Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Ethnography of Chicago Economists

In 1973, Axel Leijonhufvud of UCLA wrote a satire, self-mocking, nonetheless quite accurate, paper on the anthropology of Econ tribe (in pdf here) published in Western Economic Journal. It's a useful paper, should you fail to understand contemporary economists and economics as one among so many odd creatures in the world.

And for more recent work, allow me to suggest you a book on even more controversial economists' sub ethnic: The Chicago School, How The University of Chicago Assembled The Thinkers Who Revolutionized Economics and Business.

I don't think the author, Johan Van Overtveldt, wrote that as one, but I like to read it as a smooth excellent ethnography on otherwise very boring stuff of this, for many, source of contempt, and for many others, admiration.

Like any ethnography work, it has its several usual features like the description on power structure, hierarchy, recruitment, rituals, shared values and ideas, and conflicts. Overtveldt is a well informed author, and he separates his work, yet excellently knits, the several key ideas of Chicago school from price theory, monetarism, economics of regulation, law and economics, to finance. Unlike many less excellent social science writing, you don't find yourself lose the broader picture whenever you read some details somewhere in the book.

And it's not merely about Milton Friedman, George Stigler, Gary Becker, or Eugene Fama, but also many less influential figures that shaped the school the way it is now. Also, the most interesting part to me is the role of dissenters, people with either Keynesian tendency or less faith in market mechanism like the economists at Cowles Commision, the socialist Oskar Lange, and to some extent Ronald Coase, Frederik Hayek, and later Richard Thaler.

It tells one important lesson that even a most solid bastion of neoclassical economics needs their critics to be integral part of their citadel (to make it even stronger, I should say). Although most of dissenters did not survive, their most academically productive period was usually when they were in Chicago under its infamous intimidating traditional institutions like workshops and seminars there.

It's a real page turner but, and this is probably the turn-off for non economics specialists, you need to at least broadly understand different schools of thought on the issues above. I think undergrads' Micro and Macro Theory 1 (take Aco's and Ape's classes if you are at FEUI) should serve you well to enjoy this one of the best books I've read in 2008.


  1. so i guess cafesalemba is right on track, rizal. you just have to dub us (me, the angry sociologist @ nyc, and the likes) your devil's advocates :D


  2. dp@oz, as you know, although we may not be able to serve everyone's cuppa of tea, nonetheless we're open it for everyone --even for the devil him/herself :D

  3. I meant everyone's cuppa tea.