[OPE-L:4486] FWD: Pluralism and economics

From: Asfilho@aol.com
Date: Fri Nov 10 2000 - 03:55:34 EST

___"A debate on the teaching in economics. At last...!"___


"The declaration written and signed up by a group of students in 
economics from French universities and "grandes écoles" is something 
professors in economics can not be unconcerned about. Some because they 
will feel questioned by it. Others, in opposite, because they share the 
claims and worries that are stated.

The problems raised by the students are the following:

- the important space occupied by the neoclassical theory and 
the "mismatching between the teaching and the actual reality", while 
it’s necessary to proceed to a permanent feed back to fact and to 
provide answers that are "useful to economic and social actors" ,

- using mathematics as a finality per se rather then as a tool, and as 
a instrument of selecting students under cover of Science, 

- a teaching based on lectures that does not open up to thinking,

- the need for a plurality of explanations adapted to the complexity of 
the objects analyzed.

It is worrying to observe that students feel, from the teaching that 
they get and the exercises they practice, that the activity of an 
economist would consist in "running" models with no link with the 
actual realities. As if the job of the economist was about 
manipulating "imaginary worlds", avoiding the analysis of major 
contemporary issues. Now, if we look at the past 25 years, and only 
mentioning developed countries, the moral responsibility of economists 
is engaged through unemployment and social exclusion. 

Too often, research and teaching in economics are reduced to a play on 
variables, in more or less complex models, to the detriment of the 
quality of answers to issues raised by contemporary mutations. If 
mathematical virtuosity may sometime be acclaimed as the one of an 
artist in front of his masterpiece, in no way can it provide 
satisfactory answers in front of the seriousness of social issues. The 
technicity and the "scientific" appearance of arguments reduced to the 
use of mathematics often hide the emptiness of proposals and the lack 
of concern about operational answers.

As every scientific field does, economics is focused on the explanation 
of actual phenomena. The validity and the relevancy of a theory can in 
fine only be assessed through a necessary confrontation with "facts". 
This is why we can only, with students, deplore the development of a 
pedagogy in economics privileging the presentation of theories, the 
building of models, the capacity to write and derive properties of 
models whose empirical relevancy would not be (or too little) 
discussed. Or which highlights the formal quality of the construction 
to the detriment of the discussion of the interpretative and 
demonstrative capacity regarding "reality". The first interest of a 
model is the nature, the power and the efficiency of the abstraction 
that it proposes to inform. The prime competence of the economist 
should be to realize this task. It is not a mathematical issue.

"Getting back to facts" is not an obvious task, indeed. Any science 
lies on facts that are built up and conceptualized. Different paradigms 
therefore appear, each of them constituting different families of 
representation and modalities of interpretation or construction of 


But this should not lead us to resign ourselves to a shortsightedness 
and auto-referentiality. Acknowledging the existence and the role of 
paradigms should not be used as an argument for setting up different 
citadels, unquestionable from the outside. Paradigms should be 
confronted and discussed. But this can not be done, or it would be 
empiricism, on the base of a "natural" or immediate representation. One 
can not avoid using the tools provided by statistics and econometrics. 
But performing a critical assessment of a model should not be 
approached on a exclusively quantitative base. As rigorous, from a 
formal point of view, as may be the origin of a "economic law" or of a 
theorem, as satisfactory and convincing as may seem the statistical fit 
to observed facts, one always need to assess the relevancy and the 
validity regarding the context and the type of situation to which its 
scope may be subordinated. One should also take into account the 
institutions, history, strategies of actors and groups, the 
sociological dimensions, as well as more epistemological matters. 
However, these dimensions of economics are cruelly missing in the 
training of our students.


This situation may be solved with introducing specialized courses. But 
it’s not so much the addition of new courses that is important, but 
much more the linking of relevant knowledge’s in a same given training 
program. Students are claiming for that, and we consider that there are 
right here. The fragmentation of our discipline should be fought 
against. For instance, macroeconomics should highlight, itself, the 
importance of institutional constraints, of structures, and of the role 
of history. How can it be suggested that the same models, the same 
theories should have a priori the same relevancy for the United States, 
for France or for Japan?


Each teaching course can, and should, refer to several specialties. One 
should not develop on one side a course in theoretical macroeconomics, 
on another side a course in history, and later a course in 
epistemology, leaving to the student the enormous task of performing a 
synthesis of the disciplines, and to set up all the relevant 
connections. He (or she) is not able to achieve such a synthesis. But, 
above all, it would consist in following a bad path regarding the 
pedagogy in economics. What matters is the capacity to solve problems, 
therefore the capacity to approach a given situation under different 
aspects. Therefore, should we not only teach specialties but teach how 
to build connections. Students need to learn how to learn and to 
perform by themselves the linking which are relevant in the study of a 


This leads us to the issue of pluralism. Because the existence of 
different theories can be explained by the nature of the assumed 
hypotheses, the questions stated, the choice of a more or less long 
temporal spectrum in which the analysis and the "régulations" take 
place, of by the institutional and historical context. The system to 
which the study of the given phenomenon is referring may be more or 
less large. The setting up of its boundary is part of the problem to be 
solved. Pluralism is not only a matter of, as some may think, different 
prejudice or basic visions which would express specific commitments. 
Pluralism is not only a matter of ideology. It is, indeed, more 
confortable and simple, when confronting theories, to attribute the 
differences to ideological divergences. It may be the case, but it is 
far from always being the case. 


Pluralism must be part of the basic culture of the economist. Regarding 
research, everyone is free to develop the type of thinking and stream 
toward which its convictions and fields of interest may lead him (her). 
Regarding pedagogy, in a much complexified and continuously evolving 
world, it is impossible to avoid alternative representations and to 
commit to a strong fragmentation of disciplines.


This leads us to the questioning of the neoclassical theory. The 
preponderant space it occupies is, indeed, questionable as far as 
pluralism is concerned. But there is a more important issue than the 
statement of this principle. The fiction of a rational representative 
agent, the importance given to the notion of equilibrium, the idea 
according to which the market, regulated by prices, essentially 
constitutes the main (if not unique) locus of adjustments of behaviors: 
these are as many analytical principals founding a research strategy 
whose efficiency and relevancy is not obvious neither proved. Our 
conception of economics, more political, is based on some principals of 
behaviors of another kind (principal of bounded rationality for 
instance). It acknowledges the importance of history and institutions, 
includes the existence of direct interactions between agents, and 
acknowledges that their heterogeneity is, per se, an important factor 
for the dynamics of the system. It keeps an important role to 
adjustments of behaviors which goes beyond the market and are not 
limited to prices and quantities equilibrium. Organizations play a 
double role: as agents, and as systems of agents. The phenomena of 
power can not be a priori excluded or put aside. The study of long 
dynamics, of shifts and crises, allow to put in perspective and to 
better apprehend contemporary evolutions.


The fact that "in most cases" the teaching maintains a central role to 
neoclassical thesis is questionable for other reasons. Students are, 
indeed, leaded to believe not only that the neoclassical theory is the 
only scientific stream, but also that scientificity can be explained 
through it’s axiomatic characteristic or by the systematic of exclusive 
use of formalized modeling under all its aspects. Let us state it 
straight: the neoclassical theory is not more scientific than other 
approaches in economics. Naturally, this does not mean that it is less 


In any way, we denounce, with students, the totally abusive 
assimilation that is often made between scientificity and the use of 
mathematics. The debate on the scientificity of economics as a social 
science can not be limited to the question of using mathematics or not. 
Let’s go further: raising the debate in those terms is actually about 
deluding people and avoiding true questions and issues which as far 
more important, we mean the object and the nature of modeling itself. 
Not mentioning the already stated risk of an economic thought focused 
on resolving "imaginary" problems 


Concerning pedagogy, the consequence is immediate: if the space left to 
mathematics is too important, and if it is suggested that a good 
economist has necessarily to be a good mathematician (and, according to 
some, reciprocally) we are therefore facing a pitiful and unjustified 
perverse misuse.

The strong inclination, in France, which consists in considering that 
mastering the mathematical tool is the criteria of the capacity to 
elaborate a scientific discourse, is of common knowledge. The central 
role attributed to pure mathematics as a tool for selecting students 
willing to enter "grandes écoles", is also well known. Some have set up 
similar type of selection for entering bachelor training in economics. 
One can have some doubts about the relevancy of such pedagogical 


We should look at this role attributed to mathematics in trainings in 
economics as a national specificity that nothing, fundamentally, from 
inside the discipline, can justify. At least, nothing can justify the 
excess we have reached. We only have to observe the programs set up by 
the very countries who are used as a reference by the ones who defend 
this "derive" to be able to catch this specificity. 


A quality, and state of the art, teaching in economics is very much 
feasible without needing to reproduce a style of training not adapted 
to students and, above all, a training that leads to neglect two strong 
features of the university: the diversity of student’s degree course on 
one side, and the training to critical thinking on the other side.


We give our full support to the claims made by the students. We are 
particularly concerned with initiatives that may be taken at the local 
level in order to provide beginning of answers to their expectations. 
We hope that those will be heard by all the students in economics in 
universities. In order to do so, we are ready to enter a dialogue with 
students and to be associated with the holding of a national conference 
that would allow the opening of a public debate for all".



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probable defaults.
Il existe une traduction de la motion des enseignants et elle est
disponible en ligne à l'adresse suivante :


Par ailleurs, il existe maintenant un forum de discussion à cette
adresse :
 ( discussion forum) 


Enfin, je vous signale que j'ai ouvert depuis mi septembre une liste
"internationale" qui comprend déjà environ quatre vingt noms et qui
devrait être publiée dans le numéro à paraître en décembre de la revue
L'économie politique. Les collègues anglais qui veulent signer doivent
m'adresser un mail pour me signaler leur volonté de voir leur nom
figurer sur cette liste. Je serai très heureux d'en accueillir le

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