Musings on Levi-Strauss and Economic Theory
Musings on Levi-Strauss and Economic Theory
Every year, Levi-Strauss sends a group of designers and workers to the streets of European cities to ‘look’. They pass their days scanning what people wear, shopping, and eavesdropping on shoppers’ conversations. The ‘lookers’ return to their hotel each night, compare notes, and debate. They discuss what their findings mean for the fashion industry’s trajectory and how Levi-Strauss can come out ahead (Piore 2006:10).
My decision to conduct interviews this summer was in part inspired by Michael Piore and his thoughts on design teams. Piore is a rare economist who uses open-ended interviews in his work. He conducts interviews and observes processes to see how assumptions in economic theory hold up in real life. Piore describes how economic theory can play a role akin to that of the design team. He writes that theory “...sits in the back of your mind as you ruminate about the interview material. Because the theory is so strong and so demanding, it is as if a team of your colleagues were there beside you arguing about what the interviews mean” (Piore 2006:10).
This summer, I decided to adopt Piore’s approach. I subscribed to a database with contact details of lobbyists and Washington policymakers, leveraged the (few) connections I have, and I got emailing. I have been interviewing practitioners in the American environmental and energy sectors—trade union leaders, policy people, lobbyists, and energy executives. I try to analyze what they say, how they think, and the ways their experiences on the ground match up or clash with assumptions in economic theory.
My interviews are not about getting a representative sample or using the qualitative data collected to draw definitive conclusions. Rather, they’re about looking for surprises and investigating what assumptions and expectations yield surprise and why.
Many environmental economists analyze what kinds of policies need to be enacted to avoid the extreme effects of climate change. They base their recommendations on forecasts for how climate change will play out in the future, on economic assumptions like perfect competition, but also on assumptions regarding how effective practitioners can be in implementing clear cut policy globally. When I say ‘practitioners’ I mean people in government, think tanks, energy companies, trade unions, NGOs—the long list goes on. My impression is that practitioners and environmental economists could benefit from talking to each other more. Such conversations could affect which ideas turn into papers and which papers (occasionally) turn into implementable policies. Methodological traditions in economics, funding sources for research, what research tends to get published, and which scholars get tenure —these factors play significant roles in determining which ideas turn into papers too.
In reading over and analyzing interview transcripts, I am constantly reminded that economic theory is not built in a vacuum, but rather by and for imperfect people. It is built by dissecting interactions, transactions, and by reading others’ work. I believe that not knowing the extent of an assumption’s unrealisticness can be problematic. Talking to the people who represent data points could be helpful for determining how to strike a balance between realizability and generalizability of assumptions—assumptions that form the basis of economic analysis and smart policies our planet desperately needs.
As an undergraduate, I recognize that my inexperience detracts from the credibility of my argument here, but I think my inexperience enhances my argument in one important way. I am coming in with a fresh perspective. It’s natural for me to question methods and assumptions that could seem normal to a tenured eye. I don’t, however, sanction the act of ignoring the voices of our own ‘design team’ or what others have done before us. Practicalities should not be dismissed, but new and different methods shouldn’t be either. As Laidlaw scholars, regardless of our discipline, I think we can all reflect on how our inexperience might grace us with an unusual edge, instead of a handicap.
Thank you to my supervisor who has been influential in helping me piece together subdisciplines within economics, who has given me weekly doses of golden insight into how an experienced economist thinks, and has immensely aided me in centering my own ideas. Thank you, Lord Laidlaw, for providing such generous funding and support so I can spend my summers doing research as an undergraduate. Also, thank you to the Laidlaw Scholarship Team for providing brilliant leadership training sessions, a constant flow of virtual events to inspire us through this pandemic, guidance when we need it, and feedback to help us reach our potential in this program.
Piore, Michael J. “Qualitative Research: Does It Fit in Economics?1.” European Management Review, vol. 3, no. 1, 2006, pp. 17–23., doi:10.1057/palgrave.emr.1500053.
Winn, Patrick. “The True Cost of ‘Made in the USA’ Levi's? $178.” The True Cost of “Made in the USA” Levi’s? $178 GlobalPost, The World, 2012. www.pri.org/stories/2012-09-10/true-cost-made-usa-levi-s-178.