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Economics for the Masses: The Visual Display of Economic Knowledge in the United States (1921-1945)

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  • Yann Giraud

    () (THEMA - Théorie économique, modélisation et applications - UCP - Université de Cergy Pontoise - Université Paris-Seine - CNRS - Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique)

  • Loïc Charles

    (LED - LED - Laboratoire d'Economie Dionysien - UP8 - Université Paris 8, Vincennes-Saint-Denis)

Abstract

The rise of visual representation in economics textbooks after WWII is one of the main features of contemporary economics. In this paper, we argue that this development has been preceded by a no less significant rise of visual representation in the larger literature devoted to social and scientific issues, including economic textbooks for non-economists as well as newspapers and magazines. During the interwar era, editors, propagandists and social scientists altogether encouraged the use of visual language as the main vehicle to spread information and opinions about the economy to a larger audience. These new ways of visualizing social facts, which most notably helped shape the understanding of economic issues by various audiences during the years of the Great Depression, were also conceived by their inventors as alternative ways of practicing economics: in opposition to the abstraction of "neoclassical" economics, these authors wanted to use visual representation as a way to emphasize the human character of the discipline and did not accept the strict distinction between the creation and the diffusion of economic knowledge. We explore different yet related aspects of these developments by studying the use of visual language in economics textbooks intended for non-specialists, in periodicals such as the Survey, a monthly magazine intended for an audience of social workers, the Americanization of Otto Neurath's pictorial statistics and finally the use of those visual representations by various state departments and administrations under Roosevelt's legislature (including the much-commented Historical Section of the Farm Security Administration). We show how visualizations that have been created in opposition to neoclassical economics have lost most of their theoretical content when used widely for policy purposes while being simultaneously integrated into the larger American culture. It is our claim that those issues, which are familiar to those involved in cultural and visual studies, are also of crucial importance to apprehend the later developments of modern economics.

Suggested Citation

  • Yann Giraud & Loïc Charles, 2013. "Economics for the Masses: The Visual Display of Economic Knowledge in the United States (1921-1945)," Working Papers hal-00870490, HAL.
  • Handle: RePEc:hal:wpaper:hal-00870490
    Note: View the original document on HAL open archive server: https://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-00870490
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    1. Paul A. Samuelson & Harold W. McGraw & William D. Nordhaus & Orley Ashenfelter & Robert M. Solow & Stanley Fischer, 1999. "Samuelson's Economics at Fifty: Remarks on the Occasion of the Anniversary of Publication," The Journal of Economic Education, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 30(4), pages 352-363, December.
    2. Rutherford, Malcolm, 2000. "Understanding Institutional Economics: 1918–1929," Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Cambridge University Press, vol. 22(03), pages 277-308, September.
    3. Giraud, Yann B., 2010. "The Changing Place Of Visual Representation In Economics: Paul Samuelson Between Principle And Strategy, 1941–1955," Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Cambridge University Press, vol. 32(02), pages 175-197, June.
    4. Loïc Charles, 2004. "The Tableau Économique as Rational Recreation," History of Political Economy, Duke University Press, vol. 36(3), pages 445-474, Fall.
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    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • B20 - Schools of Economic Thought and Methodology - - History of Economic Thought since 1925 - - - General
    • A14 - General Economics and Teaching - - General Economics - - - Sociology of Economics

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