+8 votes
asked ago by (680 points)
commented ago by (100 points)
I think the answer depends on the field. Let's crudely split economics into three major subfields, macro, micro and econometrics. . In macro, I think it's about the question, but in micro, much more about the methods. I'm less sure about econometrics. (Full disclosure: I'm an empirical macroeconomist).

In macro:

Almost all macro questions are to do with either business cycles or long run economic growth. I'm sure there are exceptions, but I can't think of many. If you skim the latest AEJ Macros, pretty much every paper fits this taxonomy.

I'm struck by how often non-economists associate the term economics with, specifically, macroeconomics. And non-economists normally have a clear idea of what this means! I.e. stock markets, unemployment, inflation, business cycles, etc.

Macro tends to be quite eclectic in terms of methods, in either theory or empirics. One can easily think of top macro papers which are either heavily computational, using reduced-form applied micro style methods, using simple applied theory models, or much more complex maths  (maybe this is a longer discussion for another time ...)

In micro:

The kinds of questions which applied micro papers in top journals pursue is diverse. I can think of plenty of high quality applied micro work studying history, politics, institutions, gender, and a whole range of topics which are not traditional the preserve of economics. But there is a common strand to the methods -- high quality empirical work, with a focus on quasi-experimental tools and careful data construction. Angrist et al's credibility revolution was probably key to this dominance.

So there is a real micro/macro split. Macro clearly arranges itself around topics. Applied micro ranges broadly, with common methods.  

In econometrics:

I'm not sure here. But I think the line between stats and econometrics is blurry, when it comes to either questions or methods. I'm struck by how many econometrics papers could, or are, published in top stats journals, and conversely how many top stats journals publish useful econometrics. At my programme, there is a joint economics/stats PhD. I know several econometrics grad students who think of themselves as practicing particular kinds of statistics. So it is less clear cut.

3 Answers

0 votes
answered ago by (330 points)
This is a philosophical question, so there is no objectively correct answer. However, in my opinion economics (or any field of study) is defined by the questions we ask, not the methods used to answer them. 200 years ago we had guys like Malthus, Ricardo, and Say asking questions that definitely pertained to economics, but most of the methods they used would not be considered serious these days. In another 200 years economists could have a whole bunch of new tools just waiting to be dreamed up to answer the same questions. Methods can change, but within any particular field of study the scope of the questions does not. I'd say, when the scope changes that's when a new (possibly interdisciplinary) field is developed.
commented ago by (610 points)
I'd like to agree with this. But if the majority of economists consider this to be the case, why don't we see - as one example - any qualitative work? Unless people really believe that qualitative work has almost *zero* value for the questions that economists are trying to answer...
commented ago by (330 points)
The above comment, as I mentioned, is merely my opinion; I wouldn't dare to speak for the majority of economists on this matter.

Nonetheless, I will point out that economics is very qualitative, since "qualitative" is a word we use to describe the attempts, of which there are plenty, to understand the signs of the relationships between economic variables. In contrast, "quantitative" work tries to find the magnitudes of these relationships. Almost all theory is focused on the signs of relationships. (Whether or not there is symbolic math involved is immaterial. For example, is there really any difference in saying "output is increasing in labor" versus writing "dQ(L)/dL > 0" ? I would say not; both statements are qualitative, since they focus only on the sign of the relationship.)

Also, any empirical work that focuses on statistical significance (from 0) is qualitative under this definition. Thanks to McCloskey's critique of this narrow focus, economists now pay a lot more attention to economic significance, which is quantitative since it pertains to magnitudes. This was a change in method, but it didn't change the subject matter, which was economics all along.
commented ago by (610 points)
That makes sense if that is what is meant by qualitative versus quantitative.

I see now my comment was ambiguous but what I meant was the type of evidence which is brought to bear on questions, and whether that can be qualitative or quantitative. Other social sciences, particularly but not exclusively sociology, retain a large space in the discipline to answer questions using qualitative evidence alone, by which I mean interviews, participant observations, ethnographies. I have almost never seen these methods in economics during my time so far, so I wonder if that means that economics as a discipline is specializing in its "comparative advantage" of analysis of quantitative data rather than qualitative data and allowing itself to learn from others who analyze qualitative data (if so, why don't we bring this more often and more explicitly into our classes and papers?), or if economics as a discipline believes that analyses of this kind of qualitative data aren't useful for the questions we want to answer?
commented ago by (330 points)
Experiments, for example, were not widely done in economics until the last few decades. But that never should have been taken to imply experiments could not be used to investigate economic phenomena.

Perhaps there is an economist out there who utilizes economics interviews, participant observations, or ethnographies but you and I are just ignorant of it. If not, somebody may find a way to use those methods in the future. But, then again maybe economics inherently precludes these types of methods. (This may actually be a legitimate topic for a paper, if it has not already been done.) I have no training in this these methods, so I wouldn't be the right person to ask. If you are curious enough, you may get better answers by talking to people who work in fields that employ those methods or to economists who specialize in economic methodology/philosophy of economics.
0 votes
answered ago by (320 points)
This is a deep question about which a lot has been written, so I won’t try to cover the whole ground.  The one point to make here is that the question assumes “questions” and “methods” are distinct alternatives, but in fact they are closely related in both directions.  The question you ask lends usefulness and, to some extent, even validity to some methods over others, and the methods you deploy point you toward some questions and away from others.  I think the best way to approach this is to unearth the underlying (latent) frameworks that make particular questions meaningful and methods useful.  Economics, as it is institutionalized in most (all?) countries, has such a framework, based on a set of assumptions regarding psychology, social structure and value that do this work.  The best way to identify them is comparative: how do economists approach the economic aspects of human society, and occasionally of nonhuman species, differently from sociologists, political scientists of various stripes, psychologists, etc.?  Of course, there are other potential frameworks out there that no one may be using at the moment but will be developed at some point in the future.

(Pre-emptive comment: yes, economists are increasingly joining interdisciplinary research teams, and this is a very positive development.  In some cases the tensions between competing frameworks are evident and productive; in others they are avoided by narrowing the scope of the collaboration.  I have a fair amount of personal experience with both types of work.)

To get below this surface answer it would be necessary to delve into specific elements of the professional economic framework.
0 votes
answered ago by (810 points)
For me, economics is defined by the questions we ask and the answers we find... which are supported by data and mathematical models.