Aiming High

Arjo Klamer
Economic Sociology Editorial Series, University of California, Irvine, date unknown

Socioeconomics, sociological economics, economic sociology: what are we talking about? Why don't we just speak of social science? That would have the advantages of claiming "science" (to be understood as systematic inquiry) and of relegating economics to a corner of the field, to become a subdiscipline of that larger domain "social science" from now on. In this way we overcome the stigma that is attached to anything "socio". We would get around the intimidation by that big bully that goes by the name of "neoclassical" or "mainstream economics" and get rid of prejudice that the injection of some "socio" into an economic inquiry signifies softness and scientific weakness. We would furthermore convey the message that the major challenges today are social and cultural rather than strictly economical.

The blindness for the social dimension in the bastion of economists is becoming scandalous. When social scientists followed the proposal of William Jevons and others to focus on that what can be measured, they discovered new worlds of models and statistics which have kept them busy ever since. Engineering provided the heuristic metaphors and mathematics provided the language for endless variations on the same theme. What a wonderful time it must have been for the social scientists with a knack for numbers and formulas. It's no wonder that economics with its focus on measurable prices could become the dominant discipline in social science. Yet even during the heyday of modernism the strangeness of the project did not escape its most hardened practitioners. That's why they all know the joke of the drunkard who looks for his keys near the lamppost "because that's where the light is" is symptomatic. But they do not dare to take the joke seriously. Instead, they sneer at all those who are searching for clues in the dark. Sociological economists or socioeconomists are in their view half-baked scientists who can't do the science of economics (maybe they failed the math tests) and therefore take their recourse to fuzzy stuff. Within standard economics departments the standing of sociology is so low that it is almost off the radar screen. "To most economists sociologists are like basketweavers," noted Jack Amariglio (a postmodernist marxist) during a conference last month in Amsterdam. Deirdre McCloskey (the economic historian with Chicago leanings and famous for her work on the rhetorics of economics), who sat next to him, took exception. She herself has come to the view that there is more to life than rational choice-love for example. To her it makes sense to consider people in their (non-economic) relationships. And she underscores the scandalous character of the way her profession has ridiculed and disparaged anything social, cultural or psychological. People do change their mind!

McCloskey's acknowledgment of the social dimension of life qualifies her for membership of the "socio" club. But instead of taking that as a verdict of marginalisation, she prefers to stake the high ground and argues that the rest of the profession is operating on the margin of reality, with its focus on only a tiny set of all the interactions among people. Rightly so. Adam Smith never bothered differentiating the economics from the sociology in his work and neither did Karl Marx. Alfred Marshall's writing is filled with sociological musings and so is the writing of virtually every respected and even less respected social scientists at his time. In their time economics was truly a subdiscipline of social science (even if there was not much of a discipline then). In hindsight, Marshall was misguided to strive towards putting a fence around economics as a separate discipline and crowning it as the "Queen of the Social Sciences." Yet he simply internalized and then institutionalized the increasing emphasis on the economic dimension of life, that is, on that what can measured. Now the urgency of that project has been lost and a reevaluation of the social and cultural dimensions of life is in order. Hence, the proposal to recover social science as the overarching discipline for our practices. That will put economics in its proper place, as one subject matter among others.

Aiming high is our only chance. The endless criticisms of neoclassical economics are becoming tedious. Admittedly, the rhetoric of rational choice, market equilibrium and positive science is so dominant that it is hard to say anything in different terms without first dealing with that rhetoric. Yet, we need to articulate a theory of human (inter)action that allows rational choice as one moment only and identifies the social, cultural, moral, and psychological moments as well. The literature is filled with proposals so we do not have to reinvent the wheel. Although thorough deconstruction of the dominant paradigm is still needed, I prefer the stage of reconstruction.

A seminar at the Erasmus university is dedicated to just such a project. We name our subject "cultural economics" but that's just because we started with an exploration of the cultural dimension of economics. Some of the questions that motivate our inquiry are "What if we give up the choosing individual as the entry point for analysis and start with the relationships that people form which each other", "How does culture 'work' in the sphere of economics? "and "How can we characterize the values that underlie consumption and work patterns?"

An eye opener has been the literature on the gift. It was interesting to note that many of the anthropologists who have studied the gift, like Marcel Mauss and Marshall Sahlins, defer to an economistic interpretation by stressing the reciprocal character of gift giving. Yet, the very nature of the gift compels us to consider the relationships that make the gift conceivable and, in turn, are sustained by gift-giving. Once we saw this, we realized that many economic transactions have the character of a gift. Parents buy stuff to give their children, most of Christmas consumption is intended as a gift.

Even a large chunk of the taxes we pay are a form of a gift. Yet no economic textbook even mentions the gift as a fact of (economic) life. Then again, no economic textbook recognizes the importance of human relations for the performance of economic organizations like professions, corporations and families.

The next logical step proved to be the consideration of identity as a determinant factor in human (inter)actions. Much of what people do, like buying clothes and cars, giving gifts, and working, are ways of negotiating who they are. Consumption can be viewed as a social act. If that's the case then preferences are social and cultural as well. And that would mean that we have to throw the assumption of given preferences out of the window. The automatons that populate the neoclassical narrative will have to come alive with moral sentiments and social ambitions. That would be too bad for those social scientist who insist on measurement, but that's life.

We also were able to make a connection with the work on the rhetoric of economics that some of us have been engaged in. Just like economists talk endlessly to cope with the uncertainties of their enterprise, so do the subjects of their research. McCloskey and I calculated that at least one quarter of GDP in the US is spent on persuasion. And that is only the part of all communication that is measured. People talk, so we posited, because they need to make sense of the world. Figuring out the income and wealth constraints is easy; the problem is knowing what we want. Whether we are in the market for a refrigerator, clothes of shares, we need to talk to find out what we want. That poses the challenge to us, social scientists, to understand all that talk.

The rehabilitation of social science as the primary discipline has far reaching consequences. That should be obvious. It will mean not only a recasting of the roles of human beings in our theories but also a change in method. Mathematics will become just one of the possible languages again, to be used mainly for analytical purposes and less so for representation and interpretation of reality. As a consequences our university programs would deemphasize the mathematics in their curriculum in favor of the instruction in interpretive methods. Our students may be required to do field work again. They may even actually visit the workplaces and the countries that they are studying and interview and observe their subjects! And they will have to learn to write in a way that brings the world they observe alive. Another implication of the rehabilitation of social science would be the reorganization of departments at universities and colleges. Just imagine how different life would be. And how different the world would seem. How much more interesting, too!