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History of Political Economy 32.2 (2000) 411-412
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Canonizing Economic Theory:
How Theories and Ideas Are Selected in Economics
Canonizing Economic Theory: How Theories and Ideas Are Selected in Economics. By Christopher D. Mackie. Armonk, N.Y., and London: M. E. Sharpe, 1998. 201 pp.
This book is a very interesting and valuable addition to the ongoing discussion on how economic theories are selected and how they get canonized and passed on to subsequent generations of students of economics. The main objective of the author is to analyze the nature of research appraisal and theory choice in economics, with the primary focus on the issue of how a scientific work enters the professional literature and gets the chance to influence the research agenda in the field. The core of his analysis lies in the evaluation of a survey that he conducted among sixty-two reviewers of seven top-ranked economics journals (97). This survey enables him to take the existing literature in economic methodology and in philosophy of science a step further and to offer a "multistage" (170) model of how both empirical and nonempirical criteria determine the actual development of "theory."
The book is divided into six chapters. The first three are devoted to a critical examination of theory choice explanations offered by historians of economics and [End Page 411] by philosophers of science. While acknowledging the merits of these contributions, the author demonstrates the need for a more discipline-specific approach to theory selection that would take into account what he describes as "extra-scientific" factors, that is, nonempirical explanations of research undertakings in economics.
Prepublication appraisal and editorial selection lie at the core of chapter 4. The survey conducted unveils that method of presentation and respect of discipline-specific standards are crucial factors affecting research appraisal by referees as well as editors' decisions. Chapter 5 discusses postpublication appraisal and theory selection processes, for, as the author makes clear, publication is only a first step, and a new work has still a long way to go in order to gain the profession's general attention.
In the final chapter the author defends his multivariable explanation of theory choice against the views of traditional philosophy of science and current economic methodology. He argues for a better and fuller understanding of actual method, the exercise of intellectual honesty, the studying of uncomfortable issues, and for addressing "the murky side of science" (176) instead of opting for what he calls an existing "idealized philosophy of science" (176) approach.
The book is well argued and written and it will be of interest to a wide range of scholars: economists, philosophers, and historians of science. Advanced students in these disciplines may also benefit from the thorough treatment of the literature undertaken by the author.
By leaving, consciously I think, an open-ended model for further discussion and debate, the author is to be commended for providing a solid basis for further investigations on the theme of canon formation in economics.