post-autistic economics review
Issue no. 30, 21 March 2005
article 2



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The Social and Intellectual Organization and Construction
of Economics

Kyle Siler   (Department of Sociology, McMaster University, Canada)

© Copyright 2003 Kyle Siler


Most of the articles published in the Post-Autistic Economics Review focus on challenging and/or refuting mainstream economic theory. This tacitly serves as a means of precipitating further thought about economics, and in most cases, also functions as a means of promoting change in the discipline. However, as evidenced by history, be it the notion that the Earth revolves around the Sun, the double-helix model of DNA, or the hegemony of mainstream neoclassical economics today, merely having innovative, or possibly better ideas, does not necessarily equate with the ability to establish immediate scientific and societal acceptance of those ideas, or “truth.” Hence, changing economics will be a “social” process, in addition to being a “scientific” process. Or, as per Stephen Cole's (1992) work, economics, like any “science”, is comprised of both socially-constructed and “scientific” components. The Post-Autistic Economics Review has, and will continue to deal with the latter extensively. I propose to introduce the former to its readership.

My account of the social construction of economics is largely derived from British sociologist Richard Whitley's (1984) seminal work, The Social and Intellectual Organization of the Sciences. The crux of Whitley’s argument is that, in addition to what they study empirically, scientific fields are shaped and affected by the degrees and types of mutual dependence and task uncertainty they possess. The next two sections will explain how these characteristics exist and function in mainstream neoclassical economics.

Mutual Dependence

Whitley (p. 88) broadly defined mutual dependence as “…the need to adhere to particular standards of competence and criteria of significance in order to reward important reputations for contributions.” More specifically, mutual dependence is comprised of two analytically distinct agents: functional and strategic dependence. Economics has high functional dependence, as economists generally have to adhere to a dominant neoclassical strategic paradigm to be taken seriously. Conversely, it also has low strategic dependence, as due to this consensus, economists generally spend little time arguing over theoretical issues. Hence, most debates about theoretical issues outside of the dominant orthodoxy usually occur outside of mainstream economic forums (such as is the case with the Post-Autistic Economics Review).

Whitley (p. 31) also adds that “intellectual fields must have distinctive work procedures if they are to function as reputational work organizations.” These distinctive work procedures set the context for self-conscious and self-regulating colleague groups being based “on their power to validate the expertise, and thus mediate the careers of, members (p. 20).” The arcane and esoteric mathematical nature of neoclassical economics is a powerful context, contributing to a very strong, unified organizational discipline, thus influencing both the profession and “science” of economics. Mathematics is not only an effective means of creating scholarly hierarchies, but also makes economic work difficult to comment on (at least in the mainstream economists’ domain and language) for non-mathematical economists. This places control over the discipline largely into the hands of the most advanced mathematical economists, while insulating and empowering the discipline as a whole. Social and cultural norms which value abstractness, theoretical complexity, esoteric science and quantification also help make economics trusted, well-supported and respected.

As mutual dependence (which is the basis for much of economics’ power and prestige) increases, local and individual circumstances tend to become irrelevant. Hence, it is not surprising that economics tends to privilege abstract thought, shunning context and historically dependent work. There are a number of factors that are indicative of the high mutual dependence in economics. These include:

  • The existence of a relatively small, concentrated, theoretical disciplinary core of economists.
  • Shunning of cross-disciplinary and heterodox thought.
  • Agreed upon hierarchies of competence and knowledge.
  • Insulation from the “lay public” and most other academics.
  • The existence of a “Nobel Prize”, which serves to galvanize the discipline, and confer significant prestige upon economics as a whole in public perception, and upon the winning economists, who tend to further perpetuate the prevailing orthodoxy.

It is difficult to ascertain whether these characteristics are causes and/or effects of high mutual dependence (or each other). Regardless, this complex interweaving of social characteristics is a strong factor helping create, insulate and empower mainstream economics.

Economics and Task Uncertainty

The social sciences are generally characterized by a greater degree of task uncertainty than most of the natural sciences. Laboratory controls and manipulation of research subjects are generally not viable options in social science research. Economists cannot manipulate the behavior of governments, firms and actors in various contexts in order to test and re-test hypotheses about economies.1  Whitley (p. 120) observes that “…the more paradigm-bound a field is, the more predictable, visible and replicable are research results, and the more limited is permissible novelty.” Hence, the degree of task uncertainty in a field is influenced by a socially constructed component, via the social organization of a given discipline, apart from empirical, data-based, or “scientific” considerations.

Whitley (ch. 4) identifies three major contextual factors that influence task uncertainty:


Reputational Autonomy   This alludes to the degree to which a given field can adjudicate standards of quality and worthiness without influences from other interests. Mainstream economics is empowered with a very high degree of reputational autonomy. As an example of this, while the government and the lay public are generally unwilling (or unable) to engage in dialogue with academic economists on their own terms, they are willing to be “amateur” sociologists on such issues as inequality and culture. Further, while some social science departments are prone to being subsumed by “topical” or “interdisciplinary” studies in universities, economists are generally immune. In addition, when economists do participate in interdisciplinary work (i.e. for the government), they usually do so “on their terms”, and are consequently more of a “consultant” than “collaborator.”


Concentration over the means of intellectual production and dissemination Economics has relatively high concentration in journals, paradigmatic thought, prestige and universities. This is in part a result of (or contributor to) its aforementioned high reputational autonomy. As an example of the degree of concentration of intellectual production in the United States, Pieper and Willis (1999: 86) show that 54% of economics faculty at doctoral universities, and more than two-thirds of the thesis supervisors at the 47 top-ranked programs in the United States come from one of the “top ten” schools. These “top ten” schools include Chicago, Harvard, Stanford, and MIT; among the strongest purveyors of highly mathematical neoclassical economics. As Devine (2001) observed, the more famous the university, journal or student, the more likely they are to adhere to the rigid positivism of neoclassical economics. The degree of control these schools have over economic education is well evidenced by a report done by, the Commission on Graduate Education in Economics in the United States, which concluded that “the content and structure of graduate programs is amazingly similar” (Hansen, 1991: p. 1085).


Audience Plurality and Diversity  Economics has relatively low audience plurality and diversity, largely due to the practice of conducting esoteric, mathematical research published in academic journals kept largely away from public scrutiny. Economists seldom write books, and if they are written in a publicly accessible fashion, they are often derided as “lacking rigor”, or as mere “Galbraithism.” Further, academic economics is also “shielded” by the fact that most public “economic” debate occurs outside of the academic sphere, far removed from the behavioral assumptions and arcane analyses couched in powerful academic economics journals, and textbooks. This will be discussed further shortly.

All of the above serve to “socially” reduce mainstream economics’ (perceived) task uncertainty, despite the fact that it operates in the complex, contextual realms of the human sciences. This apparent contradiction will be explored in the next section.

Economics as a Partitioned Bureaucracy

Economics is extremely unusual in academia in that it combines the high technical task uncertainty of the social sciences, with very low strategic task uncertainty. Whitley (181) states that this mix should be highly unstable unless the central core of conceptual orthodoxy is partitioned away from empirical sources of uncertainty. Hence, privileging theoretical data (informed by the “central core”), at the expense of empirical considerations is a necessary condition for maintaining strategic consensus in the discipline. Mainstream economics does exactly that. As in many facets of economics, there is a clear hierarchy (made possibly by high mutual dependence) of sub-fields in economics, with the more theoretical endeavors enjoying epistemological, and organizational superiority. This occurs both within and outside of economics. Within economics, econometrics, labor, and health economics, and other relatively “applied” work remains subordinated to, and to a certain extent, derivative of the dominant paradigm, couched in the theoretical core of the discipline. Doing “applied”, or socially relevant work is acceptable to mainstream economists, provided you adhere to the dominant neoclassical paradigm (i.e. Gary Becker). Outside of economics, much “applied” or context-dependent work is actually done in business/finance or other social science departments in universities, and by businesses and governments outside of academia. In the case of business and finance departments using economic theory, there appears to be somewhat of a symbiotic relationship, where business schools use neoclassical economics for a methodological and moral legitimation, while economics gets insulated from empirical concerns and uncertainty that could undermine their strategic consensus, and call the dominant orthodoxy into question. This symbiotic relationship also may help contribute to maintaining (if not reinforcing) the “bourgeois” focus of mainstream economics, which tends to trumpet the virtues of capitalism far more than it criticizes the economic, social and moral shortcomings it may possess.

Concluding Thoughts

John Kenneth Galbraith (1984: 3) remarked that the shortcomings of contemporary economics are not necessarily due to original error, but “uncorrected obsolescence.” Given the intricate tapestry of social, empirical, and organizational factors buttressing mainstream economics today, it is no wonder that the neoclassical paradigm is not evolving with the times or evidence. While the Post-Autistic Economics Review illustrates many of the excellent thoughts and debates that, at the very least, challenge the dominant economic paradigm, merely being “right” scientifically and morally, is not sufficient to significantly modify a discipline, especially one as powerful and entrenched as economics. Not only does Whitley’s model help explain why mainstream economics is so powerful (in addition to factors extraneous to his model, such as bourgeois ties and values), but also how it can remain so in the face of inconsistent empirical evidence. Although I cannot profess to know the best strategy for reforming economics, knowledge of the social construction of “science” and “economics” should be a vital part of constructing any such strategy. As opposition to mainstream economics burgeons, it should be kept in mind by such dissenting groups that scientific change is not entirely a “scientific” endeavor. This could aid the construction of strategy for social and scientific change, both in academic and lived realms, as the two are inexorably linked.

1. This limitation also characterizes the natural sciences to varying degrees, especially biology.




Cole, Stephen. Making Science: Between Nature and Society. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Devine, James G. “Psychological Autism, Institutional Autism and Economics”. Post-Autistic Economics Review. Issue no. 16, September 16, 2002, article 2.

Galbraith, John Kenneth. The Affluent Society. 4th ed., Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984.

Hansen, W.L. The education and training of economics doctorates: Major Findings of the American Economics Association commission on graduate education in economics. Journal of Economic Literature, 1991, 31, 3, pp. 1054-87.

Pieper, Paul J. and Willis, Rachel A. “The Doctoral Origins of Economics Faculty and the Education of New Economics Doctorates”. Journal of Economic Education. Winter 1999, pp. 80-89.

Whitley, Richard. The Social and Intellectual Organization of the Sciences. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.


Kyle Siler, 
“The Social and Intellectual Organization and Construction of Economics”, post-autistic economics review, issue no. 22,  24 November 2003, article 3,