Review of Lawson, T. (2019). The Nature of Social Reality: Issues in Social Ontology. London and New York: Routledge.
Ontology is the study of being. Social ontology is the study of social being or, in other words, the study of the nature and basic structure of social reality. We all do ontology all of the time, economists included, whether we like it or not. For all practices carry ontological presuppositions. Economists only have a choice between doing ontology explicitly or implicitly. Tony Lawson’s contributions stand out and are of such profound significance precisely because he explicitly grounds his analysis in an account of social ontology. It is only by redressing the ontological neglect that has for some decades characterised the discipline that a productive transformation of economics is at all feasible.
Lawson is perhaps best known amongst heterodox economists for his critique of the mainstream emphasis on mathematical modelling. Lawson shows that the implicit ontological presupposition of an insistence of mathematical modelling is a world of isolated atoms and argues that, as the social realm is not characterised by isolated atoms, the mainstream approach will produce largely irrelevant research. However, it would be wrong to consider this critique to be his major contribution. Rather, it is but one of an increasing number of powerful (sometimes startling) results derived from Lawson’s three-decade project of developing and defending, along with other participants of the Cambridge Social Ontology Group, an account of the nature of social reality.
The Nature of Social Reality: Issues in Social Ontology provides the latest developments that Lawson has made in the field of social ontology. Here, he sets out an account of social ontology that has come to be regularly referred to as a theory of social positioning, demonstrating its explanatory power. An exciting feature of the book is that it sets out the theory of social positioning in its most advanced form to date and then puts it to work through analysing the nature of the corporation, money and emancipatory practice. Whilst Lawson is pursuing themes in social ontology at an advanced level, he takes great pains to ensure that the analysis is everywhere accessible. The detailed and provocative accounts of the corporation and of money provide ample illustrations of the enormous potential of the social positioning framework. Read More »
By Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven and Carolina Alves
“Economics is unique among the social sciences in having a single monolithic mainstream, which is either unaware of or actively hostile to alternative approaches.” (John King 2013: 17)
What does heterodox economics mean? Is the label helpful or harmful? Being outside of the mainstream of the Economics discipline, the way we position ourselves may be particularly important. For this reason, many around us shun the use of the term “heterodox” and advise against using it. However, we believe the reluctance to use the term stems in part from misunderstandings of (and sometimes disagreement over) what the term means and perhaps disagreements over strategies for how to change the discipline.
In other words, this is an important debate about both identification and strategy. In this blog, we wish to raise the issue in heterodox and mainstream circles, by busting a few common myths about Heterodox Economics – mostly stemming from the orthodoxy. This is a small part of a larger project on defining heterodox economics.
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“About these matters there is no scientific basis on which to form any calculable probability whatever. We simply do not know.”
An economist’s words but not meant to be a description of where things stand today in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, though they might as well be. These are Keynes’s words from a 1937 article following the publication of his magnum opus, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money in 1936.Read More »
By Farwa Sial and Carolina Alves
In a recent article in the New York Times, the development economist Seema Jayachandran discusses three studies that used Randomised Controlled Trials (or RCTs) to understand the benefits of enhancing the self-worth of poor people. Despite wide differences in context, all the cases explore the viability of ‘modest interventions’ to ‘instill hope’ in marginalised communities, concluding that ‘remarkable improvements’ in the quest for poverty reduction are possible.
One of the studies from Uganda, for example, argues that “a role model can have significant effects on students’ educational attainment,” so the suggestion for policy-makers might be “to place more emphasis on motivation and inspiration through example.” Another case study of sex workers in Kolkata Brothels argues that “psychological barriers impede such disadvantaged groups from breaking the vicious circle and achieving better outcomes in life,” so small but effective changes that address these psychological constraints can alleviate the effects of poverty and social exclusion.
The underlying theme of these studies is that individuals can surmount the structural challenges of poverty through their own efforts using tools like ‘effective role models,’ the generation of ‘more hope,’ and the ‘improvement of their mental health.’ Positive psychology of this kind and an emphasis on behavior change to meet the goals of individuals have been around at least since the 1950s, first in the popular literature of self-help books and now in academia, where they form part of an increasingly fashionable trend to ‘do poverty reduction differently.’Read More »
“The ‘market’ is a bad master, but can be a good servant.”
– S. Chakravarty (1993: 420)
In the world today, more and more interpersonal interactions are replaced by market transactions. The market system is both an economic and a cultural phenomenon, yet we seem to be hardly aware of the values that are bound up in it. This phenomenon is manifest at many levels: from the family, through the neighbourhood and the enterprise, to the nation and the globe. If there is such a thing as global ethics, I suggest, then they are – like it or not – the ethics of the market. My purpose here is to elaborate this claim, and to assess its implications. I shall distinguish between the market as a theoretical construct in economics, and the market as a social institution.
My main hypothesis can be briefly stated as follows: the most convincing ethical argument currently being made in favour of the market is its neutrality. Whether the market is in fact neutral may be disputed. But if one accepts this claim, it implies that the market is amoral, rather than immoral, and there remain, I suggest, two objections to allowing the market ethic to prevail. The first is that this is an abrogation of moral responsibility. It implies delegating decisions of major social and material significance to powers which are beyond our control, and whose outcome is uncertain. Second, the neutrality of the market comes at a cost in social and human terms; social relations between persons are replaced by contractual relations between economic agents.Read More »
By Svenja Flechtner, Jakob Hafele & Theresa Neef
Much has been said about what’s going wrong in development economics – on this blog (for example by Adel Daoud, Ingrid H. Kvangraven, or Jacob Assa) and elsewhere (for example by Angus Deaton, Dani Rodrik, and Benjamin Selwyn), as well as in newspapers. Much has been written, too, about alternative perspectives and approaches to economic development thinking (this recent compilation by Reinert, Ghosh and Kattel gives an overview of many of them). But is it possible to build a coherent pluralist and critical framework out of these approaches? If so, what could a critical and pluralist research agenda for development economics look like?Read More »
The marginalist revolution in the late nineteenth century marked the beginning of the end of classical political economy and the birth of what came to be known as neoclassical economics (Sandelin et al. 2002). All three pioneers of marginal utility theory—Carl Menger (1871), William Jevons (1888), Léon Walras (1954) —referred to scarcity as the starting point for economic analysis. Through the work of these pioneers, especially Menger’s, the centrality of scarcity became a core premise for the advancement of contemporary neoclassical economics (see Hayek 2004:19; Robbins 1998:277). As a result, virtually every neoclassical economic textbook refers to scarcity—even though the field of economics is becoming increasingly differentiated.
I have argued in my research that scarcity problems are, and will remain, an important sub-set of problems, but we need to include sufficiency and abundance problems as well (Daoud 2007, 2010, 2011a, 2011b, 2015, 2017). Under scarcity, economics will give us insights about how people optimize their behavior to get as much as possible out of their limited resources. Neoclassical economics is mainly interested in what we can call allocation problems under a scarcity assumption. If actor A has a set of resources R, that is scarce in relation to fulfilling a set of wants W. Neoclassical economics tells us that a rational actor will optimize his or her resources in such a way that person can derive as much utility U as possible given the circumstances. These types of problems are central to many social science issues—they face governments allocating a limited budget to a myriad of popular demands, they face the individual in deciding if he or she should go to university or take a job. As social scientist, we need to keep analyzing these situations.Read More »
During the 1990s, although the market paradigm was dominant in economics and public policy, a new literature stressing the importance of the role of the state in industrialization rose to fame. We can mention Alice Amsden’s Asia Next Giant (1989), Robert Wade’s Governing the Market (1990) or Peter Evans’ Embedded Autonomy (1995). This literature dwelled on the East Asian miraculous industrialization and showed with empirical and historical evidence how the state apparatus was necessary to spark the economic take off. More recently, these academic attempts multiplied (for instance in the developmental state literature with Ha-Joon Chang’s Kicking away the Ladder, 2002) and gained new interest after the 2008 financial crisis. Yet, this literature is not novel and draws its inspiration from previous economists and social scientists, who for a long time warned us of the danger of disintegrating the state from the economic sphere. On the other hand, mainstream theorists tend to undermine, if not ignore, state intervention and consider it as an exogenous variable to economic growth (see for example Bela Balassa, Lord P. T. Bauer, Anne Krueger and Deepak Lal). The post-1980s era had provoked academic debates around the role of the market versus the role of the state for developing countries: the claim made by mainstream economists and politicians was that countries which pursued a state-led industrial policy failed greatly and that the Latin-American debt crises was an illustration of this (see for example the 1983 World Development Report). On the contrary, it was observed that the East Asian newly industrialized countries (the so-called ‘four tigers’) ‘miraculously’ developed by pursuing market-oriented policies (see for example the World Bank). As heterodox economists, such as Amsden, Wade, and Evans, retaliated by stating the exact opposite, the extent to which the state could be an industrial actor or not become a new agora for both camps.
However, what if the terms of the debate were problematic at the conceptual level from the beginning? Is the dichotomy “state vs. market” as evident as it appears to be in policy debates? A theoretical detour going back to Karl Polanyi might help us shed some light on this issue.
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