How the Culture of Economics Stops Economists from Studying Group Behavior and the Development of Social Cultures

Hendrik Van den Berg


Economic thought evolved over the past two centuries to focus on individual behavior as the basis for all economic activity. Some heterodox economists have pointed to the importance of group behavior and the influence of organizations on economic activity, but the neoclassical paradigm, with the rational isolated individual as its main actor, prevails in mainstream economics. This paper presents a “sociology of economics” to explain why the culture of the field of economics effectively blinds its practitioners to the phenomenon of group behavior. Drawing on the work of Pierre Bourdieu, the paper details the field’s methodology (habitus), which includes the assumptions of the rational and separable individual, and the belief system (doxa), consisting of the metaphors of the invisible hand and rational free choice, that supports the habitus. The culture of economics is firmly held in place by symbolic violence directed at those who question the prevailing culture. The paper further highlights the role of business and financial interests in supporting the prevailing culture of economics. In conclusion, a strong group culture, supported by powerful business and financial organizations, discourages economists from recognizing this group culture or the powerful organizations that support it.

Published on 5 Feb 2014 in World Economic Review No 3, 2014