Pluralism in economics – its critiques and their lessons

By Claudius Gräbner and Birte Strunk

In a recent paper we engaged with common critiques of the concept and the movement for more pluralism in economics. We found that while the majority of the critiques are either unfounded, easy to dismiss or address strawmen, others do highlight challenges the pluralist movement should address.

In 2017, we were spending a week at the Summer Academy for Pluralist Economics, when the German economist Johannes Becker published a blog article on Makronom entitled “The Movement for Pluralist Economics risks its success” (translated from German). He argues that the movement for pluralist economics faces a decision: it could continue to be a movement of fundamental opposition against the ‘economic mainstream’, or it could start striving for ‘real change’. Economics professors, at least in Germany, Becker argued, were highly perceptive and open-minded towards alternative perspectives in economics. If the movement would focus more on constructive engagement with economics faculties rather than on fundamental critique, then there would be a greater amount of pluralist seminars and lectures.

Being surrounded by around 100 fellow pluralists who dedicated a week of their summer to study different approaches to economics, the accusation of simply being a movement of unconstructive opposition seemed alienating to us. So we drafted a response, arguing that pluralist economics is about both critique and the construction of alternative practices. Based on this response, we wrote an article evaluating the critiques posed toward pluralist economics, drawing from philosophy of science, philosophy of economics, and philosophy of interdisciplinarity. When writing the paper, which has recently been published in the Journal of Economic Methodology, we indeed found many critiques of pluralism to be unconvincing, yet we also discovered that some critiques of pluralism are not easily dismissed. They should be taken seriously by pluralists because an honest engagement with these critiques rather than the neglect of their relevance could, we believe, make the movement for pluralism in economics more convincing and successful.

The need for analytical clarity

The first part of the paper is about the clarification of basic concepts. In our experience, much of the debate about pluralism remains unconstructive when people use different and inconsistent vocabulary. In the paper, we use plurality as a descriptive category describing the multiplicity of some item. The term ‘pluralism’ refers to a normative demand for a plurality of some sort – without an a priori decision on which type of item should be occurring in greater multiplicity (this was inspired by this article of Uskali Mäki). Therefore, when discussing pluralism as a normative demand, it becomes mandatory to explicate which dimension of plurality one refers to – and which dimension one’s justifications or critiques of pluralism refer to. To name a few, we can think of plurality in dimensions as different as ontologies, theories, methods, or purposes. For instance, one may be a pluralist regarding topics (‘we can explain everything with economic models – from stock market behavior to unemployment to marriage decisions’) but not regarding methods (‘proper economics uses optimization and equilibrium tools’), or vice versa.

Some unwarranted critique of pluralism in economics

Equipped with this vocabulary, we could then survey three critiques often posed against the pluralist movement: (1) “the discipline is already pluralist”, (2) “if there were a need for pluralism, it would emerge on its own”, and (3) “pluralism means ‘anything goes’, and is thus unscientific”. Little sidenote: in an earlier draft of the paper, we also discussed the argument that pluralism is merely disguised left-wing propaganda. During the review process this argument was cut in favor of a more detailed discussion of the challenges of pluralism since reviewers found this argument to be too far-fetched and immediately unsubstantial. Therefore, we decided to cut this argument from the final submission, yet in practice we were indeed confronted with this argument quite regularly (for the argument we’re making in our earlier draft, see the working paper here). The pluralist responses to the other three arguments are the ones summarized in this table:

ArgumentObject of critiqueResponse
The discipline is already pluralistThe movementDepends on what you mean when you say ‘pluralist’. The discipline is open to new ideas but not to different methodologies.
If there were need for pluralism, it would emerge on its ownThe movementEvidence points to the contrary because of path dependencies in current institutions, uneven citing practices among heterodox and mainstream scholars, and a lack of pluralism in university curricula.
Pluralism means ‘anything goes’, and is thus unscientificThe conceptPluralism does not mean anything goes, but it does imply a broadening of research standards. While broad standards are no indicator of non-scientificness and do carry important epistemological benefits, they also bring certain challenges, specifically relating to the questions of quality control.

What are the key lessons from these responses? We argue that whether economics is already pluralist depends on the dimension: regarding topics it probably is – in the end, this is the core of what one may call ‘economic imperialism’. Yet, regarding epistemologies and, closely related, methodologies it clearly is not: approaches that do not follow the optimization-cum-equilibrium approach remain clearly sidelined. Moreover, we do not see any tendency towards a greater opening up of the discipline. To the contrary, path dependencies in existing academic institutions hinder the broadening of plurality in the epistemological and methodological dimension (see also here). However, such a broadening, we argue, would be very valuable to avoid intellectual lock-ins and do justice to the inherent complexity of economic and social realities. Interestingly, a very similar diagnosis is proposed by the economics Lauratea George Akerlof in his recent paper “Sins of Omission and the Practice of Economics”, a self-reflection that we found very helpful when writing the paper.

More serious challenges for pluralism

In the second part of the paper we take a closer look at the ramifications of demanding a greater plurality in the epistemological and methodological dimensions. While broader epistemologies don’t imply an ‘anything goes’-attitude they do relate to the question of effective quality control: how do we make sure that a given research contribution is “good” when we significantly broaden our ideas of what a “good explanation” is, to begin with? This question is something pluralists have debated among themselves. Out of this debate emerged the idea of an epistemological trade-off between diversity and consensus.

This trade-off does not imply a refutation of pluralism. However, it does point to certain limits in research practice, which is why it is important to better understand the functioning of the trade-off. Only then one could start addressing it explicitly and further improve pluralist research practice. To substantiate the trade-off, we refer to epistemological costs and benefits of pluralism. The benefits derive from recognizing the fundamental epistemological uncertainty with regard to the ‘right’ way of doing social science, as well as the epistemological potential of triangulating different perspectives that are all carry different blind spots. This is the case especially for social and embedded systems like economies. The costs, in turn, derive from two challenges: first, the challenge of quality control and, second, the challenge of communication. The latter describes the increasing difficulty of communicating among one another if scholars follow entirely different epistemologies or methodologies. In this case, they might not intuitively understand what the other party is doing.

An analytical view on costs and benefits of plurality

We believe that benefits and costs can be modelled in the following way: Benefits of plurality increase with decreasing marginal benefits while costs become increasingly more relevant the higher the level of plurality. In other words: the more pluralist the discipline, the less beneficial to add even more plurality, yet at low levels of plurality (in any dimension) benefits of increasing plurality are very high and costs are negligible. The graph in figure 1 draws out this schematic relationship.

This graph should not be read as a way to ‘optimize’ pluralism in practice, since there is no way to measure epistemological costs and benefits precisely. Rather, we think it is a useful heuristic to illustrate the general dynamics of the trade-off: In methodological and epistemological dimensions, the discipline is not pluralist, as we argued in the first half of the paper, and hence benefits of making it more pluralistic clearly outweigh costs. Increasing the plurality in these dimensions should, therefore, be of prime importance.

Outlook: better institutions allow for more pluralism and benefit economics as a whole

But we also make a further argument: costs also depend on how well scientific institutions address the two challenges of quality and communication. This is good news since it means that we can decrease the relevance of the epistemological costs of plurality even further by implementing adequate changes in the scientific institutions. Such institutional change would shift the cost curve as illustrated in figure 2:

How exactly do we suggest might scientific institutions address this trade-off? For the quality challenge, we argue that quality criteria should be both procedural and substantive: They should address both the process through which an idea has been produced and the idea itself. The former may happen e.g. via mutual criticism and debate, the latter via scientific (meta-)virtues combined with specific criteria depending on the purpose of the investigation at hand. For communication challenge we point out the necessity of more transparency on (meta-)theoretical assumptions in research practice. Moreover, it will greatly increase our abilities to communicate if institutions enable young scholars to reflect on differences among approaches via more plural education, and if they provide a greater amount of joint ‘symbolic spaces’ for exchange.

These elaborations on the right institutional responses to the challenges of pluralism are only preliminary. We believe that an explicit engagement with these challenges by the pluralist community is necessary to ensure the future success of this movement. Pretending there are no drawbacks of plurality at all, on the other hand, would be detrimental to the future of pluralism. This would be a shame, since a change towards more pluralism, and not towards more unity, is what economics need today.

Claudius Gräbner is a post-doc at the Institute for the Comprehensive Analysis of the Economy at the Johannes Kepler University in Linz (AT) and at the Institute of Socioeconomics at the University of Duisburg-Essen (DE). His main research topics are global inequality and technological change, but also economic methodology. He tweets at @ClaudiusGrabner.

Birte Strunk is a PhD student in economics at the New School for Social Research in New York. As an ecological economist, she researches socio-ecological transformations to tackle climate change in an equitable way. She tweets at @BirteStrunk.

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