Ignorance is Bliss, Among Economists

31 July 2006 at 5:51 pm 1 comment

| Peter Klein |

Everyone knows that economists tend to be woefully uninformed about the history of their discipline. But one can still be surprised. At a recent luncheon I was seated next to an editor of one of the leading field journals in economics. This journal publishes mainstream, fairly technical articles in its specialty area and is quite highly ranked by the usual measures. The luncheon speaker was Kenneth Arrow.

The journal editor literally did not know who Arrow was. He recognized the name, and had a vague idea that Arrow was someone important, but could not name even one general area in which Arrow worked (general-equilibrium theory, information economics, social choice, etc.).

I resisted the temptation to ask if he’d heard of Adam Smith or Karl Marx.

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Law and Entrepreneurship Evolutionary Economics and Economic Policy

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. JC  |  2 August 2006 at 6:24 am

    Alas, we are often ignorant of stuff that matters to our own thinking. We tend operate in and gravitate into silos. Looking at the bibliographies of articles on subject X in journal P, one can be very surprised to find how the same area of theory might be called subject Y in journal Q.

    Take ‘learning’ for instance. Many of those writing about it in our field following along the lines of, say:

    Arrow, K. (1962). The Economic Implications of Learning by Doing. Review of Economic Studies, 29(3), 155-173.


    Cohen, M. D., & Sproull, L. S. (Eds.). (1996). Organizational Learning. Thousand Oaks CA: Sage Publications.

    Remain blissfully ignorant of the models of learning in developmental psychology, such as:

    Tharp, R. G., & Gallimore, R. (1988). Rousing Minds to Life: Teaching, Learning, and Schooling in Social Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    and the issues raised in:

    Penrose, E. T. (1952). Biological Analogies in the Theory of the Firm – I. American Economic Review, 42, 804-819.

    The broader question is should this be taken as a criticism or just an inevitable fact of academic life? Given the level of publishing activity today – the number of journals and the number of people writing – we cannot hope to recover the kind of ‘knowing all forms of science’ that was possible at the time of the Lunar Society.

    That said, who then should adjudicate or police the body of literature that those regarded as card-carrying members of the field should be familiar with? Clearly we expect (a) doctoral committee members and (b) reviewers to do the heavy lifting here.

    Unfortunately the obvious lack of theroetical progression and scientific accrual in our field that Pfeffer, McKinley, and others complain about suggests our literature actually moves in circles and spins its wheels in the sands of time.

    A better appreciation of any field’s history seems to me to be the proper stiffening here. Unfortunately this is absolutely not what most doctoral committees demand from the candidate. Indeed there may be a sort of contagion of ignorance as supervisors unaware of seminal work demand even less of their students and the ‘discipline’ spirals downwards into dogma.

    Having been in the field for a generation I see old questions re-emerging as if they had never been asked, let alone addressed. How many of today’s students of organization are familiar with Barnard, Burns & Stalker, or the work of the Aston Group? Their work was riding high when I came into the field, which is how come I know about them. Now they are almost forgotten. Burns, for instance, gets but two passing mentions in:

    Tsoukas, H., & Knudsen, C. (Eds.). (2003). The Oxford Handbook of Organization Theory: Meta-Theoretical Perspectives. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    And this is a fine compendium of 644 pages right on topic!

    Instead of just grouching about this, since no-one really seems to care, we might turn the question upside down and ask ‘What kind of field are we in that regards this endless circling around a fixed set of topics as satisfactory?’ We discover networking anew without mentioning:

    Graicunas, V. A. (1933). Relationship in Organization. Bulletin of the International Management Institute, 7(March), 39-42.


    Gulick, L., & Urwick, L. (Eds.). (1977) [1937]. Papers on the Science of Administration. Fairfield CT: Augustus M. Kelley.

    Well, if we drop the physics-envy and the idea that what we are up to is ‘scientific’ and argue instead that doctoral research and the subsequent publish-and-perish process is about establishing and maintaining a certain quality of intellectual activity that we demand of those teaching students, then we may be closer to what is really going on. To publish one must be familiar with what is regarded as the field’s current problem topics, and with the literature which is regarded as relevant to the discussion. Given that nothing permanent is going to come from the work, it does not matter that similar topics are explored in different ways in adjacent fields. That’s not what the research and publishing is about.

    All we are hoping for is that the doctoral process ensures those entering the field can do research of some kind, and can communicate that habit of mind and discourse to their students. In this way we can shift confidently from the circa 1900 notion that there is a body of scientific knowledge to be communicated and arrive at the 21st century realization that things are so changed that the best we can hope for is to help students, both academic and professional, move into their future with research skills applicable to their situations’ new problematics. It’s the old story of teaching a man to fish rather than giving him a fish.

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