a bigger nobel prize

Last week, Kieran posted on Krugman’s recent award. In the comments, Sean Safford directs us towards a Chicago Tribune op-ed he wrote, where he asks if we should have a broader conception of what merits an award:

The Nobel Prize in economics will be awarded Monday, and in all likelihood it will go to one of a handful of orthodox economists whose names are mentioned annually. That is how it has been for the 40 years that the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel has existed. The prize is meant to honor research and insights that have had seminal impact on understanding the forces that drive human history.

But the pool of potential recipients has been restricted to adherents of one theoretical and empirical approach to addressing it. This narrow focus harms the quality of political discourse and has contributed to the financial mess in which we are embroiled.


In these highly uncertain times, we turn to signals of status to make sense of what is going on around us. There is no higher marker of status than the Nobel Prize, but the select group recognized by the prize represents a limited range of opinions. Awarding the prize to a wider range of scholars would bring a more productive dialogue.

Worth reading. On a related point, I argued last year that some sociologists were equally deserving of the econ prize (see here, here).

Written by fabiorojas

October 20, 2008 at 4:06 pm

Posted in academia, economics, fabio

9 Responses

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  1. I’m having trouble finding any sort of terse explanation of goal on the Nobel website, but doesn’t Safford’s description of the Nobel’s purpose appear a bit self-servingly broad? I mean — the prize is not “meant to honor research and insights that have had seminal impact on understanding the forces that drive human history,” except if you consider economic phenomena equivalent to human history, which is itself a controversial (and rather broad) position to take. That is, it’s specifically an economics prize, not a social sciences prize; I have no qualms with it being awarded to academics and professionals who do not self-identify as or hold graduate degrees or professional positions identifying them as economists, but it should still be awarded for insight into specifically economic patterns.

    He also makes a few off-hand comments that the current financial crisis has somehow sprouted from a separation of state and market, but doesn’t appear to make any attempt to substantiate that. I’m entirely supportive of attempts to broaden the set of variables considered relevant by economists, and of the data considered worth collecting and considering, but this is, again, an importantly controversial claim. I mean: are FANNIE and FREDDIE not government agencies? Did the government not substantially amend laws to place pressure on lending agencies to offer housing to offer mortgage loans to broader segments of society in the 1990s Family Reinvestment Act? Honestly, it’s just comes off as irresponsibly misleading polemic to state that the financial crisis is clearly a result of methodological narrowness in economic, as if the conclusion is self-evident.

    His list of off-the-beaten-path Nobel winners also seems rather short. He mentions Sen — but where are Daniel Kahneman and Vernon Smith? What about Akerlof, Spence, and Stiglitz the year prior? And the many game theorists who’ve picked up prizes — classical game theory may be seen as too emphatically neoclassical (but Schelling, of the 05 prize, at least, has certainly written quite a bit from a very wide perspective on what might constitute ‘utility,’ and made heavy use of positive feedbacks in a discipline filled with folks who only see negative ones) or too heavily mathematical (about which I’m less convinced, although I like computation as a complement to maths), but it can hardly be argued that it doesn’t critically engage disciplinary assumptions about payoff/participant independence! And, together, these constitute at least 3 of the past 8 years’ prizes. I find it unsettling that Safford ignores them; perhaps Sen is his focal point only because Sen’s differences from the deeper economic traditions are those Safford cares about most? Is the request for a broader dialogue, then, or simply a dialogue that emphasizes that particular disciplinary break?

    I find this more frustrating because I’m sympathetic to his cause, generally; I’m aiming to enter graduate school to study behavioral and complexity (after the fashion of the Santa Fe Institute) economics, specifically, and I’m extremely disappointed that I haven’t seen more Marxism in my undergraduate work, irritated my admittedly small institution hasn’t offered its “History of Economic Thought” course in 10+ years, et cetera. But calling for those sorts of changes should be done for the right reasons and with strong and careful argument, and by specifically justifying concern with the occlusion of a particular disciplinary tradition from the prize.



    October 20, 2008 at 11:11 pm

  2. Thanks for the close read, Rabid. The most important thing I’ll say in response is that its an op-ed; its supposed to be a polemic: an argument that promotes one point of view. I went for the strongest argument I could make in 800 words or less. I’d have written it completely differently if it was a letter to the Nobel committee or for an academic journal. Know thy audience.

    That said, you’re points are well taken. Yes: my definition is self-serving (you’ve been trained well!). Yes: I leave some important outliers out. But I’ll stick by the key assertions regarding the separation of market and state (besides, it’s a great line). The main problem I see (and which I was trying to make an argument for) is that–even with Stiglitz and Krugman in the club–the range of ideas is very narrow. The Nobel people think they have the bases covered by including a wider *political* spectrum, but to my mind, they are basically covering the area between second and third. Or, to switch metaphors, they are covering the spectrum of visible light and leaving other disciplinary voices in the electromagnetic spectrum out. That’s just bad when it comes to moments like these (and the myriad less grandiose yet nevertheless important) when what is really called for is judgment; an educated guess. The guessers with a Nobel Prize are overwhelmingly going to be biased toward a fairly narrow view of the forces that make the world go round. And that’s dangerous.

    In the end–and this is far more extravagant comment than I could have gotten away with in an op-ed–is that I do think we are at a watershed moment in which the prevailing discourse of American politics and, in particular, the way we talk about the economy within that discourse, has the potential to be recast. And, I think people who read blogs like this one–i.e., sociologists who think deeply about the economy–should be full participants in redefining it. But, we have one arm tied behind our backs. Check that, its probably more like a pinky, in that economists get Nobels–and the legitimacy that comes with it–and we don’t. That’s too bad. But the bigger point is there: what will the sort of “grand narrative” for the next twenty years or so and what does organization theory have to contribute to that?



    October 21, 2008 at 2:23 am

  3. Sean – Good points. I see the Nobel as one of the main mechanisms that economists use to maintain disciplinary boundaries. It’s not to say that people from other disciplines won’t occasionally break in and sneak out with a Nobel (e.g., Kahneman) but in order to do that one’s research must be engaging with the basic paradigm that motivates economic thought. Who receives the prize is less about politics than it is about maintaining the purity of the field.

    Take the Kahneman example. He could win the Nobel because his work with Tversky was grappling with core issues at the heart of micro-economics (how individuals make self-interested, intentionally rational decisions). Someone like Dale Miller, who argues that self-interest is a norm and not a natural way of being, is probably much less likely to win the prize simply because his work directly challenges the predominant paradigm in economics. I’m not making a statement of quality about either psychologist (they are both excellent and well deserving of the praise they receive); I’m just pointing out that its in the interest of the Nobel committee to promote the kind of research that upholds and adds to the core perspective and assumptions of economics.



    October 21, 2008 at 2:59 pm

  4. Prof. Safford,

    Format constraints acknowledged, and I admit I did not realize the Chicago Tribune’s op-ed limit was 800 words; I’m still not certain the format justifies redefining the Nobel’s purpose, but perhaps there’s not much more to say about that, especially as the grander dialogue isue is probably more important.

    As a segue, though, I suppose I’m still not strongly convinced of this: “The main problem I see (and which I was trying to make an argument for) is that–even with Stiglitz and Krugman in the club–the range of ideas is very narrow.” You mention Stiglitz and Krugman now, and you mentioned Sen originally — but the experimentalists (Vernon Smith, sort-of Kahneman) are much further from conventional macroeconomy and microeconomy than even your typical sociologist’s argumentation. Akerlof has made arguments very similar to what Prof. Brayden suggests would not be found in a Nobel winner. Schelling has been at the core of a lot of controversy about the rationality assumption.

    I think there’s an alternative explanation for economic sociologists not winning Nobel prizers and, mutatis mutandis, for soc’s somewhat limited role in the ‘grander dialogue’ about economic organization. I’d suggest that — and I thought someone had proposed this in the comments to one of Kieran’s other threads about the same issue, but can’t seem to find it now — the divide has more to do with interdisciplinary dialogue and impact than content of research. Kahneman and Tversky, for example, originally published their major challenge (Prospect Theory, 1979) to canonical econ. in an economic journal (Econometrica). By contrast, the work that comes most quickly to mind (for me) of Granovetter’s — his strength of weak ties — appeared in AJS.

    If I mention behavioral economics to an economics professor (at my again very small institution; ‘new’ movements are not what most of my professors are about), I now receive some mild acknowledgment that it exists; if I mention the analysis of economic networks, though, I’d wager a hefty sum I’d just get blank stares (similar to those I once received for suggesting at a small conference that some psychological questionnaires about need for cognition might be useful in assessing student performance in economics undergrad. classes). Admittedly, there’s a contamination issue here; behavioral economics is partly well-known exactly because of Kahneman’s Nobel. But I think there’s a clear distinction between the extent to which economic sociology and economics have an open dialogue, and the extent to which behavioral economics and economics have an open dialogue. Without that, with the fields as non-overlapping as they are now, the impact of an econ. sociologist’s publication is primarily within the sub-discipline, and, however often cited, doesn’t reverberate back into economics proper.

    On a related note, I’m a member of an economic anthropology listserv, and I believe econ. anthro. is in an almost eerily similar situation (and they’re having a similar conversation about the Krugman Nobel and why *anthropologists* never win it); their connections to economics proper are tenuous (probably moreso than economic sociology). If I approach one of my (I’ll suggest relatively typical) professors and ask them about the formalist and substantivist debates, and what position they take on it, I’d bet a heavy load they would plead ignorance. It just hasn’t made inroads into economics proper.

    But it can be done — behavioral econ. did it; experimentalism did it; why did they do it where economic sociology and economic anthropology have not? Are the concessions necessary for doing so bearable and justifiable?

    Prof. Brayden,

    I don’t think that’s a very loyal description of Kahneman and Tversky’s work and its relation to canonical economics. Both their work in prospect theory and, maybe more obviously, heuristics and biases (see their work on framing especially) directly confronts and rejects the adequacy of econ’s rationality assumption; more generally, the behavioral economics paradigm they’ve contributed to building is about revising the hyperrationality of economics to instead become something more plausible, not about showing how people are, in fact, rational, and how we go about being so.

    Additionally, I’m not familiar with Miller, but what you describe of his work sounds very similar to George Akerlof — who did win an econ. Nobel, and rather recently — arguing, as wikipedia puts it, that “natural norms [exist] that decision makers have for how they should behave.”



    October 21, 2008 at 4:02 pm

  5. Where did Herbert Simon disappear???


    Rajiv Krishnan Kozhikode

    October 21, 2008 at 4:19 pm

  6. Don’t want to belabor this, but “economics proper” as the standard of value is exactly what I am saying we need to move away from Rabid.

    This goes back to the now dated, but still wonderful dialogue between Pfeffer and VanMaanan. Do we leave them or do we join them. That is, do we make economists listen to and internalize our theories or do we speak over their heads to the wider audience. I guess I’d put myself in the latter camp.

    Along those lines, I’ll give a shout out to Jerry Davis’s forthcoming book ( which is a sociologists take on what’s happened to the American economy. Jerry may or may not warrant a Nobel one day; but its great to have someone from our community writing in a way that makes sense of the world through a lens that builds on the huge body of thinking this community of ours has produced.


    Sean Safford

    October 21, 2008 at 4:22 pm

  7. I would like to clarify (though you seem to have understood — for posterity’s sake, I guess) that it’s “impact on economics proper” as the standard of value, rather than “imitating economics proper” as the standard of value; that does very strongly speak to “do we make economists listen to and internalize our theories or do we speak over their heads to the wider audience,” though, yes, albeit with bidirectional listening listed as an option as well ;) .

    Why would you want to “speak over their heads,” though? What would econ. soc. (or econ. anthro., for that matter) lose by engaging the economics community successfully?


    I can’t speak for the others, but I left Simon off because I was trying to emphasize very recent Nobel awards.



    October 21, 2008 at 4:29 pm

  8. Rabid, I think, although organizational sociology has moved forward in the last three decades, we do not have many groundbreaking theories since the golden era of 1970s. Moreover, most of the work in that era has drawn extensively from the behavioral foundations of organizational action set forth by Herbert Simon and Colleagues. Hence, from the perspective of the median economist, the research of organizational sociologist might sound at best incremental to the work of Herbert Simon’s. This probably is the reason why studies in organizational sociology miss the radar of the Nobel referees. I sure sound too unfair here, but all I intend to say is that if organizational sociologists (broadly economic sociology) seek to gain the attention of the economists, we needs to closely integrate our work with the ‘vital’ questions that economist ask (which in my opinion are only vital to them).

    However, that would take away most of the fun from sociology research. Sociology, as I see it, does not pretend to be a pure science, as economics does. This is good… We maintain our identity and do not prescribe one-size fits all solutions to complex problems faced by organizations as the economists try to do. A modern day economist is a mathematician or a statistician first and then an economist. Keynes did not have complex economic models in his seminal works, but Keynesian economics was all about that… Coase was not so good at math (said Oliver Hart in a symposium in 2007), he was more of an ethnographer curio about economic phenomenon than of an economist in the modern sense, but all his followers are mathematicians in the guise of economists… Well… I don’t know why I am saying that, I think I need to stop here!


    Rajiv Krishnan Kozhikode

    October 22, 2008 at 6:39 pm

  9. […] of their insights to arrive at her own.  Yet none of those people are eligible forthis prize.  Its too bad. The world is a big complicated place and there are a lot of different perspectives that can be […]


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