Defining Economics: Robbins's Essay in Theory and Practice

36 Pages Posted: 13 Mar 2007

See all articles by Roger Backhouse

Roger Backhouse

University of Birmingham - Department of Economics; Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR) - Erasmus Institute for Philosophy and Economics (EIPE)

Steven G. Medema

Duke University - Department of Economics

Date Written: March 11, 2007

Abstract

Robbins's Essay was significant in many ways, but especially in giving economics a definition that came to dominate the professional literature. Our goal in the present paper is to trace the reception of Robbins's definition of economics as, to use a useful abbreviation, the science of scarcity. This definition was analytic, in that it identified an ascpect of behavior, and it laid a foundation that could be seen as justifying not only the narrowing of economic theory to the theory of constrained maximization or rational choice but also the "imperialism" of economists' ventures into the fields of law, sociology and political science.

Though Robbins's definition is often presented as self-evidently correct, the developments that it has been used to support were all keenly contested. In the 1940s and 1950s, the role of mathematical theorizing based on optimizing models was challenged on several fronts. The use and even legitimacy of economic imperialism were questioned by both economists and scholars working in the colonized disciplines. We attempt to trace out the reception, diffusion, and contesting of the definition, focusing on explicit discussions of the definition in the academic journals and in economics textbooks

Keywords: definition of economics, choice, scarcity

JEL Classification: A1, B2, B4

Suggested Citation

Backhouse, Roger and Medema, Steven G., Defining Economics: Robbins's Essay in Theory and Practice (March 11, 2007). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=969994 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.969994

Roger Backhouse (Contact Author)

University of Birmingham - Department of Economics ( email )

Economics Department
Birmingham, B15 2TT
United Kingdom

Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR) - Erasmus Institute for Philosophy and Economics (EIPE) ( email )

P.O. Box 1738
EIPE Office, Room H5-23
3000 Dr Rotterdam
Netherlands

Steven G. Medema

Duke University - Department of Economics ( email )

213 Social Sciences Building
Box 90097
Durham, NC 27708-0204
United States

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