Development and Underdevelopment in the History of Economic Thought

The sociology of knowledge approach to teaching economics

REPAPIS Constantinos, Goldsmiths, University of London

This paper explores what are the objectives of teaching economics and specifically those of an introductory economics course. A standard answer to what introductory economics courses are intended to teach is the initiation of students to the tool-box that economists use in their academic and professional lives. This introduces students; and to some extent defines for the discipline; the viewpoint that contemporary “mainstream” economists hold about the scope and nature of economic questions. However, this introduction of simple analytical concepts together with their arguments presented in a decontextualized manner has been criticized by student groups arguing for more pluralism in economics teaching. This paper argues that utilizing W. Stark’s sociology of knowledge in the History of Economic Thought approach (Stark, 1944, 1994) which focuses on the understanding of past theory in relation to its contemporary relevance offers the solution to the complex question of not having to choose between either decontextualised analytical argument or a completely descriptive narrative approach of economic phenomena that does not allow any sustained attempt to theorize. It answers the question of what should be the objectives of economic courses by a double affirmative: 1)Teaching students the ability to abstract by presenting past and present theory. 2)By investigating the social context that such theorizing engenders. This context is not seen in absolute terms, but rather through an investigation of the differences of the preconceptions of alternative eras and research programmes, or by uncovering the conceptual distance between a past era and our own. The importance of defining terms in antithesis to one another, by drawing out the differences in meaning due to the context of their framework, rather than defining concepts in absolute terms allows students a realization of the deep contextual element of their own theorizing and the very nature of definitions and concepts.

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Keywords: pluralism; W. Stark; economics teaching; sociology of knowledge