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How Economists and Non-Economists Can Get Along

Understanding the advantages and limitations of economists’ methods clarifies the value they can add to analysis of non-economic questions. Equally important, it underscores how economists’ approach can complement but never replace alternative, often qualitative methods used in other scholarly disciplines.

CAMBRIDGE – Economists have never been shy about taking on the big questions that disciplines such as history, sociology, or political science consider their own province. What have been slavery’s long-run implications for contemporary American society? Why do some communities exhibit higher levels of social trust than others? What explains the rise of right-wing populism in recent years?

In addressing these and many other non-economic issues, economists have gone well beyond their bread-and-butter preoccupation with supply and demand. This transgression of disciplinary boundaries is not always welcomed. Other scholars object (often correctly) that economists do not bother to familiarize themselves with existing work in relevant disciplines. They complain (again rightly) about an inhospitable academic culture. Replete with interruptions and aggressive questioning, economics seminars can seem to outsiders more akin to the Inquisition than a forum for colleagues to communicate results and probe new ideas.

Perhaps the most important source of tension, however, arises from the methods economists bring to their research. Economists rely on statistical tools to demonstrate that a particular underlying factor had a “causal” effect on the outcome of interest. Often misunderstood, this method can be the source of endless and unproductive conflict between economists and others.

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