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from  post-autistic economics newsletter : issue no. 6, May, 2001


The Relevance of Controversies for Practice as Well as Teaching
Sheila C Dow  (University of Stirling)

One of the important PAE arguments put forward by Raveaud in the March 2001
Newsletter (‘Teaching Economics Through Controversies’) is that economics should be
taught in terms of controversies instead of as an agreed body of thought. In effect this
means teaching the dynamic development of ideas over time, i.e., a historical approach,
since controversies involve sequential developments. If theory is context-dependent, then
we can learn much, not only from controversies among contemporaries in different contexts,
but also from controversies between economists working within different contexts in history.
Controversies reveal a range of possible ways of theorising about the economy, drawing out
the different understandings of the subject matter, the different meanings attached to the
same terms and the different methodologies employed. By getting a sense of the range of
possibilities, students can develop the capacity for judgement necessary for deciding how
best to develop theory to address future contexts. 

But what is the role of controversy for the practising economist? It is perhaps helpful to think
of controversy in terms of Kuhn’s paradigm framework. Each paradigm is pursued by a
community of economists who share foundations, in terms of understanding of reality,
meaning of terms, methodological approach, and so on. There is considerable scope for
controversy between paradigms in that each will approach similar problems quite differently.
There is also much scope for talking at cross purposes, since the nature of the problem
may be understood quite differently, similar methods may be part of very different
methodologies, and similar terms may have very different meanings. In other words,
paradigms are incommensurate; there is no neutral ground on which to stand. Kuhn made 
of agreed methods within the paradigm. The significant controversies are the province of
extraordinary science, which puts the focus on the foundations of paradigms. 

If most economists are likely to engage in normal science, then, what is the relevance of
controversies which refer to fundamentals? First, the Kuhnian framework is helpful for
putting the focus on the scope for incommensurability between paradigms, but requires
careful consideration when applied to a discipline like economics where there are
coexisting paradigms. Kuhn’s framework originally referred to the physical sciences,
in terms of succeeding paradigms. In economics the paradigms have never been mutually-
exclusive; it has simply been helpful to think in terms of the clear differences between
‘representative members’ of different paradigms. Increasingly there are efforts to promote
synthesis, particularly between heterodox paradigms, thus blurring the distinctions.
Synthesis of course means the emergence of new paradigms, but the picture of what will
emerge is not yet clear. Within orthodox economics also there have been developments
which call attention to fundamentals; but here the developments are more ones of
fragmentation than synthesis. 

In the current state of flux in economics, therefore, extraordinary science comes to the
fore. In order to make sense of these processes of synthesis and fragmentation, it is
important to be aware of the foundations of new theory developments. Indeed it could be
argued that those developments in economic theory which have proved pivotal have arisen
at the margins of paradigms, within extraordinary science. New developments in thought
can always be traced back to some extent to previous history of thought (within some
paradigm), but at the same time require new connections to be made and new meanings
to be employed. A prerequisite for such a development is exposure to different possible
approaches. This is an argument for methodological awareness, which can be most
effectively acquired through engagement with controversies past and present. Without
such awareness, which promotes alertness to differences in understanding, methodology
and meaning, the different protagonists in controversies will be misunderstood and
opportunities for new connections lost. As James Galbraith points out in his contribution
to the January 2001 Newsletter, there is a notable lack of awareness within orthodox
economics of the challenges it faces.

The argument for methodological awareness as a prerequisite for engagement has most
force in periods, such as the present, when economics is in a particular state of flux.
But what about more stable periods? Methodological awareness can be promoted by
study of past controversies. But there is a second case for methodological awareness
which is different, in that it rests more heavily on the benefits of tolerance. Tolerance
means allowing a range of approaches to develop to maturity, so that, when new challenges
arise, there is a diversity from which ideas may be selected (just as in biology diversity is
important for adaptation and survival). When a discipline is stable, there is a danger of
thinking of the dominant paradigm as being not just preferred by the majority, but as being
preferable in some absolute, extra-paradigmatic, sense. Such a state of affairs can breed
intolerance to any other paradigm. Not only does this limit the scope of the dominant
paradigm, but also it encourages institutionalised constraints on alternative paradigms.
There is further an asymmetry in that paradigms which adopt a methodology unified around
mathematical formalism applied to a shared set of axioms (as in orthodox economics) are
more likely to have a closed-system theory of knowledge than paradigms which embrace
some form of pluralism. But without some prior knowledge of pluralism it is hard to see how
the judgement in favour of a monist (i.e., anti-pluralist) methodology can be justified. It is a
matter of choice as to the methodology we employ in order to understand a complex reality.
No one methodology can reasonably claim any absolute superiority, yet choices have to be
made for policy issues to be addressed. But no one approach can be justified relative to
the others without an informed comparison.

We have come back full circle to the value of a pluralist education in economics.


Sheila C. Dow (2001) “The Relevance of Controversies for Practice as Well as Teaching”, post-autistic economics newsletter : issue no. 6, May, article 5.