@Academia and Public, Berlin: And then it was all about the history...


It’s not everyday that one finds economists using history as not just the right way but the only way to answer a question.

History is informative, at times entertaining, but not a device for knowledge. And then it all depends on the question. In Berlin, the conversation is how to make social sciences more relevant and active in the public sphere?

I arrived in Berlin yesterday and I crashed around 9 pm to awake alert but stumbling at 7 am, 11 hours sleep!! yeahh!!. I skipped breakfast to travel to the WZB (read Vey, Zeid, Bey, they are quite strict about it…), not finding the planned bus, I was late for the introductions and pleasantries. When i tip toed to my seat the conference was reflecting on Sociology’s public fortunes.

Apparently these are not good enough, and alegedly lagging behind the sister science of economics. The tone was competitive, re-enacting a “two cultures” war in the social sciences: economists (and their new found friends, political scientists) are engineer like, individualists and pro-market, in effect denying the existence of society (always, always Margaret Tatcher’s quote), and then the sociologists (as the anthropologists) in their belief of an existence of collective agency, value laden and institutionally embedded life. To improve sociology’s public value thus required having an economic grand narrative to counter the neoliberal moment. Michael Burawoy in calling for Public Sociology offered up a Karl Polanyi’esque scheme to speak of an impending catastrophe coming of the marketization of nature. It had familiar long waves, that remind some quarters of institutionalist economics. Wolfgang Streeck was on attack too, saying that sociology should not left the economy to the economists, and that sociology as a theory of crisis should be the language to discuss the convulsions of today.

After, came the economists. Economists deny that their fortunes are so much better, feeling that the public sphere is packed by charlatans and cranks, think tank economists and others, not the accredited economists who are tired of the screaming pulpit. Eric Reinert gave a dizzying tour of past economics, with the messiest geneological table I have ever seen. His project is to recover the memory of a science of economics that was empirical, perhaps historical (my words), perhaps germanic, perhaps 18th century. The search for a lost soul was also Mark Thoma’s target. He debated wether the marginal revolution of the 1870s was the Fall or the post WWII mathematization of economics (mentions of Tony Lawson and Ben Fine startled me!). It was mostly the latter. Thoma ended with a defense of the return of the history of economics into the curriculum: “We lost the historical view”.

Two disciplines, and two ways of approaching the problem of public credibility, visibility and trust. Both want more and better. Sociologists look to the side. Economists look to themselves. Both are more alike than they would like to admit. They have an anxious, disciplinary, academic gaze. I am sitting here waiting for the public, to hear of it, perhaps the historians, they’re next…

Note: What was also surprisingly, and a bit self serving given the venue in which I write, is that INET popped up too. Reinert mentioned the republishing of the Other Canon with an INET grant. Savas Akat spoke of the debate between Martin Wolf and Larry Summers, an INET production.

Share your perspective