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Making Many Maps: Why We Need an Interested Pluralism in Economics and How to Get There
Patrick Léon Gross, 2021
"Economics is by necessity a multi-paradigmatic science. Several theoretical structures exist side by side, and each theory can never be more than a partial theory."
Likening scientific work to the self-coordinating “invisible hand” of the market, Michael Polanyi cautioned strongly against centralized attempts to steer science
From this contradiction between the freedoms that economics preaches and how the discipline is organized flows an “institutional schizophrenia” that raises deep questions about the nature of objectivity, certainty, power – and ultimately, truth – within one of the world’s most influential scientific discourses. The paper shows that against the scientific ideals of empirical adequacy and publicly responsibility, the analytical envelope within which the mainstream operates looks epistemically fragile and ontologically limited. Heterodox thinking can restore economics’ status as a “good” science. To get there, practitioners must unite behind a framework of “interested pluralism” and push for the appropriate changes in research and teaching.
The argument is structured as follows: Section 1 evaluates the foundations of the economic mainstream from the perspective of philosophy of science. Section 2 shows how different heterodox traditions can contribute to a science suited for the 21st century. Section 3 advocates for the concept of interested pluralism as the most viable option for organizing the heterodox sphere. Section 4 suggests research and pedagogical implications.
Mainstream Economics: Good or Bad Science?
If we accept that “good” science is about empirical adequacy
Critical realism as rhe white flag in the war zone
Views on what constitutes an empirically adequate science have always been contested throughout history. During the Science Wars in the 1990s, positivistic realists and post-modern critics forcefully disagreed about whether scientific knowledge represents naturalized objective facts
From matters of fact to matters of concern
Good science ensures empirical adequacy as the precondition for public responsibility. As facts about social reality come into being for reasons like curiosity, need, or concern, they are inseparable from values: we cannot prioritize one over the other. Thus, “matters of fact” are always “matters of concern”
A castle built on fragile grounds
Compared to these ideals of “good” science, mainstream economics is a castle built on fragile grounds. Opposed to the critical realist perspective, economics forcefully clings to an overhauled notion of scientific positivism. For example, mainstream economists still subscribe to a strict mathematical formalism that hides its deeply subjective nature behind a veil of numbers
Economics and the vacuum of responsibility
However epistemically fragile and ontologically limited, we cannot preclude the possibility that mainstream economics has contributed greatly to human development and wellbeing. Indeed, great parts of the world today enjoy unprecedented levels of prosperity, growth, safety, and health
Exploring the Heterodox Atlas
What the mainstream fails to deliver in terms of empirical adequacy and public responsibility may be found in heterodox schools of economic thought. For long, heterodox economics was defined negatively as all the approaches excluded from the mainstream. Defining the term in a positive way as the “process of social provisioning,” however, highlights its own unique explanations for the ways in which the provisioning process can take place in different types of economies and different historical contexts
Marxian economics helps us better understand economic relations by shifting the ontological focus from the individual to “meta”-categories, socio-historical processes, and their interactions. Concepts like classes, modes of production, surplus accumulation, M-C-M’, and technological change equip us with the necessary language to understand the structural workings of complex economic systems. Moreover, Marx offers a historically contingent analysis, which fleshes out how the internal contradictions of the capitalist mode of production evolve over time, reminding us of the value to appropriately contextualize theories. Epistemologically speaking, Marx was perhaps one of the first “weak” social constructivists: his concept of historical materialism helps us understand how social and material reality constantly co-produce each other, and his critique of commodity fetishism is still deeply relevant to understand the emergence of modern capitalist consumer culture. Ultimately, Marx’ thinking also invites us to reflect on the deeply ethical questions enmeshed in economic relations, and opens up a plethora of avenues for how we can, on a structural level, design economies in more redistributive and just ways.
The study of institutional economics brings to the forefront questions about the ways in which intangible conditions (social codes, the "rules of the game," cognitive faculties, biases, preferences) and tangible structures (states, bureaucracies, firms, organizations) shape individual economic behavior and collective welfare outcomes over time. Understanding the emergence, interplay, and evolution of these institutions invites contributions from different disciplines including sociology, anthropology, political science, and psychology, thus broadening pluralism to “neighboring” perspectives of the economic discourse. Institutional economics reminds us that the economy cannot be understood by an aggregate observation of individual behaviors but requires nesting these behaviors in a larger framework of rules, norms, and structures that – in the spirit of co-production – both shape and are shaped by each other. Such a perspective opens a set of alternative approaches to design economies in ways that increase welfare beyond individual utility.
Post-Keynesian economics is an economic approach, theory, and body of empirical knowledge that challenges neoclassical arguments about the role of the state, distribution, market equilibria, finance, and employment in modern economies. This critique is grounded in unique ontological concepts such as animal spirits, effective demand, hysteresis, endogenous money, or the socialization of investment. Combined, they contribute to our understanding of economic relations as simultaneously determined by the twin forces of "micro- and macrofoundations" (in the general focus of analysis, however, the macrofoundations dominate): on the individual level, economic behavior is largely determined by individual biases, mood swings, and high uncertainty. On the structural level, institutional arrangements, class conflict, and historical contingencies take precedence. As such, post-Keynesian economics demarcates a fruitful opposite to mainstream explanations, e.g., in its rejection of Say’s law, or its acknowledgement of the state as a central economic actor in times of crises and when bolstering innovation.
Feminist economics adds a profound focus on inequality to the study of economic relations. Inequality understood not only as gender inequalities but also those of race, class, religion, ability, nationality, sexual orientation, and many more. This intersectional perspective is both rooted in the analysis of intangible phenomena, such as power and social norms, as well as the analysis of tangible spheres such as structural inequality in terms of access to rights, unions, the labor market, and the material foundations of life. In line with critical realism, feminist economics is based on an epistemological understanding of "situated knowledge,"
Ecological economics advocates for a view of reality that situates the economy within an ordered ontological hierarchy behind society and nature. Acknowledging this embeddedness implies that the economy is dependent on social reality and constrained by biophysical limits. From this flows a profound critique of the dominant neoclassical paradigm, its mode of production, politics, and institutions, which are argued to overstep these boundaries, not by accident but by design, leading to inacceptable social and ecological consequences. The discipline thus sets forward a research agenda to fundamentally rethink the capitalist market society by bringing to the forefront arguments about degrowth, planetary boundaries, human flourishing, and radical democratization. Thereby, ecological economics is rooted in the framework of critical realism, which recognizes the interconnectedness between biophysical and social reality, and the fundamental uncertainty inherent in studying complex and dynamic socio-ecological systems.
A Question of Interest
The above section shows the rich diversity of heterodox ontological, epistemological, and theoretical perspectives, needed to recalibrate economics alignment with “good” scientific practice. However, pluralism is not an end in itself. An unstructured pluralism is the antithesis of creating knowledge and understanding
First, “selfish pluralism” sees other dissenting economic traditions as mere “allies” in the struggle for survival against mainstream dominance. From this perspective, the heterodox idea serves merely as a rhetorical device, lacking genuine acceptance of the existence of other disciplines and rejecting collaboration between them. Pluralism hence means nothing but a “strategic alliance.”
Second, “disinterested pluralism” supports the coexistence of different theoretical paradigms within economics, and tolerates divergent methodological and analytical approaches. However, there is no interest for an increased interaction between them, as the ultimate goal is for the own discipline to gain primacy over the others. In this sense, pluralism implies a hierarchically-structured “pluralism of paradigms.”
Lastly, “interested pluralism” embodies a striving for constructive interaction between different traditions, guided by a set of ecumenical principles supporting pluralism “for its own sake.” Such a research program could unite different heterodox approaches under a shared umbrella and utilize their diversity based on an assessment of their relative strengths and weaknesses. We can thus speak of a “pluralist paradigm.”
Today, these different forms of conceptualizing, organizing, and implementing pluralism in heterodox economics coexist, overlap, and exclude each other. However, only “interested pluralism” is compatible with the epistemic standards of “good science” elaborated on earlier
Research and Pedagogical Implications
Demanding interested pluralism in economics is easily said, but how can we implement a pluralist paradigm in research and teaching? The following section prioritizes key areas and presents practical ideas.
How to make research more pluralistic
Making economics research more pluralistic is an ongoing, long-term, and incremental process, and there is no simple fix to breaking the hegemonial position of the mainstream. Nevertheless, I have identified four main foci for effective action discussed in the relevant literature: (1) using comparative methods, (2) creating synergies and shared semantics, (3) decolonizing research, and (4) strengthening policy-relevance.
Firstly, implementing methodological pluralism in practice implies careful juxtaposition of the ontological and epistemological foundations of different heterodox traditions, and working only across those fields of knowledge who share common ground.
Secondly, maximizing the benefits from such comparative assessments urges researchers to focus more strongly on potentials for synergy and complementarity. But albeit there is much overlap between different heterodox traditions, meaningful comparison and integration is often hindered by different linguistic framings of similar concepts. Heterodox researchers will have to create a universal language to facilitate interdisciplinary understanding and better address the many faces of their shared reality. The work of the Vienna Circle is a historical case in point.
Thirdly, reclaiming a true pluralist economic science demands decentralizing and internationalizing the production and dissemination of knowledge. The emerging dominance of neoliberal axioms historically correlates with the standardizing power of a few universities, think tanks, and countries in the Global North during the 20th century, e.g., the rise of the Ivy Leagues or the Mont Pelérin Society. In practice, decolonializing the intellectual landscape may involve the creation of a database of marginalized scholars, guidelines for inclusive organizations and conferences, cross-country peer-review practices, and a network of organizations and activists with like-minded visions.
Lastly, a central concern for heterodox research must be to bring the discipline back to the fore as a policy-relevant social science. The cross-fertilization of different heterodox theories must serve the creation of a novel generation of scholarship in which ideas are being brought to bear on concrete contemporary and historical problems. Such an undertaking implies more applied, creative, and case-based research on real-world economic issues at relevant spatial and temporal scales. Moreover, improving science-policy communication through conferences, lectures, and debates that are open to the public, held in accessible language, and focus on issues of common concern will be key to achieve this goal.
Diversifying economics education
In the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2007/8, mainstream economics was exposed to unprecedented criticism, nicely embodied by the Queen of England’s question of “why no one saw ‘it’ coming.” While starting to change the face of economic research, the question of innovation in teaching since has remained vastly untouched. However, novel scholarly contributions commence to advance this cause, again focusing on four concentration areas: (1) changing textbooks, (2) contextualizing knowledge, (3) diversifying didactics, and (4) encouraging student engagement.
First, changing economics education requires critical reflection of and alternatives to standard textbooks. In her analysis of the “war of ideas” in economic textbooks,
Second, economics teachers need to introduce students to the origins and evolution of economic thought, and include basics in the philosophy of science.
Third, parallel to changing content, economics education must also alter its didactic approach. The “science of learning” has matured decades ago
Lastly, economics must recognize and utilize the engaging spirit of bottom-up teaching innovators like student initiatives and their networks. In 2014, the critical economics student movement – in a public letter signed by 60 initiatives from more than 30 countries – stated that “it is not only the world economy that is in crisis, teaching of economics is in crisis, too” (ISIPE 2014). Since then, the movement has spread across the world and most major universities today have a “rethinking economics” group. Experiencing the transformative potential students can have on individual classes and the curricula of entire degrees for many has been a source of inspiration to turn outrage into optimism.
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 Strikingly captured by economics Nobel Laureate Paul Samuelson’s statement: “I don't care who writes a nation's laws, or crafts its advanced treaties, if I can write its economics textbooks”
 Inarguably human concerns also imply non-human forms of life, but elaborating on this perspective and the ways in which human flourishing is contingent on a diversity of other forms of life would exceed the scope of this essay. For more information see the Dasgupta Review on “The Economics of Biodiversity”, published in February 2021.
 Latour shows how climate change denialists and fossil lobbies have adopted the very same arguments, originally proposed by philosophers of science to debunk myths about scientific positivism, as weapons against climate science.
 Fallibilism argues that beliefs can never be verified but only falsified (except some mathematical or logical truisms).
 Here, the vast plurality of national climate policies is largely a question of “political will”, determined by the individual values of the decision-maker and the wider sociocultural understanding of acceptable risk and global responsibility.
 I.e., mainstream economics assumes that free market competition leads to the most efficient allocation of resources.
 Originally, economics was the study of household and state management. Although the environment was not part of this story, it is clear that economics dealt with the “political economy,” embedded into a wider social purpose.
 This can imply a range of activities, including both market and non-market, paid and unpaid activities, undertaken by human agents and organizations for the sake of their survival and reproduction.
Comment from our editors:
"The paper situates the critique of mainstream economics in the landscape of philosophy of science to highlight the value of more pluralism in economics. Against the scientific ideals of empirical adequacy and publicly responsibility, the analytical envelope within which the mainstream operates turns out epistemically fragile and ontologically limited. An overview of the major heterodox schools of thought shows how a diversity of perspectives can contribute to restore economics’ status as a policy-relevant social science designed to understand and shape processes of social provisioning. The framework of “interested pluralism” emerges as a promising set of ecumenical principles that has the potential to organize and unite the heterodox sphere in practice. The analysis concludes with a list of concrete implications for research and teaching."