Are Economists Influential Enough?

There’s no doubt in my mind that economics is currently the queen of the social sciences. Economists have invaded intellectual territory that was previously the exclusive domain of our friends in sociology, political science, criminology, geography and, to a degree, history. While the President regularly consults his Council of Economic Advisers, I’m not aware of him seeking the counsel of parallel councils of sociological, historical, or psychological advisers. (I will concede that he consults political advisers, although I suspect that they are only tenuously connected to scholarship in modern political science.) Popular discussion of economics trumps that of the other social sciences. Newsweek even declared economics “the sexiest trade alive.”

But it turns out that economists are terrible book writers, and have had almost no influence on the humanities.

The evidence? Thomson Reuters has compiled a list of the books most often cited in scholarly journals, and it is pretty compelling stuff. The list is filled with folks who are commonly cited in the humanities, with Michael Foucault at the top. Perhaps unsurprisingly, philosophers dominate, winning eighteen of the top thirty-seven slots. But our sister social sciences also do pretty well, with eleven sociologists, and three psychologists (plus two psychoanalysts), two political theorists, and two anthropologists.

But economics? Well, way down, second-last on the list, there’s one economist. Sort of. It’s Karl Marx, who is correctly also identified as a sociologist and a political theorist.

What explains the poor showing of economists?

It can’t be that we don’t write books. Indeed, the movement of economic scholarship from books to journals is relatively recent. Nearly all of the most important works in economics are, in fact, books. Think about: Smith‘s Wealth of Nations (and his Theory of Moral Sentiments); Ricardo‘s Political Economy; Marshall‘s Principles; Keynes‘s General Theory; Von Neumann and Morgenstern‘s Games and Economic Behavior; Samuelson‘s Foundations; Friedman and Schwarz‘s Monetary History; or, more recently, Becker‘s Economics of Discrimination, Human Capital and his Treatise on the Family. But apparently there’s not enough here to be as influential as, say, a post-structuralist philosopher like Judith Butler.

My guess is that the absence of any economics book from the Thomson Reuters list reflects the fact that economics has had no influence on the humanities. I’m not sure why. Political perceptions may be part of the story: For some reason, economics is perceived to be a somewhat right-wing discipline. But that can’t be the whole story. So I’m interested: Do you have any other explanations?

(HT: Marginal Revolution)


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  1. Dylan says:

    “Philosophers dominate”. Yes, but not the philosophers studied in most philosophy departments; rather it’s the philosophers that most people in philosophy departments think are charlatans (for the most part anyway; I’m thinking of people like Butler and Derrida).

    I find this a very depressing list.

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  2. Sam R says:

    As an academic economist at a large state school with an active research agenda, I’ve noticed a reluctance to do true interdisciplinary work with others in the humanities. It is my impression that economists hesitate to do so because of the general inability of other departments to do the technical econometrics we require. Meanwhile, many in the other humanities fields are put of by the dispassionate approach that economists take when viewing a problem. These barriers seem to persist at many very good research institutions.

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  3. John says:

    Because economics is not a science?? It’s art, and correlation and “potential” causality. What tool has been created by an economist, that wasn’t immediately “proven” by another economist to be inefficient?

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  4. Bill says:

    To simplify grossly, the humanities study other peoples’ thinking and writing (“texts”), while economists and other empirical social scientists as well as natural scientists study “reality”. The sociologists and political scientists cited are not empirical social scientists. There is almost a complete disconnect between the humanities and “reality-based” disciplines like economics, biology, physics, etc. Note also that this goes both ways. How many economists have ever cited (or even read) Michel Foucault, the leading humanities citation. And why on earth would they ?

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  5. brent says:

    Maybe it has to do with some prominent economists selling their souls to politics. I offer two examples, both which involve the recent debate on providing unemployment payments:

    1. Larry Summers. See link for discussion of Mr. Summers contradicting his own writings with regards to the effects of unemployment benefits on the incentive to work. In today’s WSJ:

    2. Paul Krugman. See link for discussion of Mr. Krugman’s attack on Sen. Jon Kyl. Mr. Kyl publically worried that unemployment benefits were a disincentive to work. Mr. Krugman called that view “bizarre”. A perusal of Mr. Krugman’s own academic writings finds Mr. Krugman making the same argument as Sen. Kyl:

    I personally think that we need to provide support to our unemployed fellow citizens, even though I tend to agree with the disincentive issue. I am not grinding against the two gentlemen for their current positions, only their intellectual fraud.

    If economists are to be influential, they need to not sell out.

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  6. nobody.really says:

    Two hypotheses, somewhat related.

    1. Many people outside of the field regard economics as, I dunno — a branch of accounting that doesn’t lead to job offers? It’s specialized and number-obsessed. No doubt it’s important in its own (vaguely-understood) way, much the way chemistry is. And it’s about as likely as chemistry to influence the other social sciences or humanities.

    2. The weaker your conceptual models, the less clearly you can defend any conclusion. Where your conclusions differ from conventional wisdom, the more likely you are to expend effort trying to reconcile your conclusions with that wisdom. To the person who holds those conventional views, this seems respectful.

    Conversely, the stronger your conceptual models, the less deference you pay to conventional wisdom. To people who hold conventional views, this seems like a slap in the face.

    Now, generally the academic disciplines with the strongest conceptual models – physical sciences, say – are also the models that address arcane subject matters that are not the province of much conventional wisdom. It’s hard to imagine what conclusion you might draw from a chemistry experiment that would shock the public consciousness; the public simply doesn’t have that many expectations about chemicals.

    Unlike physical sciences, economics addresses social dynamics — dynamics that ARE the subject of popular wisdom. And unlike other social sciences and the humanities, economics has relatively strong conceptual models. Consequently economists are prone to draw conclusions that run contrary to conventional wisdom, and to defend those conclusions on the basis of their conceptual models without regard to conventional wisdom. Inadvertently, it’s face-slapping time.

    However, the inaccessibility of economics does not merely arise through inadvertence. As many jokes attest, economists are not merely unsentimental, they are ANTI-sentimental. An economist will often revel in the opportunity to rub people’s noses in the conclusion that their pre-conceptions are fluffy-headed poppycock. To many people (including some economists, I fear), economics appears to be less a social science than a religion, revealing to a chosen few the mighty counter-intuitive truths by which to pass judgment on a sinful world.

    If I’m an accomplished scholar in another discipline, to what extent am I open and receptive to this kind of intellectual upbraiding? A humanities professor will be more than happy to seek insights from psychology, political science and history to elucidate the behavior of Henry IV, both the historical and literary figure. The scholars in those fields don’t regard it as their duty to explain why humanities professors are dolts. If only the same could be said of economists….

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  7. MikeM says:

    Maybe your evidence of economics being “queen” is a sampling error. If you reference the local TV news or newspapers, you’d come away with the impression that the “king” of all sciences is meteorology, since the weather ALWAYS makes the broadcast or print edition. They literally put a meteorologist on every night, on every TV network!!

    It’s not a question of a science’s importance, it’s a question of it’s relevance.

    Much of the relevance of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers may stem from politics, not scientific necessity. There’s a perception that the Administration needs to be “in control” of the economic climate, so he simply needs a Council to maintain that perception.

    So while economics may be relevant to politics and business, it’s not so relevant to the other humanities. Just like meteorology is relevant to daily life, but it’s not as relevant to physics as physics is to meteorology.

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  8. Money Hungry says:

    Economists are just a bunch of profit seekers who have no care for actually understanding who people are. At least that’s what most of the social sciences seem to think.

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