The symbol-archetype distinction when discussing economic primatives

By Matt Nolan 25/01/2013

One thing that was clear from my post about economic primatives (such as production functions) being archetypes was that my distinction between symbol and archetype in that context wasn’t clear.  I realised that even before the post went up.

At the base level, an archetype is a subset of symbols – it is a symbol that comes with some set of subjective meaning, whose meaning moves with the context and auidence.  When I used the idea of symbol to start with (as opposed to archetype) this was to denote primatives which can be seen as objective.  This was a bit imprecise – as the term symbol includes both objective and subjective forms of symbology.

In my mind, the advantage of the economic method has been that we’ve left our primatives exposed for all to see.  The idea that these primatives, in a practical sense, are really archetypes economists call upon rather than objective symbols is an admission that we aren’t fully transparent.

And yet this isn’t really a criticism of the method – for people willing to put in the effort of learning about economic models they ARE very transparent.  However, economists have to communicate with a public and politicans who do not have the time or the patience to do this – and will still determine policy.

In order to make sure that the knowledge gleaned from economic science is taken in appropriately, we use the primatives of economics as archetypes to build a narrative – however, this raises the question of why people should believe our narrative rather than the other narratives they hear?  In order to do so, economists need to:

  1. Understand and frame the alternate narratives that exist,
  2. Use the archetypes that we’ve created to reframe the narrative,
  3. Convince the public why our narrative is preferable – both in terms of how our narrative captures the facts and nature of the issue, and where the other narrative has gaps (for me a key goal is to track back – and find the framework the narratives share, to expose the implicit assumptions that differ).

This is where rhetoric is important when communicating with non-economists – and where both applied and even some theoretic economics should differ from the idealised version of scientific economics.  This is not to undermine scientific econonomics – no it is to reinforce it by helping it to tighten its definitions and identify relevant variables and data in order to increase economic knowledge.  Science and rhetoric provide a complementary cycle.  [Note:  Yes I’ve been reading McCloskey, suprise suprise ;) .  However, my focus is more on how we communicate with non-economists – outside of the oft overused appeal to authority]