Thursday, April 7, 2011

Culture, Literature, and Economic Theory

Don Boudreaux discusses the role of culture in understanding economics at The Pittsburgh Tribune. He points out that because culture is difficult to define, economists resist including it in their analyses and theories. Which of course raises the issue of what we're doing here. Surely the analysis of literature is, to a great extent, cultural criticism. One is of course discussing the cultures of the authors in question, how they perceived those cultures, including the economic situation of the time. But perhaps there is a broader task one could engage in, which is that of helping the economists integrate culture into their models, by helping them understand the nature of culture better. And what better people to do so than those who are trying to understand culture in part by using economics? The great thing about literature is that it captures much of what was going on in a culture at a given time -- at least, as interpreted by the writer(s) of the time. This is an excellent reason why economists ought to be reading literature. Again, is it not our job to help facilitate those readings?


  1. I think you've importantly pointed out the importance of interdisciplinary approaches here. I think it is a big problem that most people do not approach their field with an interdisciplinary perspective, and that this kind of perspective could benefit people in every field. Especially in the humanities and social sciences, aren't we all looking at different manifestations of essentially the same question? If this is true, then it seems natural to me that we would all feed off of each other's research. I guess this could be seen as the merit of Austrian economics; it took a step back from its particular focus and took into account the fundamental question all the humanities are asking: How does culture and society emerge, function, and maintain itself?

  2. Indeed, Austrian economics is deeply interdisciplinary. And Hayek's spontaneous order theory in particular helps us to understand at a structural level a large number of social network processes. The key is to tease out the details, understanding first each social order on its own terms, then seeing how they interact with each other. It is a huge project, but it has to be done.