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John B. Davis and D. Wade Hands (eds), The Elgar Companion to Recent Economic Methodology

Marcel Boumans
p. 319-322
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John B. Davis and D. Wade Hands (eds), The Elgar Companion to Recent Economic Methodology, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2011, x + 542 pages, ISBN: 978-1848447547

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1Ceci n'est pas a companion to recent economic methodology but a companion to recent economics. Moreover, as a book on current developments in economics, six of the 21 chapters can be seen as a direct response to the current economic crisis which is rightly considered by many economists as a crisis of economics, too. Because of this latter perception that we are witnessing a scientific crisis, one may expect that in a book on current economic methodology one would address this issue from a philosophy-of-science perspective, but nothing like this can be found in this volume. Most of the chapters are highly informative and critical about economics, which makes this a valuable reading, but the title is a Magrittian illusion.

2This illusion has nothing to do with the expertise of the editors of this volume, who are excellent guides in the field of economic methodology. John Davis and Wade Hands are more than equipped for the task of surveying recent economic methodology. Since 2005, they both are the editors of the Journal of Economic Methodology, and with Uskali Mäki editors of The Handbook of Economic Methodology (Edward Elgar, 1998). Davis co-authored with Marcel Boumans a textbook on Economic Methodology: Understanding Economics as a Science (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), and Hands wrote Reflections without Rules: Economic Methodology and Contemporary Science Theory (Cambridge University Press, 2001). The illusion is created by their specific view on the main traits of current methodology, which they share: current economic methodology is “reflections without rules”.

3In the introductory chapter of this volume, “The changing character of economic methodology”, they describe this shared view on economic methodology. The main characteristic of current methodology, according to the two editors, is that:

Economic methodologists began to set aside the normative methodological agendas associated with philosophical imports, and increasingly sought to elicit and describe the methodological reasoning they found implicit in economists’ thinking. This has now made what goes inside of economics more central to the field of economic methodology than what comes from outside of it, and has arguably made research in economic methodology more immediate to the concerns of economists themselves. (1)

4This change in economic methodology is labeled as the “naturalistic turn”: instead of “outside” normative assessments of economics as a science, the editors prefer “inside” descriptions of the practice of economic research and theorizing. This innocent looking ‘turn’, however, severely restricts the ‘task’ of an economic methodologist. The persons that are most equipped for the task of describing real practices are, obviously, the practitioners themselves. So, we have two chapters giving a practitioner’s account of their respective fields: Paul L. Borrill and Leigh Tesfatsion (chapter 11) on agent-based modeling and K. Vela Velupillai and Stefano Zambelli (chapter 12) on computing in economics. Informative as they are on these practices, they do not discuss economic methodology in any sense, but only the respective methods of their fields.

5In their endeavor to set the normative agenda aside, Davis and Hands are pushing too hard, and seem only willing to give space to descriptive accounts of the methodological practices of specific fields, often called ‘methodology with a small m’: Ana C. Santos (chapter 3) on experimental economics, Don Ross (chapter 4) on neuroeconomics, Erik Angner (chapter 6) on welfare measurement, Luigi Bruni and Pier Luigi Porta (chapter 7) on happiness studies, Paola Tubaro (chapter 10) on computational economics, and Roger E. Backhouse and Bradley W. Bateman (chapter 18) on Keynesian macroeconomics. This is not to say that these accounts are not highly insightful about the relevant fields of inquiry, it is only to note that they are not accounts on recent economic methodology, but on recent economics.

6However, there exists an intermediate position between prescriptive and descriptive methodologies, namely that of critical analysis of research practices. This is not a normative assessment where one prescribe how science should be done, but an analysis by which one attempts to understand the epistemological range and power, or in other words, the limitations and conditions of the validity of the theoretical concepts and applied method(odologie)s. This is what I call ‘methodology with a large M’. Methodology with a large M is critical analysis without being necessarily prescriptive. Critical analysis, however, requires a theoretical framework to reason from. To be consistent with their methodological view to avoid “philosophical imports”, the editors, besides practitioners, also invited authors that draw on frameworks coming from “various subfields in economics”, such as economics, econometrics, history of economics and sociology. These contributors use historical frameworks: Floris Heukelom (chapter 2) on behavioral economics, David Colander (chapter 8) on applied economic policy, and Pedro Garcia Duarte (chapter 16) on recent macroeconomics; an econometric framework: Katarina Juselius (chapter 17) on macroeconomics; an economic framework: L. Randall Wray on macroeconomics; and sociological frameworks: Philip Mirowski (chapter 20) on neoclassical economics and Tiago Mata (chapter 21) on economic blogging.

7In times of a scientific crisis in economics, these chapters—most of them are clearly motivated by this crisis—are very relevant and interesting because of their critical analysis of current economics. But if the discussion of economics as a science seems to be most relevantly and interestingly done outside economic methodology, what legitimates the existence of economic methodology as a separate field, even as an economic subfield? Then this volume is ostracizing economic methodology.

8Fortunately, the editors also allowed for a few critical analyses from a philosophical perspective: Anna Alexandrova and Daniel M. Haybron (chapter 5) on happiness research in economics and Uskali Mäki and Caterina Marchionni on geographical economics. Interestingly, they arrive at two opposing judgments on developments in current economics. Alexandrova and Haybron share the editor’s general claims on recent economic methodology. The editors see a “significant change” of the “character of economic methodology” in a number of:

new research programs, including experimental economics, behavioral economics, neuroeconomics, evolutionary economics, complexity an computational economics, ecological economics, and the subjective well-being approach. In each of these new research programs practitioners have sought to differentiate their programs from the post-war economics mainstream associated with neoclassical economics and classical game theory, not only by marking out their theoretical differences from standard views, but also by emphasizing their own departures from standard methodological strategies. (1-2)

9In contrast to this view, however, Mäki and Marchionni understand recent economics as “economics as usual”. Though Mäki and Marchionni only discuss geographical economics, they nevertheless see geographical economics as representative of a general development of economic theory:

It is rather a matter of finding a way of deriving a known phenomenon or regularity or pattern from the basic principles of the received theoretical framework by making adjustments in auxiliary assumptions. The discovery is guided by convention that favour providing mechanistic microfoundations that serve to unify as many kinds of phenomena as possibly. (203)

10These two opposing assessment of what is going on in current economics is of most interest for current economic methodology, because recent developments in economics provide the rare occasion to ‘test’ which philosophical account on scientific development, whether for example a Kuhnian account of crises and ‘revolutions’, or a Lakatosian account of change of research programs, is most appropriate. And if none of them are, it is, in my view, a task of economic methodologists to develop a new account more accurately explaining current changes of scientific practices. Actually, for economic methodologists these are exciting times.

11So far I did not discuss Part IV “Evolution and Evolutionary Economics”, which contains three chapters written by Geoffrey M. Hodgson, Kurt Dopfer and Jack Vromen. The reason is that I do not see why it is added to a book on economic methodology. This part contains an internal debate among evolutionary economists on evolutionary economics that are related to issues and literature only discussed and referred to within the 75 pages of Part IV. In my view, evolutionary economics is not a subfield of economic methodology, and this Part IV is the proof of it. But if this book is indeed a survey of recent economics, evolutionary economics of course deserves a place in such a volume.

12Whether the title of this volume is appropriate or not depends of course on the definition of economic methodology one has. The editors see the economic methodologists’ task as to “describe the methodological reasoning they found implicit in economists’ thinking” (1), whereas I see it as the critical analysis of economic fields from a philosophical perspective. Taking away the usage of any philosophical framework is making economic methodology toothless. Critical analyses, then, can only come from other fields like sociology and history. These are valuable contributions, but why setting philosophy aside? Luckily they did not use their restrictive rule too restrictively and allowed for two philosophical contributions.

13Notwithstanding our disagreement on a definition, the volume is an excellent response to the current crisis in economics. Several chapters discuss the “dismal state” of current economics in a very engaging way, and provide clues how to improve its practice.

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Marcel Boumans, « John B. Davis and D. Wade Hands (eds), The Elgar Companion to Recent Economic Methodology », Œconomia, 3-2 | 2013, 319-322.

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Marcel Boumans, « John B. Davis and D. Wade Hands (eds), The Elgar Companion to Recent Economic Methodology », Œconomia [En ligne], 3-2 | 2013, mis en ligne le 30 janvier 2014, consulté le 25 février 2018. URL :

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Marcel Boumans

University of Amsterdam and Erasmus University Rotterdam

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