Telling Stories

One economist finds moving away from "hard" truth may lead to a greater truth

Part of Strassmann was intrigued. In Traweek's physicists, Strassmann recognized something of her economics colleagues: their swagger, their socialization, their near-erotic obsession with their field (those toy planes on the desk!). But another part of Strassmann was troubled: She thought the book seemed "soft" and literary, distressingly free of statistics and certitude. Traweek was a storyteller, and related anecdotes about her physicists; Strassmann thought science had no business mixing with stories. How could you trust something as flimsy as a story? How could you trust a human being to interpret the truth? Whatever happened to objectivity?


Slowly Strassmann began to appreciate Traweek's approach. Eventually, she converted completely, to the point that she published a paper called "The Stories of Economics and the Power of the Storyteller." Economists also tell stories, she'd realized, and mathematics is only a form of notation, only another language for telling a story. And equations can obscure the truth at least as powerfully as words -- or perhaps more powerfully, since we are accustomed to questioning stories. Math gives a story the veneer of science.
Diana Strassmann: Life's too short to spend on theories out of sync with the real world.
Deron Neblett
Diana Strassmann: Life's too short to spend on theories out of sync with the real world.

American economists tend to be white, middle-class men. Naturally, they tell men's stories. When they write about "human capital," they tend to describe educational improvement in adult workers like themselves -- ignoring the fact that by far the largest investment in human capital is made by parents in their children. When economists study family transfers of wealth, they consider bequests or monetary gifts, but not the parents' investment of time. A stay-at-home mom's contribution to her family is rendered invisible. For similar reasons, women's unpaid work doesn't count in calculations of the United States' Gross National Product. The women disappear.

In some cases, those theoretical assumptions have real-world effects: Women literally disappear. Amartya Sen, a male Indian economist, won the 1998 Nobel Prize for showing that families don't behave with perfect altruism, as classical economics would predict. Men command a larger share of the family's food or medical resources than women, and adults a larger share than children. Female children are the most likely to starve during a famine, and the most likely to die from poor medical care. To save the most lives, an aid organization should target the girls.

But even with Sen's impressive real-world data, it's hard to change the standard economics approach to a family. Hard sciences, the kind that economics likes to mimic, define themselves by the piece of the universe that they hope to understand. Astronomers study stars; geologists study rocks; physicists study matter and energy. But economists define their field not as something to be understood -- the production and exchange of goods and services -- but as a way of understanding those things and the world in general. To be considered an economist, you must think like other economists, using the standard techniques and basic assumptions -- techniques and assumptions rarely tested against real-world experiments and data.

Women, non-Americans and minorities can succeed in economics, but only if they approach the world like mainstream economists. (For all of Sen's radicalism, he also served as the president of the American Econometrics Society, a group so mathematically inclined as to be above reproach.) Ironically, in the marketplace of ideas, established economists formed something like an oligopoly, engaging in something like intellectual protectionism. The feminists were calling for an open market and free competition, and for greater appreciation of ideas that could be tested and applied in the real world. Ironically, they were trying to haul the discipline away from theory-for-theory's-sake, and closer to empirical, testable reality -- closer, in a way, to the ideal of hard science.

In '95 Strassmann launched Feminist Economics, an academic journal intended to air ideas not allowed by other journals in the field. Mainstream, high-prestige economists still regard Strassmann and her feminist ilk as the barbarians at the gate, but the insurgents are making inroads. Strassmann has been careful to make her journal difficult for the mainstream to ignore. The journal's brochure includes warm blurbs from three highly respectable male Nobel laureates: Sen, Robert Solow, and Kenneth Arrow. And articles published in the journal have helped insurgent economists gain tenure -- and thus, a voice -- at some universities.

In January, Strassmann attended the annual conference of the American Economic Association, a prestigious, old-line gathering. Sen had recently won his Nobel, and the association was sponsoring a reception and luncheon in his honor. As Strassmann made her way from the reception to the head table, the association's secretary stopped her: That table was reserved for Sen's invited guests, most of them other Nobel laureates. But Sen had invited Strassmann, probably to signal how important he thought her work is to his field. She'd earned a place at the table.

E-mail Lisa Gray at lisagray@alumni.rice.edu.

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