Questioning the Dominant Narrative in Economics

Precis of Narrative Fixation in Economics by Edward Fullbrook

Classic economics diagram. Classic omission of the environment and women’s work, among other things.

Closed Narrative

Any theoretical paradigm makes a simplified representation of reality (60).

  • Double-bind situations where a person is socialized to act in a way that conflicts with neoclassical “rationality,” such as African-Americans expected to live in one part of town even when they don’t want to.
  • Social being: a person may care about others so much that they don’t simply act as a free economic agent.
  • Reciprocal imitation: investors often buy not because they believe something to have value, but because they think others believe it has value.
  • Self-referential goods are things that people will spend money on just so everyone else can see they spent money on it, which is surprisingly common in beverages and apparel.
  • Spontaneity is a common part of the human experience that often conflicts with neoclassical rationality.
  • Adventure also motivates people, and hinges on unknown outcomes as in trying new foods, travel, and watching sports
  • Free choice does not really exist in neoclassical reasoning, because there is always a right answer for an actor. When someone wants to make a choice for some reason not obvious to an economist, they will probably appear to be “irrational.”
Seven categories of decision behavior that neoclassical economics considers irrational (123).
  • Transitivity is the assumption that if a person prefers A to B and B to C, then they always prefer A to C.
  • Completeness is the assumption that each person always has a preference about everything.
  • Independence is the assumption that each person makes decisions independently, not just following the next cow in front of them.


Atomism is the very neat assumption that each little unit, such as a consumer or a firm in an economic model, is self-contained and responds to forces without much impact on others. This idea is well captured by Margaret Thatcher: “[T]here’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women.” Fullbrook disagrees with this quite strongly. (In my experience, most social scientists disagree with Thatcher on this point!)

These are definitely the best pages from the whole book! This is bold and fun intellectual history, showing the Harlem Reinassance’s role in kindling the fire of Feminism, which would later surge far past it. Also amazing: this pearl of radical theory for social justice is in a book by an economist! (81–83)


Fullbrook has made the case that economics is dominated by a single, closed narrative that makes some very unfair assumptions about people. But the critical consequence of the intellectual empire in question is how it impacts key decisions made by institutions.

Why Did Economists Do This?

Fullbrook explains the foibles of a dominant school in Economics, but does little to try to account for its rise to dominance or the means by which it perpetuates itself today.




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