John B. Davis is Professor of
Economics, Marquette University, and Professor of Economics, University of
Amsterdam, is author of Keynes’s Philosophical Development (Cambridge, 1994), The Theory of the Individual in Economics (Routledge, 2003), Individuals and Identity in Economics (Cambridge, 2011), and co-author with Marcel Boumans of Economic Methodology: Understanding Economics as a Science (Palgrave, 2010).
Here are some excerpts:
How did you get interested in social economics and who were your mentors?
I studied philosophy and ethics before economics, and when I turned to economics this implied to me that the economy is embedded in society rather than an autonomous realm. So not only is society the more encompassing frame, and economic life only part of social life, but because values are pervasive in social life, it follows that values are pervasive in economic life – not just market values but ethical values and social values of many kinds. These two principles – social embeddedness and value pervasiveness – are central to social economics, and the richness of the social economics research program is associated with the many ways they can be investigated….
….In my economics program at Michigan State University, John P. Henderson and Warren J. Samuels were my mentors.
What obstacles did you encounter professionally (and/or personally) in countering the standard economic model?
The greatest single obstacle is the profession’s blind scientific positivism and denial that values underlie economic reasoning and operate throughout economic life. It’s a remarkable historical (and cultural?) conundrum that skilled, intelligent standard economists can be so naïve and wrong on this subject. I have speculated recently on why this is the case (“Economists Odd Stand on the Positive-Normative Distinction: A Behavioral Economics View” – on SSRN), but it may be that one has to think more about the kind of society we live in to really explain this. In any case, to talk about economics being value-laden is the fastest way to alienate mainstream colleagues….
What analytical work of yours has made a difference to our understanding of the world and/or policy?
It’s my view that the central deep assumption of standard economics is that individuals are atomistic beings. Standard rationality theory presupposes this, and I don’t think one can make effective critiques of rationality without showing why the standard view of the individual is wrong. My analytical contribution on this score has been to develop an identity approach to evaluate any individual conception in terms of whether it can be said to successfully refer to individuals. My first book on this (The Theory of the Individual in Economics) argued that the standard neoclassical individual conception fails to refer to individuals. How ironic and telling about the theory that it is ultimately not really about individuals!
What advice would you give to graduate students setting out to study social economics?
….First, then, it seems to me that economics research ought to be more interdisciplinary, particularly in importing ideas and concepts from other social sciences. This often generates new insights and forces people to rethink old explanations. Second, it seems to me that more research might use multiple methods of analysis to in effect triangulate upon desired conclusions. In this regard, case studies and survey research strike me as especially valuable when done well (though they are maligned by many economists).
There’s much more to this interview. Read the whole thing here.