The Microfoundations Delusion

The Microfoundations Delusion

Metaphor and Dogma in the History of Macroeconomics

J. E. King

In this challenging book, John King makes a sustained and comprehensive attack on the dogma that macroeconomic theory must have ‘rigorous microfoundations’. He draws on both the philosophy of science and the history of economic thought to demonstrate the dangers of foundational metaphors and the defects of micro-reduction as a methodological principle. Strong criticism of the microfoundations dogma is documented in great detail, from some mainstream and many heterodox economists and also from economic methodologists, social theorists and evolutionary biologists. The author argues for the relative autonomy of macroeconomics as a distinct ‘special science’, cooperating with but most definitely not reducible to microeconomics.

Chapter 7: Crossing the border: ‘microfoundations’ in the other social sciences

J. E. King

Subjects: economics and finance, history of economic thought, post-keynesian economics


7.1 INTRODUCTION The term ‘microfoundations’ has been taken up by many sociologists, political scientists and theoretically minded historians, in what appears at first glance to be yet another striking example of successful economics imperialism (Fine and Milonakis 2009). In this chapter I trace the eruption of the microfoundations dogma into the literature of several other social sciences. The story that I have to tell is again a complicated one. As we have seen, economists have been very careless in their employment of metaphors, and very largely ignorant of the methodological minefield(s) that they were traversing. I had not anticipated that similar criticisms might apply to their colleagues in the disciplines of sociology, political science or history, but in fact they do, albeit to a lesser degree. In the event, the economists’ attempts to colonize the other social sciences proved to be largely unsuccessful. Thus the microfoundations dogma provides a very informative historical case study in the use – and misuse – of metaphors in social science, and in the failure of economics imperialism. I begin by considering the use of both the term and the concept of microfoundations in sociology (Section 7.2), in political science (Section 7.3) and in historiography (Section 7.4). Then I discuss its application to Analytical Marxism, which straddles all three of these academic disciplines (Section 7.5), before drawing some tentative conclusions (in Section 7.6). 7.2 THE SOCIOLOGISTS Social scientists have always been more methodologically aware than economists. Debates between individualists and anti-individualists go back a very...

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