Economics, Culture and Social Theory

Economics, Culture and Social Theory

New Horizons in Institutional and Evolutionary Economics series

William A. Jackson

Economics, Culture and Social Theory examines how culture has been neglected in economic theorising and considers how economics could benefit by incorporating ideas from social and cultural theory.

Chapter 4: Culture and the Social Sciences (1870–1950)

William A. Jackson

Subjects: economics and finance, institutional economics


The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw the rapid growth of economics, sociology, anthropology, psychology and other social sciences. Often the boundaries between them were variable, though conventions emerged to draw clear (if arbitrary) demarcation lines. Ultimately each developed a professional organisation and institutions, together with core theories and methods. One thing that they had in common was the desire for scientific status and the prestige that went with it. The humanities (history, philosophy, literary studies, etc.) were less driven by scientific ambitions, but they too acquired professional structures during this period. Cultural methods did not fit comfortably into the new academic disciplines. An immediate problem was the tendency for social sciences to mimic natural sciences by adopting rationalism or empiricism. The Counter-Enlightenment and Romanticism had warned against this, but in the scramble for scientific kudos the warnings were overlooked. Cultural thought, which raised doubts about the feasibility of social science, was unpalatable for those aspiring to scientific status. Ever increasing academic specialisation was itself an artefact and symbol of the modernity that cultural critics of capitalism had resisted. The advance of the social sciences seemed to mark the eclipse of the Counter-Enlightenment and a wholesale rejection of its arguments. The eclipse was partial, as cultural thought influenced several new disciplines. Cultural ideas were difficult to erase and reappeared (consciously or otherwise) in the writings of social scientists. Any social sciences interested in understanding human behaviour, analysing institutions or comparing different societies gravitated towards cultural thought. Anthropology had culture...

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