July 15, 2011

The history of economic thought

Loomnie posted this interesting interview of Bruce Caldwell, an econ professor at Duke University who is working on putting history back into economics.  Here's a short description of the interview:
Who is going to teach fields like economic methodology and the history of economic thought if these fields aren’t taught to current graduate students? Bruce Caldwell is filling this hole in the graduate curriculum. The Hayek scholar is ramping-up the Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke University to educate a generation of future professors – a generation that is well-versed in the history of economic thought, and that communicates with other social sciences and the humanities. These are the seeds of new economic thinking.
Loomnie says that he finds this idea "really, really interesting" and I agree.  I wonder if there is any engagement with economic anthropology here--or if that would be a possibility.  In one part of the video Caldwell says that he really appreciates the different perspectives that other humanities and social sciences bring to studies of the history of economic thought.  I know that anthropologists have tried to engage with economists in the past, but that hasn't panned out all that well.  It would be interesting, despite all of the differences, to see more discussions between the econs and the anthros.

8 comments:

Jason Antrosio said...

Ryan, thank you for posting this. Bruce Caldwell ran the summer seminar I drew from to write "Anthropology and the Economists Without History":

http://www.anthropologiesproject.org/2011/07/anthropology-and-economists-without.html

Ryan Anderson said...

That's pretty interesting, Jason. Were there other anthros in the seminar? What were the main readings? I'm really interested in what Caldwell is doing, and wondering how economists are reacting to this.

Anonymous said...

are you familiar with David Graeber? Currently at Goldsmiths in london, his new book Debt: the first 5000 years was just released. (http://www.amazon.com/Debt-First-5-000-Years/dp/1933633867) He has also written another book titled "towards an anthropological theory of value"
and he was recently interviewed by cnn about the economy, http://bit.ly/lsscaZ

Ryan Anderson said...

@anon:

Yes! Graeber's work is really good and fascinating. I just read his book on value a couple months back, and ended up rereading a lot of it this summer. I need to get his new one about debt--that one looks good as well. I really like how he talks about economics, power, meaning, value. And thanks for the link! I'll check it out!

Jason Antrosio said...

Hi Ryan,

Thank you for the follow-up. Of the 25 participants, two were anthropologists. Others were in philosophy, history. There were actually very few economists, and if you don't count people who were there from heterodox economics departments (U-Mass Amherst), really only about three or so traditional economists.

The readings were what might be considered the classics in political economy or a history of economic thought--Adam Smith, Ricardo, Marx--stuff that most economists don't read anymore. What was an interesting tension is that although Caldwell is kind of "radical" in the sense of trying to keep alive a history-of-economic-thought, the seminar was essentially a revival of a traditional canon, albeit with a closer reading than usual. Many participants wanted more context for the canonical works, and more understanding of how that history seemed to be erased.

Ryan Anderson said...

Jason,

"The readings were what might be considered the classics in political economy or a history of economic thought--Adam Smith, Ricardo, Marx--stuff that most economists don't read anymore."

Wow. It amazes me that folks like Smith and Ricardo are not read all that much, especially considering how often people like to bring up Smith's "truck and barter" quote. I am not surprised, however, that people don't read Marx, since any mention of his name can spark a massive overreaction.

Now I am wondering where econ PhD's actually start--is there any historical theory part in their training, or what? This might be something worth looking into. I have always wanted to sit in on some econ grad seminars.

"What was an interesting tension is that although Caldwell is kind of "radical" in the sense of trying to keep alive a history-of-economic-thought, the seminar was essentially a revival of a traditional canon, albeit with a closer reading than usual."

It's really ironic that a "radical" is pushing people to go back to the traditional canon and ACTUALLY READ IT! Again, this makes me wonder what--or who--most econ students actually read. What is the canon for contemporary econ theory, etc?

One really interesting part of your post on anthropologies is where you say that anthros really only get a caricature of economics--and I agree. In my earlier papers I realized I was mostly arguing against strawmen when it came to economists, and that I needed to dig deeper to see what they are actually doing and saying in relation to the market, the economy, human nature, etc. Anyway, that's yet another side project among side projects, if you know what I mean...

Greg said...

The interview was both fascinating and terrifying. As an undergraduate in an interdisciplinary social sciences program with a strong interest in history of economic thought and in economic anthropology, it's pretty amazing to me how shocked people are about things like the very existence of e.g., Theory of Moral Sentiments. I had a full-year sophomore tutorial that included quite a bit of Smith and Marx before moving into modern social theory, and I've done a structured independent study covering Smith, Ricardo, Mill, Marshall, Jevons, Pareto...

In other words, it's pretty unbelievable to me that as an undergrad who just finished my second year, I could tell you more about the history of economics than most newly-minted economics PhDs. And (obviously) it's not their fault!

Ryan Anderson said...

Thanks for your comment Greg. Ya, it amazes me how often people quote Smith, and yet have never heard about any of his other ideas besides the mythical invisible hand. I am in the middle of reading as much as I can about the classic econs in order to ground some of my other studies--especially since many contemporary economists (including development econs) tend to trace their heritage to some of these folks. Interestingly, when you start reading more and more of Smith, Ricardo, etc, things get more complicated than the free marketeers make them.

Anyway, it sounds like you are in a pretty interesting program. Keep in touch--I'd like to hear more about what you're up to!