Consensus in economics: when and why economists stopped discussing each other’s work

A French moralist and essayist Joseph Joubert, known for his posthumously published Pensées (Thoughts), has once noted: “It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it”. I recalled this quote while reading Joe Francis’ interesting post in which he detected the rise and decline of debates in economics.
Analyzing the data from an online academic database JSTOR, Francis demonstrated a dramatic increase in the level of debate in economics from the 1920s through the 1960s. At the peak level, in 1968, fully 22 per cent of the articles published in economics journals appear to have been related to debate. Then, however, there was a dramatic fall. By 2013, however, just 2 per cent were related to scholarly disputes. Debates in economics have in fact become extinct.
Economics debateFrancis suggested that the rise in the debates in the 1930s is related to deliberations regarding the Great Depression, Keynes’ and Marxist ideas. The decline in debate then could be associated with the emergence of a neoliberal hegemony in academic mainstream economics from the 1970s onwards, while Keynesianism has wilted and Marxist economics were forced back into niche journals.
I tend to agree with these explanations, associated with the profound transformations in economics and the crucial importance of ideas in academic and applied economics. Actually, these findings reflect the homogenization of economic knowledge and the paradigm shifts in mainstream economics, structured and reinforced by institutional mechanisms and arrangements such as textbooks, graduate programs, conferences, peer-review, academic publishing, citations, working groups and a common (scientific) language. Ultimately, the structure and formation of academic knowledge is a result of the functioning of networks and epistemic communities.
Nevertheless, the disappearance of debates in economics could be also linked to a changing nature of academic publishing in one particular regard. “Comment”, “Rejoinder” or “Reply” articles probably could attract fewer citations, therefore editors might reject this sort of articles for publication. Also, this category of articles considered as barely contributing to advancing academic careers, therefore many researchers, being under “publish or perish” steam roller, might decide to recede from intellectual debates and seclude themselves in self-referential or “comfort zone” frameworks. The point is that both of these changes are part of the economization of institutions of higher education, that in the recent decades have been consistently compelled to operate according to ranking trends and market logics, which essentially connected to the rise of neoliberalism.
When an academic discipline becomes a “consensual” intellectual wasteland — it must not only raise questions, but also arouse exclamation marks! To our scholarly delight, one can definitely observe extensive and noteworthy changes in this respect after the 2008 crisis, that exposed the multifaceted detrimental ingredients of neoliberalism and “free market” tenets. Will it be a sea change in economics or would it be only a momentary deviation off course? We’ll have to wait and see. What is certain is that the interdisciplinary and socio-political study of the economy needs steadily to challenge mainstream economics, illuminating its blind spots and pitfalls. A genuine intellectual endeavour should disconcert, not reassure.

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One comment

  1. There’s a problem in the academic research world with “settled” assumptions about human behavior. Challenging these assumptions means challenging many of the high order mathematical theoretical imperatives of DSGE models. There’s room in the world for different approaches to different problems, but there’s lots of resistance to switching gears in mid-career. The paradigm shift takes a generation or two. In the meantime, easy to ignore or dismiss threats to one’s vested worldview.

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