The Missing Literature Review
| Peter Klein |
There’s a discussion at Marginal Revolution about Ariel Rubinstein’s paper that I mentioned here. The discussion focuses on the nature of mathematical economics. Does Rubinstein correctly characterize what formal theorists do? What are the strengths and weaknesses of formal methods? Etc.
This is fine, but a secondary issue, which I find particularly interesting, has been missed. It’s that one can write an article on economic methodology for a premier economics journal without knowing any of the literature on economic methodology. Imagine writing a paper on, say, labor economics, describing some features of a particular labor market, analyzing those features, and drawing conclusions, without including a single reference to prior studies of the labor market. A research paper with no literature review!
We would not accept that in any other field of economics or business administration. Yet when it comes to the occasional article on methodology (or the history of economic thought) published in a mainstream journal, the literature review is considered unnecessary. One needen’t check the secondary literature in the Journal of Economic Methodology or History of Political Economy to see what others have thought about the phenomenon in question. One simply writes from the heart. “As I read Adam Smith, he seems to be saying X, Y, and Z.” In the 230 years since Adam Smith wrote, what did others who’ve read and reflected on Smith think he was saying? As Ayn Rand used to say: blank out. “I think the purpose of formal models in economics is A, B, and C.” What philosophical assumptions are you making? What does the literature on scientific methods say about this? Blank out.