Can you see economics?

Most of our works as historians of economics took for granted that there is a clear line between material elligible as economic ideas and theories and what is not, what is a fact of the history of economics and what is not. As a consequence, our community have considered exclusively or almost exclusively facts that belongued to the culture of writing (and even more narrowly to the scholarly writings): texts, correspondence, etc. As a consequence, we know very little about the impact that other means of communication like cinema, TV, pictures to take a few examples might have on the economic conceptions of people (including economists, including us!). Another way to put it is: could we interpret movies, pictures, work of arts, etc., as (at least some of the time) carrying economic knowledge, concepts, even theories?

The immediate cause of this post was this picture taken from a book I recently bought (and read).

This famous photography was taken by Dorothea Lange as part of the Farm Security Administration 1930s project of providing a pictorial history of the United States in the economic depression. The original caption of his picture was the simple and descriptive: “Plantation Overseer and his fields hands, near Clarksdale Mississipi 1936”.

However, in the book I have, the co-authors (including Roy Striker who headed the project back in the 1930s and was trained as an economist) introduced the picture with a text in bold and big characters placed on the top left of the page (the picture is in the middle and caption is placed underneath in small characters) which reads:

There are pictures that say labor
and pictures that say capital
and pictures that say Depression.

My questions are: Do you think that there are pictures that say such things? Moreover, can we think of this particular picture as saying capital? And finally, can we see economics?

PS: I say that because most of the readings of this picture are linked to race inequality rather than social/economic inequality (see for example:

By the way, the book title is: In This Proud Land, it was first published in 1973, I warmly recommend it to everyone.


6 thoughts on “Can you see economics?

  1. This may be neither here nor there, but there’s a recent dissertation by Jeanne Haffner out of Virginia’s history department about postwar French urbanists and Marxist sociologists (especially this guy, Chombart-de-Lauwe) using photography to document the “social space” of cities. Aerial photography, in particular, spurred a lot of thinking about seeing class dynamics at work in the city’s geography; their work later led to the (non-photographic) analytical theories of “social space” that become very popular in some corners of academic social science.

  2. I have not read Barthes. I know the other book and bought it (the one I was talking about in the post was part of a package I bought on the subject of pictures and 1930s American economic depression) and besides, we aim to do something on economics and visuals in the USA with Yann (we are still on the very beginning of our project) – just to give you the context of my reflection. However, in my mind it goes much beyond a research project and WIll’s comment is perfectly in tune with some of the ideas I was trying to express. His citation reminded me of a book that I love which is Mike Davies’s City of Quartz (on Los Angeles), which also try to integrate architecture, urbanism and social/economic history into a grand narrative.
    To put in a nutshell, I was thinking of the fact that social sciences and consequently history of social science has had a lot of problems to integrate non textual facts in their arguments – either as observations/facts or as concepts. The problem is that our society, our life in society is nowadays mostly made of interactions with the outside world through non textual or only partially related to text medias (TV, music, visuals).

  3. I think that one of the questions that are asked by Loic’s post is about how we can trace the frontier between scientific and non-scientific types of visualization. The typically positivist economist would probably argue that a diagram, though not as general and useful than a series of equations, can constitute a demonstrational device, but he would not give the same importance to a photography, a painting or a movie strip. Though this can be discussed from a methodological (or philosophical) point of view, I think that things are different if considered from the historical point of view. My claim is that, in spite of the economists’ seeming contempt for all things visual (with the exception of some canonical figures like the circular flow diagram), visualization has played an increasing role in modern economics, especially since the early 30s when pictures were increasingly used as means of demonstration and education toward a mass audience.
    And as Loic’s title seems to suggest, those types of visualization contributed not only to show “the economy” to a mass audience, but also to introduce them to “economics” as a discipline. For that matter, the FSA pictures were not really different from, say, Samuelson’s famous diagrams in his textbook, Economics.
    But I did not want to say more about this, as it will require much further work to draw the big picture !

  4. Loosely related to the discussion: I wonder how tight are the standards in the use of visual displays in articles of history of economic thought? Journals are often very dry, with visual representations appearing only when justified by their analytical content. But what about pictures of important letters, or any visual supporting an argument ? Both as a writer and as a reader, I would really enjoy a journal promoting more of this non-textual elements.

    PS: and the question of color-printing is still another issue, posing the problem of costs. When writing the history of neuroeconomics, where visuals have a large role, who will be content of B&W reproductions of colored brain scans accompanying the article? An url link in the article towards on-line content might be a solution, as it is already the practice in many journals.

  5. Another remark that is related to yours, Clement, is that History of Science journals like Isis or Science In Context tend to incorporate many more visual representations than, say, History of Economics journals.

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