Economics Representations

Published on real-world economics review blog, by David Ruccio, May 8, 2010.

An example I often use at the start of my introductory economics courses is a “man sitting on a street corner, with no job.” I ask the students to tell a story about the man: who he is, and why he has no job. As readers can imagine, they tell a wide variety of stories—imagining different ages and races, and different reasons why he has no (apparent) job. He’s alternately black, white, and hispanic; he’s young, old, and middle-aged; he either doesn’t have a job or he’s doing something illegal; and, if he doesn’t have a job, it’s because he’s lazy, uneducated, or the economy isn’t supplying enough decent jobs at decent wages. 

What I teach them is, first, different stories have different consequences, and, second, economics comprises many different stories—about that man and the economy more generally. What I call different “representations” Daniel Little refers to as  different “mental models for the social world” … //

… In my case, I ask the students to consider the existence of the different economic theories they use to make sense of instances like the unemployed “man sitting on the street corner,” what the different consequences of those different theories are, and where those different theories come from.

Then, we can settle into discussing the hegemonic economic theory in the world today – neoclassical economics – and some of the main criticisms of and alternatives to that theory. That’s a way of teaching economics without presuming a single, unchangeable social ontology, which also demonstrates that social ontologies matter. (full text).

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