When Black Boxes Clash: Competing Ideas of What Science Is in Economics, 1924-39

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This paper analyzes American economics during the period between the World Wars. During those years, two major groups of economists - neoclassicists and institutionalists - competed for control of the discipline. I analyze this struggle with the conceptual tools of actor-network theory: black boxes, trials of strength, allies and translation. The neoclassical - institutionalist struggle is depicted as a trial of strength of two competing approaches to the scientific study of the economy. I argue that the parties in such struggles tend to recruit allies from other prestigious disciplines, as well as from the field's own past leading practitioners, and to make arguments concerning the potential of their research programmes to solve important problems. The advocates speak in the name of these allies (‘translation’) and try to create unbreakable links with them. Rivals try to break these links, and the protagonists respond by mobilizing more allies and strengthening the network. Thus, methodological controversies resemble controversies over facts and theories, although the materials of which contested networks are made are different.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)39-80
Number of pages42
JournalSocial Studies of Science
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 1994

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This paper is based on my PhD dissertation. I would like to thank the members of my dissertation committee - Bernard Beck, Howard Becker, Joel Mokyr, Allan Schnaiyre and Arthur Stinchcombe - for their useful comments and help, the fruits of which are also discernible in this paper. In addition, Michael Bar-Haim. Bernard Beck, Wendy Brown, Michel Callon, Stephen Cole. Marianne De Laet, Gil Eyal, Alan Gilbert. Karin Knorr-Cetina. Yvonne Newsome, James Rule. Allan Schnaiberg. Arthur Stinchcombe. Ilan Talmud and anonymous reviewers read earlier drafts of this paper and provided valuable advice and helpful comments. I thank also the Edelstein Center at the Hebrew University and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton for their financial support.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • General Social Sciences
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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