Are economists superior to other social scientists?
En route from London to Rome I read The Superiority of Economists by Marion Fourcade, Etienne Ollion and Yann Algan (Journal of Economic Perspectives, 29, 1: 89-114). https://www.aeaweb.org/articles.php?doi=10.1257/jep.29.1.89
Some travels within Italy – to Pisa and Siena – gave me time for musings and reflections about the content of this paper. Move forward a few weeks and back in London I have decided to turn those reflections into clicks and share them with the WEA membership.
I liked the paper very much. It is well researched, well argued, and, overall, a very interesting read. The research is based mainly on bibliometric data and largely on the US. The authors compare three major disciplines: Economics, Sociology and Political Science on the following issues dealt with in separate sections: (1) Insularity; (2) Hierarchical structures; (3) Getting a job; (4) Getting published; (5) Getting together.
Economics appears to be much more insular than the other two disciplines on the basis of within-field citation of the three flagship journals: American Economic Review; American Political Science Review; and American Sociological Review. When citing outside the strictly economics field articles from the top five economics journals (Quarterly Journal of Economics; Journal of Political Economy; American Economic Review; Econometrica; and Review of Economic Studies) are more likely to cite from the Finance field than from Business, Political Science, Sociology, Law or Statistics and Mathematics. Regarding the latter two disciplines it is a sign of the degree of internalization of mathematical and statistical techniques that economists are no longer in need to cite from them.
Economics is a more hierarchical discipline: ‘economics more than the other fields look both inward and toward the top of its internal hierarchy.’ (p. 96). In economics the process of getting jobs is ‘…very organized, with most departments collectively deciding on the rank ordering of their own students applying for positions. This procedure, which is uncommon in many academic fields, is possible only in the context of economists’ strong internal agreement on quality criteria…’ (p. 97). Moreover, ‘Economists command some of the highest levels of compensation in American arts and science faculties according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics data.’ (p. 89).
On ‘Getting Published’, the authors write: ‘The economics publications market is also comparatively more concentrated than in other social science disciplines in the sense that the most-cited journals exhibit a heavier concentration of papers coming from elite departments in economics than in sociology.’ (p. 98).
Finally, in terms of professional associations, economics appear to have established more cohesive and hierarchical organizations compared to other social sciences disciplines that have a ‘more fractious character’. (p. 100).
At this point I would like to add an extra element of ‘superiority’ to the article’s long list. In the UK Research Assessment Exercise of 2008 economics achieved the highest score of any discipline. In the so-called Research Excellence Framework of 2014 it achieved the highest score of any social sciences. Now the attentive world reader is likely to have noticed that the first result came as the worse financial crisis in 80 years hit the global economy. The second result came after years of austerity that led to millions of unemployed in Europe and saw widespread use of food banks to relieve increased poverty in the UK. These events and trends are the results of neo-liberal economic policies backed up by the mainstream economics profession. I see three possible explanations for these extraordinary results on the assessment of UK economics research. (a) Economists are truly superior researchers. (b) The assessment results are the outcome of extreme agreement within a profession which is now dominated by a main paradigm as argued in Gillies (2012). (c) The results are a sign of a very subtle sense of humour on the part of the people, institutions and machinery behind research assessment systems.
Now for my comments on the paper. There are three areas on which I would like to comment. First, the fact that most of the issues and conclusions in the paper – insularity, hierarchy, incestuous relationship between elite departments and top journals – are partly a sign and partly an effect of the single-paradigmatic nature of economics as we see it today. Most of us know that under the influence of the neo-liberal ideology, economics has moved more and more towards the dominance of the mainstream neoclassical paradigm. Fred Lee (2007) has well documented the empirics behind the mono-paradigmatic nature of economics. Donald Gillies’ philosophical explanation has linked it to the Research Assessment processes (2012). Moreover, those of us who were young economists in the 1960s had the pleasure of witnessing that on both sides of the Atlantic the two Cambridges were both more open to alternative paradigms. Do we have a similar domination by one paradigm – again linked to the neo-liberal ideology – in the other social sciences disciplines? Has a similar historical process of paradigm concentration taken place also in political science and in sociology in the last 50 years? These are questions not tackled by the paper and yet badly in need of research at the interface of different disciplines of the type done by our three authors.
The second comment I would like to make relates to economists working in business schools. At p. 94-5 we read: ‘Table 2 suggests that economists have in general less regard for interdisciplinarity than their social scientific and even business school brethren.’ [My italics]. This comment seems to imply surprise at the level of interdisciplinarity of business school academics. The reality is that business schools are, by their very nature, multidisciplinary. Economists working in business schools are more exposed – than economists in economics departments – to knowledge from other disciplines including the sociology of organizations or of industrial relations as well as to strategic approaches to the firm. These fields are very relevant to real-life economics and are the ones in which we have seen cooperative research between economists and social scientists in works rarely found in top mainstream journals. Moreover, the requirements of business school students – often coming with work experience and in tune with real life economics – may force academic economists into a less abstract approach than we would find in economics departments. In my own field I can mention the important works of Raymond Vernon at the Harvard Business School on multinational companies and on internationalization processes. In the latter field there is a very large and well-organized international business community which includes economists as well as sociologists of organizations and industrial relations; marketing and strategy experts as well as accountancy academics. Their conferences are multi disciplinary and the papers are often the result of collaboration across disciplines. Nonetheless, the major problems for economics remain as most of the economics research work in business schools tends to be within the mainstream approach.
There is a third point I would like to mention. Academic economics is a very large profession and there are many, many economists working and contributing at institutions below the so-called top level. Concentrating only on elite institutions and journals may not give the full picture of what has been going on in terms of both teaching and research. In Britain many non-mainstream economists have survived the paradigmatic onslaught of the last 30 or so years by harbouring in lower level institutions or in business schools. In these organizations the requirements of paradigmatic orthodoxy were, often, traded off for more realistic approaches which made more sense to business school students or to students coming from less privileged backgrounds. Another possible research project on the sociology of the economics profession would be to shed light on differences between economics research emerging from economists working in business schools versus those working in economics departments.
I hope that some young WEA economist takes up these research challenges.
Gillies, D. (2012), “Economics and Research Assessment Systems”, Economic Thought. History, Philosophy and Methodology of Economics, World Economics Association, vol. 1, 1
Lee, F. (2007), ‘The Research Assessment Exercise, the state and the dominance of mainstream economics in British universities,’, Cambridge Journal of Economics, 31: 309-25.
 The citation from statistics and mathematics journals was relatively more relevant between the 1950s and 1980s.
From: pp.7-8 of World Economics Association Newsletter 5(2), April 2015