Seeking Parts, Looking for Wholes: Observing The Economy

Mary S. Morgan, London School of Economics; University of Amsterdam; Fellow, Davis Center, Princeton University

Philadelphia Area Center for History of Science, Regional Colloquium

Friday, February 18, 2011 - 3:00pm

Martin and Margy Meyerson Conference Room, second floor, Van Pelt Library, University of Pennsylvania

In the early 1950s, a cadre of young economists were sent into the field to measure economic activity for development planning for African economies as a prelude to de-colonization. In order to construct the aggregate wholes that make up the national income accounts, they were asked to locate information on the individual bits of those economies. Few of the measurements they sought existed in any convenient form and, sometimes with the help of local anthropologists, they set out to observe directly the economic activity of households, farms, traders, and so forth. What they saw just did not fit the national income accounting definitions that had, after all, been designed for “Western” economies. As such, their observations proved consistent with the predictions of the founders of national income accounting, Simon Kuznets and Richard Stone, who thought that economies were sufficiently different that one kind of accounts would not fit all nations. Certainly, seeking to understand the unfamiliar in these economies involved struggles of imagination and perception for these young economists. Nevertheless, the requirement to come back with such measurements meant that they adjusted the original accounting definitions in such a way as to fit the parts they observed into the aggregates that they were sent out to measure. This was only possible because the national income accounting system operated as a perspectival device such that, despite the differences in economies, it provided a framework for observing any economy and quickly became standardized at an international level. Mary S. Morgan is Professor of the History and Philosophy of Economics, London School of Economics; Professor of the History of Economics and the Philosophy of Economic Science, Faculty of Economics and Econometrics, University of Amsterdam; and Fellow, Davis Center, Princeton University. Robert E. Kohler is Professor Emeritus, Department of History and Sociology of Science, University of Pennsylvania.