GRACE JANG – NOVEMBER 13TH, 2019
Dr. Stephen Pratten is a Reader (research-focused position) in Economics and Philosophy at King’s College London, a Co-editor of the Cambridge Journal of Economics, and a Research Associate at the Centre for Business Research. His primary research areas are economic organization and methodology of economics. BER Staff Writer Grace Jang visited Dr. Pratten’s office at King’s College London on 7 November, 2019, for the following interview:
Q: Hi Dr. Pratten. Could you begin by telling us about your background and early experiences that influenced your interest in economics?
A: Hi Grace. Okay, sure. I’ve been here at Kings for quite a few years now—I started here at Kings in January 1999 and I’ve been here ever since. And I’ve been teaching on various modules as well as doing research. Before that, I was based in Cambridge University, at a research centre called the Centre for Business Research, where I was doing work on structural changes in the media industries. So that’s my immediate academic background. In terms of why I came into the economics in the first place—well it’s always difficult to pinpoint a specific set of reasons—but I think it had to do a lot with the context of the UK in the 1980s where I was growing up. That was a period of substantial conflict in the UK, where there were very different views about how economic policies should develop, and indeed how countries should be governed. It was a period where Margaret Thatcher was in power, and there was a lot of reaction to her policy. She was very much in favour of free market, and a lot of the debate over her policy was centred around economic issues. My interest in economics stems from that period, I think.
Q: I see. Were you in middle or high school during that period?
A: Secondary school—so ages about 11 to 18.
Q: Great, thank you. My second question is, what led you to decide that you want to pursue a PhD in economics and become a professor, as opposed to other career options in economics?
A: Certainly by the time I finished my Master’s degree—I did my Master’s degree at Cambridge University—certainly by the end of completing that program, it was clear to me that a very important issue was, “why was the economics discipline in such a mess, why was it in such disarray, and why was it a discipline that found it difficult to develop powerful explanations for social phenomenon.” And it seemed to me there was a very important project to be undertaken exploring the methodological limitation of mainstream economics, and it seemed to me that that was a very worthwhile project to pursue, and that really led to my interest in ontology. There were a number of researchers at Cambridge working on ontology and its relevance to understanding the current state of the economics discipline. So I was very much encouraged to apply to do a PhD there, and from then, after completing PhD, it was very much a career that I wanted to go into.
Q: Could you elaborate a little more on ontology and what led you to choose it as your subfield?
A: Yes, of course. A very important area of research is the methodology of economics and the area of ontology. Economics is a discipline that is very splintered—there are all sorts of different perspectives within the economics discipline—but there is an enormously dominant perspective, which is defined really at a methodological level. Mainstream economics is characterized by an insistence upon mathematical modelling, and the only way to understand the damage that conventional economics does and why conventional economics is such a limited approach to consider it from an ontological perspective.
The ontological presuppositions of the mathematical modelling methods are actually very extreme—they presuppose that social world is made up of isolated atoms. And in fact, if you look at our best accounts of the social world, it’s transparently the case that social world is not made up of isolated atoms, but of complexly structured beings existing in communities which are characterized by social conventions and social rules. Once you approach conventional economics from this ontological standpoint, it becomes obvious why it has made so little progress: basically, conventional economics ends up distorting the social world so that its methods can be applied, but that’s no way to make progress in developing explanatory, powerful social theory. So it seems to me that an ontological perspective on the current state of economics is vital if we are to make any kind of progress on economics. In terms of research priorities, it seems to me that that focus on ontology is quite crucial and very important.
Q: Just to touch upon that a little bit more, what was the point where you started thinking that conventional economics is very problematic and there needs to be something done about it?
A: Well, one of the things that struck me even as a graduate student doing my Master’s degree was how different the current conventional economics’ approaches were from the kind of works that I found most convincing. I read Keynes’ chapter 12 of The General Theory, I read Marx and his discussion of labour process, and I was very interested in various institutional economists like Veblen and John Commons. Now all of these approaches seemed very different from the conventional economics that I was studying during my Master’s course, and a great deal more insightful. These alternative perspectives seemed to be doing a much better job of generating interesting and powerful social theory. So there was this kind of mismatch between what I felt to be the most valuable kind of economics and what was most dominant in the discipline at the time, and that really stimulated a lot of interest in trying to understand that better—why was it that the mainstream approach that dominates the economics discipline is so weak when it comes to developing powerful explanations.
Q: Could you briefly tell us about your empirical research into structural and regulatory change in broadcasting industries?
A: When I was in the Centre for Business Research at Cambridge, I got involved in a very empirical project that was analysing structural change in media industries during the 1990s. We were interested in looking at various kinds of quasi-market reforms within the broadcasting sector especially. During the early 1990s in Britain, there was an attempt to introduce market-like mechanisms into the broadcasting sector as a way of trying to improve the functioning of the broadcasting sector. For example, there was the introduction of quota whereby the large broadcasting institutions like BBC had to outsource 25% of their programming to small independent program producers. The hope was that that kind of quasi-market reform would stimulate a great deal of improved performance, and what we were interested in exploring was considering how effective that was—did the quasi-market reforms actually produce improved performance in the broadcasting sector, or did they generate a lot of inefficiencies and problems?
Q: What inspired your research into this?
A: The reason why I got involved in this project was really because I was located in that research centre, and that research centre had obtained funds to carry out that research. We spent three years studying those quasi-market reforms and structural changes in the media industries—which I found very valuable. My main research since my PhD has always been methodology of economics and in particular ontology, which is quite an abstract field of study. So it was quite a change and quite a challenge for me to look at more concrete questions, and it was interesting for me to develop skills necessary to conduct that kind of empirical research. For example, we did a lot of case studies looking at particular firms and did extensive interviewing with key participants in the industry, whether that be commissioners within broadcasters or people at key regulatory agencies in the UK that had a remit to consider broadcasting. We also looked at government documents like government reports about the state of the broadcasting sector.
Q: After you completed this three-year project at Cambridge, did you continue on this kind of research into broadcasting industries?
A: We visited those issues a number of times. We did follow-up studies and looked at further developments in the sectors.
Q: Thank you. My next question is, is there any other area that you’re currently looking into, and if so, how are you planning on collecting your data?
A: I mean, a particular interest that I’ve always had alongside these philosophical interests is in the history of economic thought. My most recent research really relates to the theory of money developed by an Old Institutional economist called John Commons. He developed a very interesting and sophisticated account of the nature of money back in the 1920s and 1930s. And I don’t think he has received the attention that he deserved. So my most recent work has been to re-examine John Commons’ work on the nature of money. As for collecting data, it’ll mostly be a close reading of Commons’ own texts. He published a series of very important books, including Institutional Economics and The Economics of Collective Action.
Q: For my last question, may I ask you which approach you find most convincing out of all the alternative perspectives to conventional economics like Old Institutionalist and New Institutionalist thoughts?
A: That’s a good question. I’m not sure if I can choose one of them really. I think there’s insight in many of the alternative approaches. I mean, I find a great deal of insight in John Maynard Keynes but also there’s a huge amount of insights to be obtained in close readings of Marx as well as of the Old Institutionalists like Veblen and Commons. I think what’s especially interesting is that while at the substantive level these heterodox economists have different theories, if you go to an ontological level—if you go to an analysis of their commitment at the level of nature of social reality—they actually have a lot in common.
Q: Thank you very much for your time.
A: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure.
Featured Image Source: Photo taken by Grace Jang
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