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Ideological Indoctrination in Macroeconomics

Kevin Drum shares this great quote from Mike Konczal, on ideological indoctrination in a graduate level macroeconomic’s class:

speaking as someone who has taken graduate coursework in “continental philosophy”, and been walked through the big hits of structural anthropology, Hegelian marxism and Freudian feminism, that graduate macroeconomics class was by far the most ideologically indoctrinating class I’ve ever seen. By a mile. There was like two weeks where the class just copied equations that said, if you speak math, “unemployment insurance makes people weak and slothful” over and over again.


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P. Kerim Friedman is an associate professor in the Department of Ethnic Relations and Cultures at National Dong Hwa University, in Taiwan, where he teaches linguistic and visual anthropology. He is co-director of the film Please Don't Beat Me, Sir!, winner of the 2011 Jean Rouch Award from the Society of Visual Anthropology. Follow Kerim on Twitter.

6 thoughts on “Ideological Indoctrination in Macroeconomics


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    Fred says:

    Having read some economics at a low level, I am somewhat amazed at the degree of abstraction required by the field to bring its points across. Someone may now correct me, but I believe it was the Chicago school which brought mathematics as an economic language to such a high level when dealing with topics such as market efficiency, portfolio theory, indifference curves (to mention a few topics). But I’m not so quick to think of it as “ideological indocrination,” unless one had Milton Friedman as a professor. The idea of unregulated markets as synonymous with free markets is certainly an ideological doctrine, but the idea of efficient markets is more a philosophical argument (couched in mathematical equations). We might do well to remember that the recent solutions to the world financial meltdown are also coming from economists, whose first language is mathematically oriented.

    But is this all of the same sort of abstraction as theory laden anthropology? Can we create a scale of degree identifying “theoryness”? The assumption that anthropology is theory laden, but of a different linguistic sort, does not really hold much water. Graph theory is a rich source of a mathematical language to map out social ties between groups. Questions revolving around cultural complexity or development can be mathematized (I am thinking of application of the formulations for ecological island models, and, hey, some stochastic modelling would not be out of place if we included time as a variable).

    Certainly mathematical modelling is not something that springs to mind when talking about anthropology, but it is there, if lurking in the background. And certainly in physical anthropology, mathematical modelling is a viable exercise. I am quite sure that if some school (some Chicago-like school that focused on social anthropology) decided to emphasize mathematically abstract models, we’d be as counfounded as we are now when looking at those macro-economists. Thank heavens then for writers like Paul Krugman and Clifford Geertz.


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    ryan a says:

    This makes me want to take a grad seminar in econ even more.


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    anony says:

    Patrick McGeehan at NYT did a write up on a similar phenomenon at the undergraduate level, but the study he mentions noted that PhD level economists were less doctrinaire than undergrad counterparts.

    http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/07/does-studying-economics-make-you-more-republican/

    Original study: http://www.newyorkfed.org/research/staff_reports/sr450.pdf

    Btw, is there an analog to economism in anthropology? Anthropologism? How would we define that?


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    Adam says:

    If information theory is ever successfully applied to culture and social life (and I think it will be one day, humans being creatures of information at every level), then perhaps anthro will have its own curiously mathematically ideological schools.


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    MTBradley says:

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    Rick says:

    I don’t think the use of math, or mathematic models, is really what makes economics, well, economics as often practiced; or, what separates it from anthropology. I think every anthropologist should fully utilize a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods and theories to come to parsimonious and valid explinations of human behavior.
    What happens in forms of economic theory, like neoliberalism, is more of an almost total belief in certain foundational principles, which are themselves unempiric and ethnocentric. This posting matches up with my personal understanding of the indoctrination issues in economics. This same case is made in the book, “Why Economics is Not Yet a Science,” by economist Eichner: http://books.google.com/books?id=nR25AAAAIAAJ&q=why+economics+is+not+yet&dq=why+economics+is+not+yet&hl=en&ei=pYErTObuJsK88gaf57TSCA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CCkQ6AEwAA

    The issue at hand then isn’t the use of math or models, but the misuse of it. It is a matter of measurement. Econometrists believe that things like happiness can be measured quantitatively, for example. The reason anthrpology is a superior method of knowledge production is because we not only use quant and qual methods in a way that tests, confirms, and explains data of both forms in combination, but because we have the field methods to actually gather the data. Neighborhood level data really doesn’t exist anywhere, and one as to go and get it. An economist can carry out a survey, but that’s about all they can do.

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