Making Many Maps: Why We Need an Interested Pluralism in Economics and How to Get There

Making Many Maps: Why We Need an Interested Pluralism in Economics and How to Get There

by Andrew Neel

Patrick Leon Gross
Patrick Léon Gross, 2021
Niveau: débutant
Perspectives: Économie écologique, Économie féministe, Économie institutionnelle, Économie politique marxiste, Économie néoclassique, Économie post-keynésienne
Sujet: (Dé-)croissance, Crises, Critique du capitalisme, Histoire économique, Inégalité & classe, Institutions, gouvernements & politiques, Macroéconomie, Microéconomie & marchés, Divers, Race & Gender, Réflexion sur l'économie, Ressources, environment & climat, Mouvements sociaux & transformation
Format: Essay


"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."

(Rothschild 1999)

Likening scientific work to the self-coordinating “invisible hand” of the market, Michael Polanyi cautioned strongly against centralized attempts to steer science (1962). What made good sense in the 60s, however, from today’s perspective seems oddly out of time. In characterizing how science ought to work, Polanyi drew an analogy to a discipline which has become notorious for its exclusive, path-dependent, and hegemonial workings. Indeed, the economic mainstream enjoys unpresented authority over determining what constitute good and bad forms of knowledge (Tae-Hee Jo and Zdravka Todorova 2017).

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.[1] 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 (Ketland 2004) and progress is a goal-relative concept (Kaldis 2013), then the purpose of economics must be (1) to develop the most truthlike description of reality possible at present and (2) do so in service of improving the human condition.[2] Economics, today, fails to deliver both.

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 (Sokal 2010) or if all knowledge is socially constructed, leading to an anarchistic “anything goes” approach to intellectual inquiry (Feyerabend 2008). The waves have calmed, however, as both sides have come to appreciate the merits of the other. On one hand, the fact that climate change denialists could for long block necessary policies on the grounds of “too much uncertainty in climate science” has laid open the vulnerability of the post-modern position for its constructivistic weapons to be hijacked (Latour 2004).[3] On the other, neuroscientists have found the brain to actively create our representations of reality, highlighting the importance of subjectivity in human sensemaking (Haraway 2016; Heinz von Foerster 1992). Consequently, the position of “critical realism” (Bhaskar 2008)has gained traction, particularly in the social sciences. Built on the Popperian premise of fallibilism,[4] it fuses ontological realism (i.e., there is an independent physical reality, e.g., climate change is real) with epistemic relativism (i.e., all observation of social reality is value-laden, e.g., what to do about climate change is interpreted differently by different people).[5] An empirically adequate economics must recognize how ontological realities and epistemological interpretations are interlinked and productively use this tension.

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” (Latour 2004). The question of good science becomes one of which best serves these concerns (Tollefsen 2020). This implies value judgements and a ranking of options. Habermas demands that such a process be governed by a deliberative institution like a parliament with an “ideal speech situation” (1970). This means that every “voice” capable of making a relevant contribution can participate in the discourse with equal authority and free of coercion. In a striking metaphor for this endorsement of egalitarianism, the philosopher of science Ronald Giere argues that good science needs a “diversity of maps” (1999). Each showing a different layer of realty and hence useful for a different purpose: a hiking map will be useful for hiking, not for navigating a boat through a storm. Similarly, it may be difficult to solve a climate crisis using a theoretical framework that excludes the biophysical foundations of the economy. As a plethora of new socio-ecological challenges require appropriate evaluation, prioritization, and action, this essay builds on the premise that making (and using!) many maps has never been more relevant to ensure that economics meets its public responsibilities.

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 (Lawson 2010; Raworth 2018). Far from bringing the discipline closer to the “truth,” this has increasingly undermined its credibility (Fischer et al. 2018). Moreover, the discipline claims to represent a universal theory, evident in how it belittles and excludes concepts and methodologies outside its canonical axioms of methodological individualism, utility maximization, equilibrium, scarcity, and full information (Fischer et al. 2018). From a fallibilist perspective, however, this strategy of “putting all eggs into one basket” is a risky and unnecessary undertaking (Kapeller 2017). Mainstream economists reject the allegation of “intellectual monism” as unfounded due to the internal theoretical variety and axiomatic flexibility within its modelling efforts (Colander, Holt, and Rosser 2004). Critical stocktaking, however, exposes how these modelling efforts represent not a pluralism of theories but one cognitive “map,”[6] albeit a very successful one at immunizing neoclassics from critique, as Kapeller (2017) argues. The dominance of the mainstream has colonized the landscape of publishing, research, education, international organizations, and the employment market (Lee 2004). In Latour’s words, the mainstream has become the “center of calculation” (1987)of economic knowledge, far from mimicking the decentral qualities of a free market envisioned by Polanyi (1962).

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 (Stiglitz 2019). This famously prompted Fukuyama to declare the “end of history” (1992) and recently informed Rosling’s “factful” view on world historical development data (2019). But while the neoliberal success story is true for some people in some parts of the world, it is increasingly under pressure: many global social and environmental challenges have been linked to neoliberal thinking and policy interventions. Economics has played a major role in amplifying global inequality (Piketty 1997), exacerbating climate change (Steffen et al. 2015), and fueling financial speculation and crises (Fischer et al. 2018). Biophysical foundations like the climate or ethical questions like social justice are systematically excluded from the ontological map of mainstream economics, treated as externality or ideological problems, best left to others to be dealt with. Economics has traded vast shares of its original purpose to provide “positive social outcomes”[7] (Jo 2016) for a chrematism oblivious to public responsibility (Hirte 2020). This sellout is perhaps one of the biggest scandals in science today.

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,”[8] 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 (Jo 2016). It also acknowledges different epistemologies, ontologies, and methodologies, each with their distinct strengths and weaknesses (Dobusch and Kapeller 2012). This section explores how the major heterodox traditions can contribute to restoring economics’ reliability.

Marxian Economics

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.

Institutional Economics

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

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

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," (Haraway 2016) which implies that the individual position and characteristics of the knower (e.g., being a woman) are relevant as they shape her ability to see and understand certain phenomena (e.g., understanding oppression and discrimination). Hence, feminist economists tend to study different phenomena, apply different methods, and get to different conclusions than the mainstream, leading to a more applied research agenda that can greatly contribute to reduce social ills.

Ecological Economics

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 (Spash 2012) and would lead to “comparing apples with oranges” (Kapeller 2017). We thus also have to learn to structure and organize pluralism in a way that enables fruitful dialogue (Dow 2019). Following Dobusch and Kapeller (2012), three options are on the table.

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 (Dobusch and Kapeller 2012). Moreover, in light of the path dependency involved in publishing, grant allocation, and economics education “interested pluralism” may well be the only viable strategy to build a heterodox momentum strong enough to challenge the intellectual hegemony of the mainstream (Earle, Moran, and Ward-Perkins 2017).

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. Dobusch and Kapeller (2012) have proposed a meta-theoretical framework for doing such comparisons from a pluralist vantage point. Moreover, researchers must be able to choose the theories and methods best suited to explore and explain the respective research question at hand, and not vice versa. At best, this requires generalist and specialist economists to work together in interdisciplinary teams.

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, Graupe laments “ideology-laden and […] purely rhetorical free-market propaganda” (2019). As a “textbook science” dominated by the stable and quasi-monopolized orthodox canon of a few million-selling books, the self-reproduction of mainstream ideas is highly institutionalized and petrified (Elsner 2016). Albeit paved with obstacles, the road to publishing an innovative pluralist economics textbook at a global first-level publisher is not lost, however, as Elsner et al. (2014) successfully demonstrate.

            Second, economics teachers need to introduce students to the origins and evolution of economic thought, and include basics in the philosophy of science. Fine (2018) laments the ignorance of orthodox economics towards its own history, highlighting the need to make students understand the genealogy of contemporary economic ideas. Moreover, reflecting on forty years of teaching, he praises the students’ mastery of complex modelling techniques while simultaneously bemoaning their surprisingly poor conceptual understanding of what material is important to include in the model or not. Introducing ontological and epistemological basics could help students acquire such critical distance. 

Third, parallel to changing content, economics education must also alter its didactic approach. The “science of learning” has matured decades ago (Stephen Michael Kosslyn, Stephen M. Kosslyn, and Nelson 2018), but remains rarely adopted in facilitating teaching, and economics is no exception. Lecturing may be an efficient way for teaching but it is a horrible strategy for learning, which is about active knowledge acquisition and application. To become better real-world problem-solvers, economics students must be trained in ways that engage them in discussions, presentations, case studies, storytelling, creativity, and controversy. A great example of such a mélange are the writing camps organized by the platform “Exploring Economics.”

             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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[1] 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” (Samuelson 1948).

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] Fallibilism argues that beliefs can never be verified but only falsified (except some mathematical or logical truisms).

[5] 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.

[6] I.e., mainstream economics assumes that free market competition leads to the most efficient allocation of resources.

[7] 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.

[8] 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."

Go to: Making Many Maps: Why We Need an Interested Pluralism in Economics and How to Get There

Nous soutenir

Ce projet est le fruit du travail des membres du réseau international pour le pluralisme en économie, dans la sphère germanophone (Netzwerk Plurale Ökonomik e.V.) et dans la sphère francophone (Rethinking Economics Switzerland / Rethinking Economics Belgium / PEPS-Économie France). Nous sommes fortement attachés à notre indépendance et à notre diversité et vos dons permettent de le rester !