The Missing Literature Review

15 December 2006 at 11:58 am 3 comments

| 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.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Methods/Methodology/Theory of Science.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Tom  |  15 December 2006 at 10:27 pm

    I’m inclined to agree. The same thing could be largely said with Milton Friedman’s brief adventure into economic methodology. There seems to be a dissonance between economists and their (philosophical) methodology that is greater than any other field. The occasional article by a mainstream economist on methodology always ignores prior literature.

    Despite this observation, which is the same as yours, I am clueless of *why* this occurs. Are economists only aware of economic methodology after some bewilderment in their career?

  • 2. Bob V  |  16 December 2006 at 8:49 am

    My current (but everchaning) view on the need for literature review sections is that science attempts to produce cumulative knowlede, and without positioning the paper relative to prior works, there is no cumulation possible, and the paper is not doing science.

    Is it possible that Rubinstein doesn’t see his contribution as a scientific one?

  • 3. srp  |  26 December 2006 at 5:34 am

    Most scientists ignore the secondary literature on the history and philosophy of their fields when they discuss research strategies, etc. Maybe they cite Kuhn or Popper but probably haven’t read them. Formal work in methodology is seen as sissy stuff for people who don’t have good research ideas. This tendency sometimes leads to reinvention of the wheel or commission of various fallacies and solecisms, but I think it’s actually more interesting to find out what’s really going on inside the heads of prominent researchers than it is to read their attempts at methodological scholarship. Rubenstein practically lays down on the couch and spills out all his night thoughts in that article, which is entertaining and thought-provoking in a way that a scholarly treatement wouldn’t be.

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