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Pluralism and social epistemology in economics



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Economics plays a significant role in decision-making in contemporary western societies, but its role is increasingly questioned. A recurring topic among the challenges raised by critics is that economics as a discipline lacks sufficient pluralism. That is, it fails to enable, encourage, and respect the use of different ontologies, methodologies, theories, and/or schools of thought to study economic reality. Has this been a productive critique? Does talk about pluralism help identify genuine problems in the discipline? Pluralism in economics could draw support from the current consensus in philosophy that pluralism in science is a good thing. I argue, however, that the claim that economic research is insufficiently pluralist is unlikely to convince economists who believe economics is already pluralist enough and that it does not offer unambiguous recommendations for change. This is because there are too many legitimate ways to interpret how pluralism maps to practice. There are numerous variables that pluralist ideals might focus on—the things that they seek multiple rather than one of—and different interpretations of how many of those variables economics has in practice. Yet, as I go on to argue, this does not mean that talk of pluralism is entirely beside the point, since the reasons pluralists offer for their ideals do help to identify genuine problems in economics. The social epistemic strategies that arguments for pluralism recommend point us to three concrete issues in the way economic research is organised: gender imbalances, a steep internal hierarchy, and a dismissive attitude to outsiders. I show that economic research could be more progressive, representative of the interests of those in society, accepted, and legitimate and less likely to fall into bias if the discipline alleviated its gender imbalances, if it were less hierarchical, and if it had a healthier relationship with outsiders.

In chapter 1, I outline the debate about pluralism in economics and explain how my thesis utilises a novel approach to social epistemology to offer a way out of the impasse in which that the debate presently resides. In chapter 2, I explain the different philosophical arguments for pluralism in science and categorise them using the variables they focus on and the reasons they give for pluralism. In chapter 3, I argue that interpreting pluralism as a particular arrangement of variables for economics to attain does not lead to unambiguous recommendations for change because it leaves too much open. Yet, I go on to argue, in chapter 4, that drawing on the reasons for pluralism can provide a set of heuristics for piecemeal evaluations of the social epistemic practices in economics. In chapters 5, 6, and 7, I apply these heuristics to economics. I provide evidence that [a] women are outnumbered in economics and face an adverse environment in the discipline, that [b] economics is steeply hierarchical, and that [c] economists form an in-group that assumes superiority and frequently dismisses outside voices. I argue that these three features of economic research block avenues for productive forms of feedback (mechanisms that help to challenge, justify, and refine scientific knowledge), block the interests of certain perspectives being heard, and block public scrutiny of the decisions made by economists.





Alexandrova, Anna
Chang, Ha-Joon


Social epistemology, Economics, Pluralism, Philosophy of science, Methodology, Politics of science, Pluralism in econmics, Scientific pluralism, Political epistemology, Gender, Hierarchy, Philosophy of economics, Organisation of science, Philosophy of social science, Values in science, Scientific significance, Feedback, Social studies of economics, History of economics, Epistemic authority, Well-ordered science


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Funded by the Cambridge Arts and Humanities Research Council doctoral training centre.