“When did we beat Japan at anything? They send their cars over by the millions, and what do we do? When was the last time you saw a Chevrolet in Tokyo? It doesn’t exist, folks. They beat us all the time!” (Donald Trump, June 2015)
Most of us are aware that people’s view of how things actually work differs from the kind of knowledge that is pursued in scientific research and via analytical thinking. Common sense notions are generally partial, biased, and incorrect; this ‘folk science’ largely consists of misunderstandings and stereotypes. So the question is — how social scientists should treat widely shared ideas and perceptions of folk science: as popular ignorance which is ought to be replaced with real science? Or as special type of knowledge that has a distinct value in itself and can be helpful in understanding the social world?
Richard Swedberg, a distinguished economic sociologist and social theorist, recently published in Theory and Society a very interesting and intellectually engaging article on what he terms — Folk Economics. Swedberg starts “Folk economics and its Role in Trump’s Presidential Campaign: an Exploratory Study” (see an open-access link below) with asking: “can the idea of folk economics help us to understand better the way the economy works and how people approach economic problems and issues? Or should the term instead be reserved for people’s ignorant and erroneous conceptions of the economy?” (p. 4). Swedberg then elaborates:
“Folk economics has as its task to analyze and explain how people view the economy and how it works; what categories they use in doing so; and what effect this has on the economy and society. Where do people think that unemployment comes from? What do they think that banks do? Why do men, women, and children carry out different tasks in the household?… [The article focuses] on the meanings, and especially the full sets of meaning that people use in their daily life; and on the consequences that these meanings have” (p. 1-2)
After discussing existing studies in economics and sociology that are relevant to folk economics, Swedberg presents his twofold contribution: theoretical and empirical. He suggests a theoretical framework for analyzing folk economic issues that is centered on the distinction between episteme and doxa or between scientific knowledge, on the one hand, and everyday knowledge, on the other.
This theoretical framework is applied to an enlightening exploratory case study of the role that folk economics played in Trump’s presidential campaign, Trump’s view of the way the economy works, and his economic messages. It is clearly shown that Trump the Candidate and many of his followers, who brought their views on the economy to the electoral process, thought in a parallel way on key economic issues, especially trade and job creation.
Karl Polanyi and Ralph Miliband, time after time, sprang to my mind while reading this compelling article. It seems to me that Professor Swedberg is also troubled by the broader consequences of folk economics in the era of folk politics. Therefore he concludes with Tocqueville’s assertion from Democracy in America: if one decides to withdraw to “the small world” of family and friends and ignore what is happening in “the big world” of institutions and politics, it becomes easy for unscrupulous politicians to seize power, bringing about ‘democratic despotism’. “The kind of political knowledge that Tocqueville thought was necessary for democratic societies to work properly was not the knowledge of academic experts or episteme, but doxa of the type that people acquire by being engaged in politics themselves. People learn about politics by doing political work, in the communities where they live. A similar argument can in my view also be made for some aspects of economic knowledge.” (Swedberg 2018: 26)
Swedberg, Richard. 2018. “Folk economics and its Role in Trump’s Presidential Campaign: an Exploratory Study.” Theory and Society 47: 1-36