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).
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.
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]