Markets, Productivity, and Happiness in a Historical Perspective

... and social telescopes saw the light: evidence-based politics, research policy, and quasi-experimental investigations in recent context

Edwards José, Independent Scholar
ledezma ivan, universite de bourgogne
paillacar rodrigo, universite cergy paris

Conducted by the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan, the US Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID) began in the late-1960s as an instrument for fighting President L. Johnson’s War on Poverty (i.e., a tool for government). It then gradually turned into an academic program (i.e., an instrument for research policy) during the 1980s-90s, under surveillance and funding from the US National Science Foundation (NSF). Eventually, the PSID and other household panel surveys became promoted as “social telescopes,” and advanced in analogy with the large-scale telescopes and particle accelerators shared by astronomers and physicists around the world. In this project, we contextualize the rise of this kind of surveys by analyzing the history of the PSID since its antecedent: the 1966-1967 Surveys of Economic Opportunity, and throughout its development into an academic resource, along with the German Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP), and the UK Household Longitudinal Study (UKHLS). We provide a bibliometric examination of the uses of the PSID, SOEP and UKHLS, to exemplify our historical/methodological claims about the detachment of these surveys from their original policy purposes. In doing so, we also discuss the transformation of these surveys into academic resources produced for scholarly social scientists. The recent history of household panel surveys intertwines with the transformation of the epistemic role and discourse of empirical/applied social scientists – economists’ in particular – during the last two decades. By examining these scholars’ methodological claims, we provide a critical analysis of their current use of longitudinal datasets as a means for approaching the standards of experimental scientists. Regardless the impossibility of controlling social phenomena as in controlled environments, the quasi-experimental approaches of current applied economists, aim at redefining the boundaries between social sciences and experimental disciplines.

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Keywords: household panel surveys, evidence-based policy, research policy

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