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Bielefeld Graduate School
in History and Sociology
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Dorothee Wilm


Communicative Constructivism and Economic Theory. Or: How to Bring Back the Social to Economic Theory?

Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Reinhold Hedtke (Bielefeld University), Prof. Dr. Birger Priddat (Witten / Herdecke University)

In times of ever-present possibilities of economic crises, it is common to assume a societal necessity for alternatives to the standard economic theory, which is suspected to be a main culprit for the misery. And indeed, the field of economic research is changing - not only on an institutional level or content wise, but also on the theoretical and methodological level. A prominent portion of this theoretical and methodological change is due to the dissolution and/or differentiation of the neoclassical concept of rationality (homo oeconomicus). The concept is under heavy critique but mainstream economists either reject the critique or handle it by incorporating some of the new insights into the standard theory while keeping the key points (naming it "new microeconomics"). Critics say that this extension of the concept of rationality decreases its explanatory power even further. Against this background, new economic theories are generated in economics as well as in sociology and also in the border areas of these disciplines. These theories collectively make the critique of the neoclassical theory their reference point. Critique which remains without considerable consequences so far, because it refers to textbook economics only and dismisses the actual status quo of the research field.

Instead of following this beaten path, this dissertation points out that lately communication and language gained remarkable importance in economic theories - not only as a subject of research, but also on the epistemological level as a theoretical category or method. The prominence of communication and language in these younger theories is surprising because both are completely excluded from the neoclassical concept. It is obvious to assume that the new theories refer to communication and language to avoid the weaknesses of the standard theory and to somehow bring the social back to economic theory. But, what is the social? How should one theoretically conceptualize it? And, what does this imply - with regard to the potency of a new economic theory and the structure and self-perception of this field of research?

The dissertation addresses these questions by comparing a selection of economic theories in order to unveil the different attempts to somehow bring back the social to economic theory. The findings are discussed with regard to the blind and bright spots generated with this theoretical perspective and the consequences of this theoretical shift for the field of economic research. To indicate the new theory perspective I borrow the term "communicative constructivism" coined by Keller et al. 20131 . Keller et al. use this term to label different sociological theories which share, despite all their differences, the emphasis on the role of communication and/or language in the construction of social realities.

The dissertation tries to answer three successive research questions:

  • What is communicative constructivism about? What are the commonalities and differences between the various approaches? How is communication/language used as a theoretical category or method to depict the social?
  • What does it matter? What problems and ideas for improvement will occure if one chooses a communicative-constructivist approach? What structures and dynamics are displayed compared to a realistic-positivistic perspective?
  • What are the consequences for the construction of theories and the use of scientific methods stemming from the newly emerging theoretical position for the field of economic research?

1Keller, Rainer; Knoblauch, Hubert; Reichertz, Jo (2013): Der Kommunikative Konstruktivismus als Weiterführung des Sozialkonstruktivismus ? eine Einführung in den Band. In: Dies. (Hg.): Kommunikativer Konstruktivismus. Wiesbaden: Springer, S.9-21.




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