuppositions about the nature of reality. Inevitably, different conceptual frameworks offer different points of view on the object of inquiry. What one sees when one looks at Michelangelo’s statue of David depends on the standpoint from which it is observed; similarly, what any empirical inquiry makes of its object depends on the conceptual framework through which it is viewed. Just as full appreciation of David requires viewing it from more than one perspective, so knowledge accumulation often depends upon investigating empirical domains through more than one narrative. I call this the doctrine of narrative pluralism. It is the same view of empirical understanding that the physicist David Bohm describes as follows.

“What is called for is not an integration of thought, or a kind of imposed unity, for any such imposed point of view would itself be merely another fragment. Rather, all our different ways of thinking are to be considered as different ways of looking at the one reality, each with some domain in which it is clear and adequate. One may indeed compare a theory to a particular view of some object. Each view gives an appearance of the object in some aspect. The whole object is not perceived in any one view but, rather, it is grasped only implicitly as that single reality which is shown in all these views. When we deeply understand that our theories also work in this way, then we will not fall into the habit of seeing reality and acting toward it as if it were constituted of separately existent fragments corresponding to how it appears in our thought and in our imagination when we take our theories to be ‘direct descriptions of reality as it is’” (Bohm 1983, pp. 7-8).

All representations, whatever their form, proceed on the basis of a simplification of reality. There are no exceptions to this rule, not even the most sophisticated scientific theories…

For every empirical domain there exists an infinity of possible points of view and, therefore, also of potential observations. These plethoras of possibilities present observers/narrators with an acute problem of choice. They must decide which features of their domains they are going to describe and which they are going to disregard. Each of their narratives can proceed only on the basis of a radical simplification of reality. To this end, and in lieu of random observations from random points of view, narrators deploy principles of selection, or what James called “systems of observation” and today’s writers usually call “conceptual frameworks”. This process abstracts certain features of the narrative’s domain while ignoring others. A narrative may make explicit its narrative framework, but more often it leaves it partly or wholly concealed, leaving it to operate outside critical awareness.

Different but non-competing narratives of the same domain give prominence to different dimensions of that domain. Each narrative functions as an interpretative system, as a special way of perceiving some corner of existence.

Narrative selection proceeds through a set of assumptions which simplify or pre-empt many features of the narrative’s domain. These assumptions include a system of classification of entities, the attribution of a limited number of properties to those entities, some metaphysic which posits a kind or kinds of connection between events, and usually the recognition of different structural levels within the domain of inquiry. A narrative also views its domain from a certain scale, omitting details that it sees as too microscopical or too global, too short-run or too long-run. Typically it also describes its domain within some range of accuracy or approximation, ignoring effects which do not fall within that range. Finally, every knowledge narrative has its community of practitioners, people who develop and deploy the narrative in writing and teaching. As socially, economically, geo-politically and historically situated individuals, these people bring to the narrative enterprise various inclinations and sensibilities, as well as overt purposes, all of which help determine which aspects of the domain the narrative includes, emphasizes and ignores.

[Moreover]…any classification of an empirical domain limits the possible descriptions, and thereby also the field of possible facts and possible questions … even when it comes to dividing up a domain on the basis of the most advanced science there exist more than one plausible and defensible way of doing so. The best way will depend on the purposes of the narrative for which the classification is intended. Every categorization of a set of empirical phenomena uniquely circumscribes our possible understanding of that realm of reality… Likewise the numerous ways in which any domain can be divided up, means that there exist many different bases for making a systematic inquiry of that domain.

Bohm, David (1983) Wholeness and the Implicate Order, London: Routledge

Kuhn, Thomas. S. (1970[1962]) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

From: pp.9-10 of WEA Commentaries 7(4), August 2017


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1 response

  • Edward K Ross says:

    I am only a largely uneducated 81 year old in the real world and have been working on a paper for some time on the importance of learning how to think aimed at both students and educators. I originally downloaded Fullbrooks Narrative Fixation in Economics and used it in my paper on the importance of learning how to think and evaluate a subject using pluralistic conversations.Because from my perspective it describes in a clear everyday language the reason why neoliberal economic rationalism is an abject failure and the tool of the wealthy elite.

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