Is there a lab-field distinction in economics?

Is there a lab-field distinction in economics?

This is what I kept wondering while reading Robert E. Kohler‘s Landscapes and Labscapes: Exploring the Lab-Field Border in Biology (University of Chicago press, 2002).kohler

This is a great book: mastery of primary and secondary literature over the 1880-1950 period (he makes extensive use of the 32 archive funds he consulted), and a narrative line full of confidence, alternating between detailed demonstrations and illuminating comments.

Kohler’s general point is that practitioners of natural history, whose main place of work was the field, struggled to retain a legitimacy when the laboratory emerged as the place where scientific facts were crafted. In the field, you don’t control for anything, so that your observations can hardly be repeated and your variable of interest cannot be isolated. Plus, you might actually experience pleasure walking in the field, which is dangerous if your concern is serious science, rather than leisure.

A modern-day naturalist

As Kohler explains, naturalists first adopted a self-defeating strategy: they endorsed the ideals of the lab practices, and they tried to emulate them in the field. Of course, the result was that a lot of second rate experiments were performed, and many careers suffered from this. Later on, around the 30’s, biologists in the field set a more autonomous agenda for themselves. Thanks to very intensive data-collecting (Ernst Mayr, Robert Whittaker), or by developing “big science” projects (the Odums brothers), field practices could reclaim scientific credentials.

So Kohler concludes on a cautious optimistic note, tending to think that by the 50’s, a shared and legitimate space emerged between the field and the lab (I would be more inclined to say that the naturalist’s struggle for an identity continued as hard, in different modes).

In parallel, I am reading in the history of experimental economics (starting with Kyu Sang Lee PhD dissertation). And I was wondering: is there an equivalent of a lab-field distinction in economics? Labs there are, but the field? Markets, of course… but where do you find them? My intuition is that experimental economics could have created the field it was supposed to test, like in a performative act (I’ve to check a book precisely on that). Labs coming before the field… that would raise interesting issues.

[in contrast, this would conform to a more traditional view of the lab/field partition in economics]


6 thoughts on “Is there a lab-field distinction in economics?

  1. It used to be the case that econometricians were closely connected to the actual generation of data. In the US stints at the Dept of Commerce, the BLS, Census Bureau were common. There statistical economists saw how data was in fact generated, and participated in the design of data collection projects. These days we tell students to “go find a data set” to work on, to investigate a particular problem. And generating new data often means combining data others have gathered from several sources. In development economics, population economics, and so on it is however quite standard for people to go out to the field, to villages, provincial capitals, and gather the data directly. Such folks are heroes to many of us, as the work is difficult and the results take a lot of time to analyze. Not a quick path to tenure, but a job for more senior scholars.

  2. Clement, you raise very interesting questions that can be properly addressed, in my view, once you define it in more specific terms. Mainly, I’m thinking that the answers and issues vary greatly among different areas in economics, as already indicated in Roy’s comment: micro, econometrics, macro, development economics, etc.
    In macro, one interesting thing is that by the 1960s economists were happy to have at hand some initial forms of numerical simulation: the computer became the laboratory as they feared to do any experiments in the real world since bad outcomes could have nefarious consequences. So, we can say that the field existed in principle but not in practice and that the computer soon became the laboratory where to test alternative macro policies and to rank the results. And there are nice passages in which macroeconomists say that the computer has become their laboratories. So the answer to your question would be in this case a “yes”, even though their field was not used in practice.

  3. A few questions and comments on your post (that are mostly made out of my ignorance of the subject, so all caveats apply !):
    – Is it not the kind of work that Harro Maas is conducting now and that will be the object of a forthcoming HOPE conference ?
    – It is possible that the kind of field economics you’re talking about is made within some particular institutions (state departments, banks, etc.) which have not been extensively studied by historians of economics and this is probably rendered even more difficult by the fact that this kind of research is not published in the main theory journals but in letters and notes coming from these institutions (because one of the bias of history of economics is that it mainly deals with publications, not practices).
    – if my previous point is right, it means that your interrogation is closely related to the kind of work Beatrice is willing to conduct in the near future ! In other words, I see another possible collaboration, here …

  4. erw: economists going to the field => surely a nice story to tell. A turning point was surely with Hall and Hitch being attacked by Machlup and al. for their empirical surveys, in the 30s and 40s (and then, the Friedman essay). What rhetorical strategies were left to those who still wanted to work in the field?

    Pedro: yes, computer simulations. Surely not identical to a lab-experiment, contrary to their claims. A degree further from the field, it seems to me.

    Yann: I’ll see Harro Maas this saturday at the Amsterdam-Cachan workshop, I’ll ask him about that !
    And on those organizations that have not been extensively studied… maybe that they have (there is *a lot* of postings on the SHOE list on the history of US banks, for instance … I must say I never read them.) But I agree completely: we should inquire about economics as practiced outside universities.

  5. Perhaps Peter Galison’s disunity notion is of interest here. Galison crafts a distinction between an empirical, an instrumental, and a theoretical realm in science. Galison of course talks mainly about 20th century physics. I’ve tried to apply this disunity notion to the relationship between psychology and economics post WWII. But sticking closer to Galison it would I think certainly be interesting to apply disunity to economics along the lines of empirics, instruments, and theory.

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