CHICAGO – In a 2006 survey, American university professors were asked whether it was better to possess knowledge from numerous fields of study, or from just one. Among professors of psychology, 79% were enthusiastic about interdisciplinary learning, as were 73% of sociologists and 68% of historians. The least enthusiastic? Economists: only 42% surveyed said they agreed with the need to understand the world through a cross-disciplinary lens. As one observer put it bluntly: “Economists literally think they have nothing to learn from anyone else.”
In fact, economists would benefit greatly if they broadened their focus. Dealing as it does with human beings, economics has much to learn from the humanities. Not only could its models be more realistic and its predictions more accurate, but economic policies could be more effective and more just.
Whether one considers how to foster economic growth in diverse cultures, the moral questions raised when universities pursue self-interest at the expense of their students, or deeply personal issues concerning health care, marriage, and families, economic insights are necessary but insufficient. If those insights are all we consider, policies flounder and people suffer.
In their passion for mathematically-based explanations, economists have a hard time in at least three areas: accounting for culture, using narrative explanation, and addressing ethical issues that cannot be reduced to economic categories alone.
People are not organisms that are first made and then dipped in some culture, like Achilles in the river Styx. They are cultural beings from the outset. But, because culture cannot be rendered in mathematical terms, economists typically embrace the idea of a pre-cultural humanness.
To understand people as cultural beings, one must tell stories about them. Human lives do not unfold in a predictable fashion the way Mars orbits the sun. Contingency, idiosyncrasy, and unforeseeable choices…