Saturday, June 07, 2008

'This is a part of reality that economists simply don't see' says Ross Gittins

I am not quite sure what to make of this article by Ross Gittins, one of the main economic writers for the Fairfax media in Australia. On the positive side I concur with the main thrust of the argument - and would welcome much more of this type of analysis here in Australia where neo-classical theory is hegemonic. My concern is that in writing about so called 'economic sociologists' he presents these ideas as if they are something new (it would appear that Neil Fligstein whose work he draws upon has been writing about this subject since at least the early 1990s) . Has Gittins not heard of institutional and new institutional economics ? Perhaps not because there are so few in Australia.

Gittins also appears to fall into the trap, common in Australia, for natural scientists and economists to label all other researchers and scholars concerned with the social dimension as 'sociologists'. In saying this I am not having a go at sociologists but at the lack of awareness amongst natural scientists and mainstream economists of the diversity within the social sciences and the
place of this scholarship for informing policy and practice, including research practice. This is not only true in Australia as the outcomes of a recent review of DEFRA science in the UK reports:

Social researchers being ‘overstretched’ by Defra

The Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs [DEFRA] is overstretching its social researchers and undervaluing their contribution to policy making, a report has found.

Defra’s Science Advisory Council’s Social Science Sub-Group has criticised the department for defining social research too narrowly as “engagement or consultation”. It also reports that social research “was not always accorded equivalent status to other contributions, such as that from the natural sciences, to the evidence base for the policy cycle and research strategy”.

The social research capacity within the department is described as “not sufficient to meet the needs of existing or future Departmental policy objectives,” causing staff to be overstretched.

The group warns Defra that it must develop a clear strategy for the use of social research, including a dramatic change in culture that “challenges negative attitudes”.

The department should also increase the number of social researchers on its books and develop stronger links with the social science community, the report suggests.

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