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from  post-autistic economics newsletter : issue no. 7, July, 2001


Opening Up Economics: A Proposal By Cambridge Students
The Cambridge 27  (University of Cambridge, UK)

As students at Cambridge University, we wish to encourage a debate on contemporary
economics. We set out below what we take to be characteristic of today's economics,
what we feel needs to be debated and why: As defined by its teaching and research
practices, we believe that economics is monopolised by a single approach to the
explanation and analysis of economic phenomena. At the heart of this approach lies a
commitment to formal modes of reasoning that must be employed for research to be
considered valid. The evidence for this is not hard to come by. The contents of the
discipline's major journals, of its faculties and its courses all point in this direction.

In our opinion, the general applicability of this formal approach to understanding

economic phenomenon is disputable. This is the debate that needs to take place.
When are these formal methods the best route to generating good explanations? What
makes these methods useful and consequently, what are their limitations? What
other methods could be used in economics? This debate needs to take place within
economics and between economists, rather than on the fringe of the subject or outside
of it all together.

In particular we propose the following:

1. That the foundations of the mainstream approach be openly debated. This requires
    that the bad criticisms be rejected just as firmly as the bad defences. Students,
    teachers and researchers need to know and acknowledge the strengths and
    weaknesses of the mainstream approach to economics.

2. That competing approaches to understanding economic phenomena be subjected

    to the same degree of critical debate. Where these approaches provide significant
    insights into economic life, they should be taught and their research encouraged
    within economics. At the moment this is not happening. Competing approaches
    have little role in economics as it stands simply because they do not conform to the
    mainstream's view of what constitutes economics. It should be clear that such a

    situation is self-enforcing.

This debate is important because in our view the status quo is harmful in at least four
respects. Firstly, it is harmful to students who are taught the 'tools' of mainstream
economics without learning their domain of applicability. The source and evolution of
these ideas is ignored, as is the existence and status of competing theories. Secondly,
it disadvantages a society that ought to be benefiting from what economists can tell us
about the world. Economics is a social science with enormous potential for making a
difference through its impact on policy debates. In its present form its effectiveness in
this arena is limited by the uncritical application of mainstream methods. Thirdly,
progress towards a deeper understanding of many important aspects of economic life is
being held back. By restricting research done in economics to that based on one
approach only, the development of competing research programs is seriously hampered
or prevented altogether. Fourth and finally, in the current situation an economist who
does not do economics in the prescribed way finds it very difficult to get recognition for
her research.

The dominance of the mainstream approach creates a social convention in the profession
that only economic knowledge production that fits the mainstream approach can be good
research, and therefore other modes of economic knowledge are all too easily dismissed
as simply being poor, or as not being economics. Many economists therefore face a
choice between using what they consider inappropriate methods to answer economic
questions, or to adopt what they consider the best methods for the question at hand
knowing that their work is unlikely to receive a hearing from economists.

Let us conclude by emphasizing what we are certainly not proposing: we are not arguing
against the mainstream approach per se, but against the fact that its dominance is taken
for granted in the profession. We are not arguing against mainstream methods, but believe
in a pluralism of methods and approaches justified by debate. Pluralism as a default
implies that alternative economic work is not simply tolerated, but that the material and
social conditions for its flourishing are met, to the same extent as is currently the case for
mainstream economics. This is what we mean when we refer to an 'opening up' of economics.


The Cambridge 27, (2001) “Opening Up Economics”, post-autistic economics newsletter : issue no. 7, July, article 1.