Historians of economics are well aware of the non-neutrality of the research methods economists use. Or are they? Sure, we know that also research methods – statistics, experiments, field observation, armchairs, you name it – have their histories. And obviously, that makes them an integral part of how economics developed. However, in this reasoning the research method itself has remained a passive and neutral information producing device. Jan Tinbergen became famous for combining mathematics and statistics in a novel way, in which the resulting econometrics was and is understood as a tool that can be applied by anyone alike. Similarly, Fogel and Engerman applied a whole bunch of empirical methods to the history of slavery, in which their tools might have been inappropriately used or interpreted, but in themselves were have been understood as neutral. Despite being aware that the tools have their own histories, historians of economics have essentially maintained a view of research methods as neutral and passive.
I want to contest this view. Research methods are not neutral tools, but actors that actively shape economists’ view of the social world. The exact same experiment makes Vernon Smith and Richard Thaler see two different social realities, and makes these two economists develop their own theories in diverging ways. It is not just that economists like Smith and Thaler have different economic views, and in particular it is not the case that their views converge because of the laboratory experiment, data collection, or field experiment. Quite the contrary, the experiment actively diverges Smith and Thaler’s economics. Research methods are not neutral and passive tools, but actively manipulating actors who need to be treated as such.