What are the fields in economics?

Economists organize their discipline in fields from agricultural economics to urban economics. Many economists specialize in a field by publishing original essays on topics and teaching courses in a specific field.

The fields are in two sets: Those that develop core skills and those that emphasize application of the skills in specific settings. The core itself involves two modes of analysis. The Skills page gives simple examples. First, mathematical description of economic phenomena allows derivation of relationships. This mode of thought is called economic theory. Mathematics allows arguing by deductive reasoning from stated premises to a conclusion. It offers the internal consistency of mathematical proofs but requires no evidence of applicability.

The second core method looks for evidence based on observing economic phenomena. It draws inference from persistent patterns. A consistent pattern that is distinct from the complexity and randomness in nature is likely to have meaning.  This mode of thought is called inductive reasoning. It is the mode of analysis of economic historians, statisticians, and experimenters. The study of formal methods for drawing inferences from statistical evidence in economics is called econometrics.

Many advances in economic understanding come from the interaction between deduction and induction. When mathematical analysis yields new insights, the historians, statisticians, and experimenters look for ways to judge whether available evidence is consistent with the theory. When observation shows phenomena that are inconsistent with available theories, economic theorists look for new theories. The core fields are in item C on the list of fields shown below.

Most economists concentrate their work and teaching in an applied field, that is, in the other categories shown below. They study the history of the phenomena and adapt the core theoretical ideas of economics to offer explanations. They develop a variety of methods to observe and measure events and apply econometric methods to test hypotheses. For example, international economists study the history of trade, balance of payments, and exchange rates. They will understand both the economic theories and the econometric findings that explain international economic phenomena.

The fields of economics, however, have fuzzy boundaries because economic events are interconnected. Every transaction has a buyer and a seller; each economic event has extended consequences. A change in a wage rate will affect the cost of the goods the workers produce as well as change the income and consumption patterns of the workers’ households. An economist working in one field will be aware of connections to the rest of the economy.

The fields of economics, then, are more signposts than fences. They include the core areas of mathematical and statistical methods as well as the many arenas in which the core methods are applied. Most undergraduate Programs include study in the core fields and in a selection of applied fields. The standard classification of economic fields given below appears in the Journal of Economic Literature . These field labels provide enduring markers on the terrain of economic thought.

Journal of Economic Literature Classification of Fields

A. General Economics and Teaching -- The principles course in the economics curriculum develops core ideas. The course also provides the big picture of how individual economic events fit together to shape aggregate outcomes. Mastering basic ideas and getting a sense of how the parts fit into the whole is an essential entry point to the study of other fields and more advanced ideas in economics. The A category also includes discussion of the teaching of economics.

B. Schools of Economic Thought and Methodology -- Economists who study the history of economic thought investigate how the core ideas in economics have developed.

C. Mathematical and Quantitative Methods -- Econometricians develop methods to measure economic phenomena. They apply the scientific method by formulating hypotheses, gathering evidence, and judging whether the evidence is consistent with the hypotheses. Mathematical economists develop tools for finding optimal solutions to economic problems and advance ideas in game theory. Game theory is the method for analyzing how one player chooses strategies in light of knowledge of the possible strategies a rival might choose. Game theory is used to analyze many economic phenomena including the interaction between firms. In recent decades, experimental economists have tested economic theories in laboratories and in the field.

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D. Microeconomics -- Studying how markets function and the role of prices is of central concern in understanding economics. Investigation of the behavior of individual households, firms, and prices and quantities of specific products like automobiles is called microeconomics. Behavioral economists study the cognitive and emotional dimensions of economic decisions.

E. Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics -- The actions of individuals sum to the total activity in a whole economy. In the aggregate, the total amount of products consumed by households and firms must equal the total amount produced. The total amount firms pay to workers and investors must equal the amount households receive in income.  Study of the aggregate relationships in an economy is called macroeconomics.  Economic growth, the role of money and interest rates, and changes in the overall level of prices and the aggregate level of unemployment are central concerns of macroeconomics. 

F. International Economics -- International economists study trade among nations and the flow of finance across international borders. Globalization and the deficit in the U.S. balance of payments with other countries are current concerns.

G. Financial Economics -- Financial economists study the process of saving and investing with a specific concern for how individuals and firms deal with risk.

H. Public Economics -- Public finance economists consider the role of government in the economy.  Some focus on evaluating government programs and others focus on the design of tax systems.  Public finance economists are also interested in how the political process makes decisions. Issues of national security and defense appear here as well the study of state and local governments.

I. Health, Education, and Welfare -- Some economists focus on the markets and government policies that directly shape access to health care.  Others focus on schools and educational policies. Still others consider the economic circumstances of the poor and evaluate alternative government programs to improve the well-being of the poor.

J. Labor and Demographic Economics -- Labor economists study employers’ decisions to hire workers and employees’ decisions to work.  They study how wages are set, the nature of incentives workers face, and the role of minimum wage laws, unions, pensions plans, and training programs. They are also interested in the formation of families, determinants of birth rates, migration, population change, and aging.

K. Law and Economics -- Some economists use the tools of economics to study the incentives for human behavior that are defined by the legal system. Property rights, for example, are essential for markets to work well but they can be defined in a variety of ways that have different effects on the well-being of people.

L. Industrial Organization -- IO is the study of individual markets, the nature of competition, and the role of prices. Some economists study issues in anti-trust policy. Others study the role of advertising, pricing policies, and how costs vary with the scale of operations. Some IO economists investigate particular industries such as appliances, software, and electricity. In the last decade a number of economists have studied economic issues in sports, recreation, and tourism.

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M. Business Administration and Business Economics, Marketing, Accounting -- Business economists study decisions made by firms. How do firms maximize profit? What prices should they set and how much should they produce? What is the role of incentives within the firm, of entrepreneurship, and leadership?

N. Economic History -- Economic historians explore changes in economic well-being and how economic institutions have developed. The emergence of markets, the forces shaping the industrial revolution, the sources of improvements in agricultural productivity, the influence of railroads and other new technologies provide perspective on current economic issues.

O. Economic Development, Technical Change, and Growth -- Economists who are interested in the development of economies often focus on third world countries. Why have some countries developed while others have not? How might the industrialized countries improve the prospects for development around the world? Who gains and who loses with industrialization?

P. Economic Systems -- Analysts compare the capital market system to the various forms of socialism and the transition from centrally planned to more market-based economic systems. Economists sometimes address issues in specific countries like China, Cuba, and Poland.

Q. Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics, Environmental and Ecological Economics -- Economists study farming, fishery, and forests with a focus on prices, markets, and changing technologies. Natural resource economists study markets for energy (oil, coal, and electricity) and mineral resources. Economists have played an important role in the evolution of policies to promote clean air, water, and land. Economists model how global climate change and policies designed to reduce its effects will affect the economy.

R. Urban, Rural, and Regional Economics -- Economists analyze the location decisions of households and firms and the associated issues in housing, transportation, and local government.

Y. Miscellaneous Categories -- Data, dissertations, and book reviews are classified here.

Z. Other Special Topics -- Other special topics include the economics of the arts, religion, and culture.

Each major field defined in the JEL has several subfields. Search for the field and subfield terms in Wikipedia and Google for more information about each.

Economists add to our collective knowledge by publishing new work in each of the fields above as explained in the finding facts & ideas page. Some of the latest work addresses issues of significant current interest.


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