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Author(s): David F. Ruccio

Review by: David F. Ruccio
Source: American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 93, No. 3 (Nov., 1987), pp. 723-725
Published by: University of Chicago Press
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Book Reviews

TheRhetoricofEconomics. By Donald N. McCloskey.Madison:Univer-

sityof WisconsinPress, 1986. Pp. xx+ 209. $21.50.

David F. Ruccio

Can sociologistsactuallylearn somethingfromeconomists?What about

orthodoxsocial scientistsfromMarxists(and otherunconventional think-
ers)-can theylearn anything?An emphaticyes on both counts,if we
listencarefullyto what Donald McCloskeyhas to say-and also hearhis
The basic argumentof The Rhetoricof Economics is that thereare
seriousproblemswitheconomic"modernism."Positivismand its sibling
rivals (such as Popperian falsificationism)should not-nor can they-
serve as the methodologicalfoundationsof contemporary economics.
"Give it up," McCloskeyappears to say. "We economistshave not been
doingwhat we say we've been doing:We thinkwe are doingscience,but
what we are reallydoingis engagingin rhetoric.We insiston invoking
outdatedmethodologicalstandards,thinkingthat we are justifyingthe
of our statements.All we are reallyaccomplishingis rhetor-
ical persuasion.Philosophersrejectedabsolutistphilosophiesof science
long ago. Let's accept theirjudgment,stop quotingFriedman,and pay
close attentionto our use of rhetoric."This solutionwill improvetradi-
tionaleconomists'writing,teaching,and conferencediscussions.It will
also allow themto keep doingneoclassicaleconomicsciencemuchas the
normalscience canon stipulates(while leaving behind,of course,those
wild-eyedclaims of scientismand positiveeconomics).
The backgroundto McCloskey'sbook is important.There is a crisisin
traditionaleconomicsand a revival of methodologicaldebate. Econo-
mistsare arguingabout what it means to engage in scientificinquiry,
about what it means to do economics.L. Boland, M. Blaug, and B.
Caldwell, to mentiononlya few,are all tryingto come to gripswiththe
positivistlegacy in economics.They all findit wantingbecause econo-
mistsand othersocial scientistseitherhave not,historically,or cannot,in
principle,live up to traditionalpositivistmethodologicalprescriptions.
There is even a new journal, Economics and Philosophy,to air these
McCloskey,withintheneoclassicalorthodoxy, stretches
furthest.He calls on the contributions both of philosophers(especially
Rorty,butalso Wittgenstein, Feyerabend,Dewey, and Heidegger)and of
rhetoriciansand literarycritics(Booth, Burke, and Richardsare often
cited) to argue that not only positivismbut also the positivistproject
inheritedfromDescartes are dead. The mistakethattraditionalecono-
mistshave made (and, glancingat theirtextbooksand articles,continue
to make) is to presumethattheirmathematicalgeneralequilibriumsys-
tems, t-statistics,and utility-maximizing conceptionof human nature
warrantthelabel "science."These are all formsofrhetoric,saysMcClos-


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AmericanJournalof Sociology

key-attemptsto persuadeothereconomists.They are notmethodologi-

cal standardsthatcan be heldup as offerings to thegod ofscientific
(McCloskey discusses a large numberof specificexamples in areas of
traditionaleconomicssuch as human-capitaltheory,economichistory,
and econometrics to show how economistsuse theseformsof rhetoricto
Wheredoes thisjettisoningofabsolutistmethodological standardsand
the acceptance of rhetoricaldevices leave us? McCloskey responds:
"Were economiststo give up theirquaint modernismand open them-
selvesto a widerrangeofdiscourse,theywouldnotneedto abandondata
or mathematicsor precision.They would merelyagree to examinetheir
languagein action,and conversemorepolitelywithothersin theconver-
sationsof mankind"(p. 35). However, if all we are doingis conversing
ratherthan makingscientific discoveries,are we not letting"irrational-
ism"in throughtheback door?This is clearlyone ofMcCloskey'sgreatest
worries.He closes the door to what he considersto be the threatof
irrational,"mob-governed"conversationsby invokingthejury of "well-
educatedparticipantsin the conversationsof our civilizationand of our
field"(p. 46). In otherwords, neoclassicaleconomistscan continueto
justifythe kind of economicstheyhave been doing as long as theycan
convincetheirlearned peers of its meritand do not relyon outmoded
claimsof positivistscience.
But who picks the membersof the jury? And what criteriadoes the
juryuse to distinguish between"good" and "bad" science(assuming,with
McCloskey,thatsuch a distinction can be made at all)? These are two of
the questionsthatMcCloskeyfailsto ask.
He also neveraddressesthe relatedbut even knottierepistemological
issues of how economistsand other social scientistsknow what they
know. If neoclassicaleconomistscan continueto plytheirtrademuchas
theyalwayshave (assuminga rational,utility-maximizing humannature,
theybelieve that the accumulationof wealth is achieved by atomistic
individualscompetingin markets,etc.),thenthepresumedobjectoftheir
scienceappears to escape McCloskey'scritiqueuntouched.That is, there
are differentresearchmethodsand rhetoricaldevicesforMcCloskey,but
thereis stilla singleobject "out there"and therefore a singlescienceto
understand"it." This is theclaim thatothereconomistsand social scien-
tistshave long disputed.For example,theMarxisttradition,as Resnick
and Wolff("MarxistEpistemology:The CritiqueofEconomicDetermin-
ism," Social Text, no. 6) demonstrate,includesnumerousattemptsto
formulatean alternativeepistemologicalstance. This rejectionof dis-
courseas the"mirrorofnature"(here,afterlisteningso intently, McClos-
keyfailsto heed Rorty'scall) has been sharedbya wide-ranging groupof
contemporary structuralist, and postmodernist
poststructuralist, theoreti-
cians (includingDerrida, Foucault, and Habermas) across the rangeof
humanitiesand social sciences.Their claim goes one crucialstepbeyond
McCloskey's.To wit, scientificstatementsare constructedwithindis-
courses,and different discourseswill "see" economicand social realities

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Book Reviews

differently.These different truthsor discursive"realities"will be the

result,in part,of usingdifferent formsof rhetoric.They will also be the
resultof the economic,cultural,and politicalconditionsthat serve to
"overdetermine" differentdiscursivepractices.
Traditionalsociologistswould do well to followMcCloskeyand listen
carefullyto the various rhetoricaldevices theyemployto make them-
selves heard. They should also listencarefullyto the othervoices.

HistoryfromBelow: Studies in Popular Protestand Popular Ideologyin

Honour ofGeorgeRude'. Edited by FrederickKrantz.Montreal:Concor-
dia University,1985. Pp. xvi+ 408. $20.00 Can. (paper).

JamesC. Scott
Yale University

The generalqualityof thiscollectionis highenoughso thatit constitutes

somethingof an argumentagainstmyintellectualdistasteforfestschrif-
ten. This is perhaps due to the care exercisedby FrederickKrantz in
solicitingcontributions.More likely,it is due to the remarkableunityof
GeorgeRude's distinguished oeuvrespanningthreedecades. The effectof
thatunitysimplymeans thatwhetherone is readinga piece about peas-
ant-Christian schismaticsin 4th-century NorthAfricaor about theeffect
offoreignhegemonyon thepoliticallifeoftheHawaiians, one knowsthat
thegoal will be to uncoverthecauses and motivesofpopularactionfrom
Historyfrom Below is also a properfestschrift;
itincludesa narrativeof
Rude's career,an appreciationofhis intellectualdevelopmentby Freder-
ick Krantz,and a completebibliography ofhis publications.This is nota
small book. It contains21 individualcontributions that make it both a
book thatinvitesbrowsingand one thatmakesit difficult fora reviewer
even to list themif he wishes to say anythingelse. My (unsatisfactory)
solutionis to mentionbrieflywhichones in myjudgmentwerethe most
theoretically importantor were conceptuallyunique. Eric Hobsbawm's
piece, "HistoryfromBelow-Some Reflections," is a briefbut valuable
examinationof the methodologicalproblemsof the analysisof political
actorswhose fondestwish oftenwas to avoid callingattentionto them-
selves. Insofaras theysucceeded, theyleave few if any traces in the
archives.Even whentheydo leave traces,how are we able to distinguish
a tacticalneed to appearloyal,deferential, ignorant,or opaque, fromthe
real thing?How do we get behindthe performance mask that subordi-
natesmusttypicallywear in thepresenceofpower?The problemis nearly
insolublefor historicalresearch,but Hobsbawm's appreciationof the
existenceof masksand of thetrial-and-error, experimental aspectof tac-
tical action frombelow is an importantcorrectiveforthosewho would
directlyinferthe face fromthe mask it wears.
ChristopherHill has contributeda fascinatingessay, "The Poor and


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