Methodological issues in economics with regard to life sciences and History

Methodological issues in economics regarding life sciences and History

(Methodos XI)


Economics, the youngest of positivist sciences, has yet a peculiar history and epistemological grounding that must be considered seriously in order to understand the quandaries and characteristics of today’s practice or practices, indeed there is not just one model of political economy but an heterogeneous array of schools and traditions.

No matter how articulated is mainstream economics; the diversity is on the increase and difficulties are numerous.   A good illustration of this state – if not also change – is to be found in the strand of literature named new institutional economics, departing from neoclassical theory on substantial issues but keeping the maximizing behaviour and utilitarianism at its core. 

Firstly, two points need clarification right from the outset: first, what is the central core of mainstream economics? And, second, what does the diversity consist in and what are the transformations that are worth considering at this stage?  This permits a better discussion of the central point of this section: the methodological issues of economics with regard to biology and history.

Secondly, a central issue of epistemology and methodology of economics consists in looking at the actual performances of scientist, “what they feel they ought to do when they are faced with a concrete problem” (van Parijs 1982, p. x) and not what is publicly claimed or advised by other economists or philosophers of science such as Popper, Lakatos and all the good company of philosophers of knowledge.   Indeed, this is one reason to go beyond Popperian of Friedmanian economic methodology.[1]  This has been already done extensively and intensively.  My contribution strives to go beyond the big questions, what Boland calls big M methodology, that are rarely settled; and helps to see also the apparently smaller methodological questions, more useful for economists because closer to the problems of research practice (Boland 1984, 2001).



But this version of realism in the scientific practice is not sufficient.  One needs to compare theories, models and empirical studies in search of diversity (i. e. disagreements, conventional and non-conventional vistas) and to understand why there is such a variety of perspectives and explanatory paradigms, or more simple rival theories.

So, if I adopt a “realist” stance, I also discuss and develop a methodological structure based on the evolutionary paradigm (van Parijs 1981), broadly construed, the historical nature of economic processes – such as technological change; and the complexity vision (Colander 2000a, 2000b) and theory (Arthur 1999).  That is what I will try to do, relying on a critical reading of history and complexity and basing my analysis on some of Schumpeter’s work, constituting a system based on an outlined theory of economic change.  Schumpeter offers a link both to biology and to history but the latter is more straightforward and less controversial than the former but still very controversial within the economic profession as a whole and extremely challenging for the social sciences. Notwithstanding the good standing that Schumpeter held with Talcott Parsons, his broad picture is much closer to Max Weber and Marx than contemporary economic and social theories. Schumpeter’s treatment of historical processes is a prima facie paradox worth tackling.

[1] The other reason deals with the very object of economics and what economics is all about.  This implies an ontological question and a methodological argumentation and structuration.

Cite this article as: {Jacquinet, Marc}, Methodological issues in economics with regard to life sciences and History,"{Management Critique}," in {}, 01/12/2019,

Marc Jacquinet

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