Observation and ontology in economics

In Isis 99, page 100 Lorraine Daston writes:

Science depends crucially on its own ontologies, so very different from commonsense ontologies, painstakingly assembled from diverse shards of evidence as a mosaic is assembled from thousands of tiny stones of diverse color and shape. It is observation, grounded in trained collective, cultivated habit, that fuses these bits and pieces into a picture – often a literal picture crafted by techniques of scientific visualization.

Daston’s skilfull account of scientific ontologies and the way they are grounded in observation presupposes that it is the scientists that do the observation. In her view it is because scientists develop through learning and doing a specialist view of the world that they develop their own specialized ontologies. For the natural sciences this is undoubtedly true. For economics I find it problematic. Clearly, economists have their own specialized ontologies, but I don’t see how these economic ontologies are the direct and only product of learned and experienced observation for the simple fact that economists have delegated the observation part of their science to  – indeed specialized – institutes such as the IMF, OECD, ECB, and so forth. The inextricable link between specialized scientific observation and specialized scientific ontology seems difficult to maintain for economics.


7 thoughts on “Observation and ontology in economics

  1. The fact that these statistics are produced (for the most part) by specialized institutions does not mean that they escape the economic ontologies. The guys who worked in these institutions are trained as economists or statisticians, don’t they? Moreover, these data are produced through controlled and refutable/verifiable processes that can be found in the methodological annexes in general.

  2. Continuing Loïc’s response, Daston is not claiming that a particular physicist say is both creator and theorist. Certainly the recent interest in the role of observatories supports, not undermines, Daston’s argument. It was very well-described too by Bruno Latour in Science In Action with his discussion of “centers of calculation”.

  3. There is something I don’t unerstand here. The reliance upon observation seems to me pretty recent in economics or a least the status (whether ontological or epistemological, that’s the problem) has changed during the XXth century in economics. And Colander in his scifi piece New Milenium Economics (JEL 2000) predicts another essential change in the way to create and use data with the rise of experimentally and randomly generated data sets. Does it mean that there is from time to time a switch in ontologies. Are there several ontologies coexisting with the profession at the same time?
    And last, Daston’s quote alone seem to suggest that ontologies emerge from observation, while if we acknowledge that data are “created” and that economists’ vision of “facts” are informed by their “worldviews”, then isn’t observation generated by preexisting ontologies (or ontologies and observations co-created?). Is it what she means by “observation, grounded in trained collective, cultivated habit”

    Like JB, I’m not sure I understand this quote

  4. Julia Mensink at the LSE writing a PhD with Mary Morgan has looked at the construction of the Human Development Index, and how different audiences got disciplined to produce and consume the index, measurement. The other person that should have a lot to say about this is Harro Maas, who is working with the Berlin group of Lorraine Daston.

  5. Ontology in economics is a tricky subject, because economics derives so many of its theoretical traditions from political economy, which is a philosophical/conceptual rather than observational tradition. Hence, for instance, the useful ontological fiction “economic man”. In economics, concept building is more important than verifiability through observation or experiment. But, to be fair, physics, also, has had its share of ontological fictions, albeit ones that can prove robust under controlled experimental conditions.

    Anyway, to understand Daston here, it’s important to remember that she tends to focus on issues of observation and depiction. Historians of science like us have a habit of throwing the word “science” around, when we only mean particular traditions within science. In Daston’s case, I’d say her thinking about ontology has to do with the development of a vocabulary of descriptions, which is, indeed, very important, but not necessarily an essential characteristic of “science” as a whole (if indeed science has univeral characteristics).

  6. Thanks, all very useful comments. So the observation -> ontology link plays out on the level of the collective rather than on the level of the individual scientist and in economics the observational tradition is tied in with an older conceptual history.

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