“But isn’t that what the psychologists do?”: the dangers of disciplinary boundary work

To respond to this particular crisis of measure, economics and psychology are being forcibly re-married. Behavioural and experimental economics have their earliest origins in game theory in the 1940s, which allowed economists and psychologists to compare normative rational choice-making—that is, according to neo-classical economics—with empirical choice-making, as observed under laboratory conditions. The gap between economists’ prescriptions for how people should behave and what they actually do became subject to testing. Discovering patterns in such ‘anomalies’ became the preoccupation of behavioural economists, following Kahneman and Tversky’s landmark 1979 article on ‘prospect theory’, which later won them a Nobel Prize.

Thanks to the new empirical techniques and data sets, economists could start to spot anomalies—cases where human happiness does not rise and fall as neo-classical economics would predict. At the centre of happiness economics sits the psychological concept of ‘adaptation’, the extent to which individuals do or do not become psychologically attuned to changes in their circumstances. Where they do adapt to changed circumstances—for example, of increased monetary income or national wealth—their happiness ceases to correspond to changed objective conditions, at least after the transition has passed. Where they do not adapt to changed circumstances—as with unemployment—their happiness remains directly proportionate to their objective conditions, regardless of how long they have lived with them.

Happiness economics took off during the 1990s, drawing on data provided by a number of national household surveys, which had included questions on ‘subjective wellbeing’ from 1984 onwards. With it has come the rise of homo psycho-economicus, a form of economic subjectivity in which choice-making is occasionally misguided, emotional or subject to social and moral influences. If homo economicus was unhappy, that was merely because he had insufficient money or consumer choice. But homo psycho-economicus suffers from psychological afflictions as well. He makes mistakes because he follows others too instinctively; he consumes things which damage his health, relationships and environment; he sometimes becomes unhappy—or even happy—out of all proportion to his material circumstances.

– Will Davies, The Political Economy of Unhappiness 

This is an interesting parallel to an issue I’ve been considering a lot recently. The contingently drawn historical boundaries between psychology and sociology have tended to leave the individual precariously placed within both disciplines. Oscillations between recurrently under-socialised and over-socialised views of the individual have as much to do with this underlying division of labour as an historical artefact of disciplinary based inquiry as they do with the whole sequence of antinomies which emerge from the forms of knowledge production that take place within such institutional constraints. I’d argue that the difficulty, as far as sociology goes, lies in the extent to which the independent variability of  the individual vis-a-vis social reproduction or transformation doesn’t fit neatly into either domain of inquiry. This is something I’m increasingly seeing in terms of social and intellectual history rather than simply being a matter of social theory. So it was fascinating to see the argument Will Davies makes here. It conveys a sense of disciplinary boundary work, with renegotiation taking place more through local substantive skirmishes  than detached reflections upon disciplinary boundaries and scope.

Categories: Outflanking Platitudes

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