Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The expanding scope of economics

I enjoyed reading Freakonomics but it wasn’t really what I expected. For a start, most of it wasn’t really about economics. I’m not sure exactly what to call it other than social science. It was a bit sociology, a bit epidemiology, a bit social psychology, a bit cultural studies maybe. It was essentially using statistical techniques developed in economics and applying them to other fields.

It seems to be a growing trend. Joshua Gans talked today about economists doing medical research and Andrew Leigh’s blog today mentions some recent economic studies from the National Bureau of Economic Research – at least two of which I wouldn’t really say are economics at all.

I’m not sure what’s driving this foray from economists into areas that other social scientists would traditionally hold. Do economists’ methods and training allow them to answer these questions better than others? Are there just more economists out there? Are economists bored with traditional economics? Is it easier to get funding to study something if you’re an ‘economist’ than, say, a ‘sociologist’?

This was one of the topics I first talked about in this blog (Economists should stick to economics). I think it’s a good thing when economist apply their tools to other areas. But I do worry that economists often carry, along with those tools, a particular suite of theoretical or ideological baggage that means studies of social phenomena shouldn’t just be left to economists.

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