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October 23, 2008

Krugman, Social Science and Methods

From a post written by Kerim Friedman at Savage Minds, I learnt that Paul Krugman, this year's winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, had reposted an autobiographical piece he wrote in 1992 on his blog. I went over there and got the piece. After reading it many things came to mind, a lot of which has been dealt with at the Savage Minds post (also see the comments). One thing that jumped out was Krugman's interest in the 'suggestive special cases'. Hear him::

The process works like this: start with an informal verbal story, often one drawn from casual empiricism or from non-mainstream economic literature. Then try to build the simplest possible model that will illustrate that story. In the course of the model-building the story tends to change along with your intuition, but at the end of the process you have a simple model that is a very special case, but that makes a lot of intuitive sense and effectively gives you a language to discuss things that previously were off limits.

I could not resist comparing this to what anthropologists do, not when he wrote that he liked working from 'suggestive special cases'. It seems, however, as if the interest in case studies is where any similarities end. I thought about the problem with model building. I know that the issues we deal with as anthropologists are certainly different from the issues economists deal with, but I still can't shake off the urge to call attention to my feeling that anthropologists don't quite like models. It seems like we most often seek to complicate things, to add more 'variables' to the mix, because we understand too well how difficult it is to ascribe causality. In other words, Krugman's goal of searching for the simple model is almost the direct opposite of what anthropologists do.

I remember discussing, recently, with a colleague who thinks that anthropologists let themselves be held back by too much detail, so much so that they are unable to contribute so much to policy formulation. I guess this post comes partly as a result of that discussion.

Comments please!