The present thesis is concerned with the genesis, diffusion, impact and institutionalisation of economic ideas.
Despite Keynes’s oft-cited comments to the effect that “the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood” (Keynes 1936: 383), and the highly visible impact of economic ideas (for example Keynesian economics, Monetarism, or economic ideas regarding deregulation and antitrust issues) on the economic system, economists have done little to systematically explore the spread and impact of economic ideas. In fact, with only a few notable exceptions, the majority of scholarly work concerning the spread and impact of economic ideas has been developed outside of the economics literature, for example in the political institutionalist literature in the social sciences.
The present thesis addresses the current lack of attention to the spread and impact of economic ideas by economists by drawing on the political institutionalist, sociological, and psychology of creativity literatures to develop a framework in which the genesis, spread, impact and institutionalisation of economic ideas may be understood.
To articulate the dissemination and impact of economic ideas within economics, I consider as a case study the evolution of economists’ conception of the economic agent – ‘homo oeconomicus’. I argue that the intellectual milieu or paradigm of economics is ’socially constructed’ in a specific sense, namely:
(i) economic ideas are created or modified by particular individuals;
(ii) economic ideas are disseminated
(iii) certain economic ideas are accepted by economists and
(iv) economic ideas become institutionalised into the paradigm or milieu of economics.
Economic ideas are, of course, disseminated not only within economics to fellow economists, but are also disseminated externally to economic policy makers and business leaders who can - and often do - take economic ideas into account when formulating policy and building economic institutions. Important economic institutions are thereby socially constructed, in the general sense proposed by Berger and Luckmann (1966). But how exactly do economic ideas enter into this process of social construction of economic institutions? Drawing from and building on structure/agency theory (e.g. Berger and Luckmann 1966; Bourdieu 1977; Bhaskar 1979/1998, 1989; Bourdieu 1990; Lawson 1997, 2003) in the wider social sciences, I provide a framework for understanding how economic ideas enter into the process of social construction of economic institutions.
Finally, I take up a methodological question: if economic ideas are disseminated, and if economic ideas have a real and constitutive impact on the economic system being modelled, does ‘economic science’ then accurately and objectively model an independently existing economic reality, unchanged by economic theory, or does economic theory have an interdependent and ‘reflexive’ relationship with economic reality, as economic reality co-exists with, is shaped by, and also shapes economic theory? I argue the latter, and consider the implications for evaluating in what sense economic science is, in fact, a science in the classical sense.
The thesis makes original contributions to understanding the genesis of economic ideas in the psychological creative work processes of economists; understanding the ontological location of economic ideas in the economic system; articulating the social construction of economic ideas; and highlighting the importance of the spread of economic ideas to economic practice and economic methodology.