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Retrospectives: On the Definition of Economics

Author

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  • Roger E. Backhouse
  • Steven G. Medema

Abstract

Modern economists do not subscribe to a homogeneous definition of their subject. Surveying definitions of economics from contemporary principles of economics textbooks, we find that economics is the study of the economy, the study of the coordination process, the study of the effects of scarcity, the science of choice, and the study of human behavior. At a time when economists are tackling subjects as diverse as growth, auctions, crime, and religion with a methodological toolkit that includes real analysis, econometrics, laboratory experiments, and historical case studies, and when they are debating the explanatory roles of rationality and behavioral norms, any concise definition of economics is likely to be inadequate. This lack of agreement on a definition does not necessarily pose a problem for the subject. Economists are generally guided by pragmatic considerations of what works or by methodological views emanating from various sources, not by formal definitions: to repeat the comment attributed to Jacob Viner, economics is what economists do. However, the way the definition of economics has evolved is more than a historical curiosity. At times, definitions are used to justify what economists are doing. Definitions can also reflect the direction in which their authors want to see the subject move and can even influence practice.

Suggested Citation

  • Roger E. Backhouse & Steven G. Medema, 2009. "Retrospectives: On the Definition of Economics," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 23(1), pages 221-233, Winter.
  • Handle: RePEc:aea:jecper:v:23:y:2009:i:1:p:221-33
    Note: DOI: 10.1257/jep.23.1.221
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    File URL: http://www.aeaweb.org/articles.php?doi=10.1257/jep.23.1.221
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    1. Gary S. Becker, 1974. "Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach," NBER Chapters,in: Essays in the Economics of Crime and Punishment, pages 1-54 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    2. Amadae, S.M., 2003. "Rationalizing Capitalist Democracy," University of Chicago Press Economics Books, University of Chicago Press, edition 1, number 9780226016535, April.
    3. Philippe Fontaine, 1996. "The French Economists and Politics, 1750-1850: The Science and Art of Political Economy," Canadian Journal of Economics, Canadian Economics Association, vol. 29(2), pages 379-393, May.
    4. Nicola Giocoli, 2003. "Modeling Rational Agents," Books, Edward Elgar Publishing, number 2585.
    5. Jacob Mincer, 1958. "Investment in Human Capital and Personal Income Distribution," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 66, pages 281-281.
    6. Ricardo, David, 1821. "On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation," History of Economic Thought Books, McMaster University Archive for the History of Economic Thought, edition 3, number ricardo1821.
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    Citations

    Citations are extracted by the CitEc Project, subscribe to its RSS feed for this item.
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    Cited by:

    1. Kakarot-Handtke, Egmont, 2012. "The rhetoric of failure: a hyper-dialog about method in economics and how to get things going," MPRA Paper 43276, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    2. Douglas Almond & Janet Currie & Valentina Duque, 2017. "Childhood Circumstances and Adult Outcomes: Act II," NBER Working Papers 23017, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    3. Roger E. Backhouse & Steve G. Medema, 2009. "Defining Economics: The Long Road to Acceptance of the Robbins Definition," Economica, London School of Economics and Political Science, vol. 76(s1), pages 805-820, October.
    4. Gabriel Martinez, 2010. "The Idea of Economics in a University," Working Papers 1002, Ave Maria University, Department of Economics.
    5. Li, Cheng, 2015. "Morality and Value Neutrality in Economics: A Dualist View," MPRA Paper 67264, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    6. Michele Di Maio, 2013. "Are Mainstream and Heterodox Economists Different? An Empirical Analysis," American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 72(5), pages 1315-1348, November.
    7. Claudius Graebner, 2017. "The Complexity of Economies and Pluralism in Economics," ICAE Working Papers 69, Johannes Kepler University, Institute for Comprehensive Analysis of the Economy.
    8. repec:aea:aecrev:v:107:y:2017:i:5:p:660-64 is not listed on IDEAS
    9. M. Northrup Buechner, 2014. "A comment on scarcity," The Journal of Philosophical Economics, Bucharest Academy of Economic Studies, The Journal of Philosophical Economics, vol. 8(1), November.
    10. Volodymyr Vysochansky, 2014. "Principles of Monetary System Transformation," Finance vysochansky_volodymyr.522, Socionet.
    11. Roger E. Backhouse & Beatrice Cherrier, 2014. "Becoming Applied: The Transformation of Economics after 1970," Center for the History of Political Economy Working Paper Series 2014-15, Center for the History of Political Economy.
    12. Kakarot-Handtke, Egmont, 2012. "Crisis and methodology: some heterodox misunderstandings," MPRA Paper 43260, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    13. Romaniuc, Rustam, 2017. "Intrinsic motivation in economics: A history," Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics (formerly The Journal of Socio-Economics), Elsevier, vol. 67(C), pages 56-64.

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    JEL classification:

    • A11 - General Economics and Teaching - - General Economics - - - Role of Economics; Role of Economists

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