Beyond metaphor: Mathematical models in economics as empirical research

Daniel Breslau, Yuval Yonay

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


When economists report on research using mathematical models, they use a literary form similar to the experimental report in the laboratory sciences. This form consists of a narrative of a series of events, with a clear temporal segregation of the agency of the author and the agency of the objects of study. Existing explanations of this literary form treat it as a rhetorical device that either conceals the agency of the author in constructing and interpreting the findings, or simply appropriates the appearance of accepted (natural-) scientific method. This article - based on analysis of a research program in economics, a single article that issued from that program, and in-depth interviews with the authors - proposes an alternate interpretation. Drawing on the praxeological "laboratory studies" tradition in science studies, we treat work with mathematical models as involving the interaction of economists with objects (models) that act independently of the analyst's will. The clear separation of the economist's and the models agency, as depicted in the published report, is not the result of a rhetorical rewriting of actual events, but is a practical accomplishment. Every step in the analytical work that preceded the paper is devoted to developing a procedure in which the economists' agency will be completely accountable in terms of accepted practices, and the performance of the model will be distinct and compelling.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)317-332
Number of pages16
JournalScience in Context
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1999

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We would like to thank Shuki Mairovich and Amnon Vidan for invaluable assistance in gathering materials, and Elhanan Helpman for comments and corrections on a previous version. The research was supported by a grant from the Israel Science Foundation.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences
  • History and Philosophy of Science


Dive into the research topics of 'Beyond metaphor: Mathematical models in economics as empirical research'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this