“Constructing Economic Science” is a valuable and empirically rich book that explores the making of economics as an academic discipline in the UK in the period 1850–1950. The work is based on an unfinished research project started by Keith Tribe around 1988 on the institutional foundations of the rise of economics as a distinct body of knowledge. He continued to work on the project, interruptedly, for decades. The result is a rigorously researched book based on materials collected over a 30-year period. The monograph brings together a fascinating story of the contingencies and the specific trajectories of developments behind the construction of economics as a technical and scientific field of knowledge in the UK.
The book departs from traditional approaches that explore the rise of economics as a sequence of ideas and theories. Instead, Tribe highlights the way that institutional embedding played a key role in the transformation from economics as a public discourse into a specialised and technical form of knowledge acquired through academic training. In the introduction, he explains that although the book “is not an institutional history, […] institutions made economics what it is today, and so schools, colleges and universities are central to [the] story” (p. 5). The essential idea driving the book is that instead of asking how economics became institutionalised in academies, we need to explore how the diverse and historically specific ways in which modern universities were organised have impacted and shaped the character of modern economics as a field of knowledge. Cambridge University and the London School of Economics (LSE) take centre stage in this narrative. The book’s focus is on the introduction of the first degree in economics at Cambridge in 1903 and how Cambridge initially took a leading role in developing the field in the UK. Tribe subsequently describes how the LSE became the dominant institution defining the nature and boundaries of economics as a scientific discipline in the 1920s.
The book is divided into four parts for a total of thirteen chapters. The first part sets the stage and adopts an international comparative perspective to delve into the institutional development of the modern university as an academic centre for knowledge production and learning in the nineteenth century. It maps out the different trajectories of development in the US, Germany and the UK, providing crucial context for reading the subsequent chapters.
Part two is largely devoted to the institutional history of Cambridge University, and describes in detail the course of events that led to the creation of the first three-year undergraduate economics degree in 1903, which Tribe describes as “the Cambridge moment” (p. 175). The book demonstrates how Alfred Marshall, acknowledged as one of the discipline’s founding fathers, convinced his colleagues of the necessity and value of establishing an independent tripos for Economics and Political Science.
In part three, the developments in Cambridge are contrasted with those in Oxford. It describes the institutional, social and educational factors that explain why a separate economics degree could not be replicated in Oxford, and why Cambridge became a first mover in the development of the field in the British context.
Part four explores how LSE overtook Cambridge as the key hub for the development of neoclassical economics in the late 1920s. Tribe grants considerable agency to Lionel Robbins – known as an advocate of a free-market economy and for his clash with John Maynard Keyes on economic policies – for revolutionising the UK economics curriculum. Robbins encouraged the shaping of economics as a science, based on a distinct technical vocabulary and increasingly distance from the practical types of knowledge taught in commercial and business schools. In Tribe’s assessment, this paved the way for what he describes as the “scientisation” and internationalisation of the field in the second half of the twentieth century (pp. 15, 333).
“Constructing Economic Science” has several strengths. The first lies in the empirical rigour and the rich analyses of the why and how of specific institutional developments in relation to the transformation of the field. Tribe used an eclectic set of sources that go beyond the canonical texts usually granted central roles in shaping the economic discipline. He included background notes, memos and epistolic conversations in his analysis to provide a more in-depth understanding of the intellectual underpinnings of the key actors that shaped the field. He then combined these with materials that give detailed information about the institutional and educational settings in which the processes took place, such as reports, syllabi and periodicals. This leads to the book’s second strength. He convincingly shows how the social and educational context in which the field of knowledge emerged was not only a passive backdrop but an integral part of the social dynamics that shaped the discipline in the UK. By concentrating on the role of universities, as sites with their own histories and particular structures, he opens up an interesting way to bridge the historiography of economics and the history of higher education or universities.
However, the work also has some limitations. First, although Tribe succeeds in giving an innovative account that moves beyond the genre of institutional university histories, the focus remains largely limited to the institutional dimensions of the academy as a distinct social sphere. Other relevant factors, like the development of academic societies and the launching of new academic journals, are not so prominent in the story. Additionally, pressing questions on how the development of the discipline needs to be understood as part of deeper processes like the changing role and expectations of the state, or how the materiality of socio-economic conditions impacted these processes, go largely unexamined. Secondly, the book could have benefited from a deeper reflection on the theoretical apparatus that drove this project. By using words and phrases like “construction” (p. 19) and “invention” of knowledge and “discourse and discipline” (p. 3), and by describing this discipline as an “increasingly arcane body of knowledge […] requiring no legitimation other than a mastery of its techniques” (p. 18), Tribe hints at a particular conceptual frame for understanding the formation of a field of knowledge. However, he does not fully explicate the theoretical underpinnings of his work, a decision sure to leave some readers from the fields of sociology and history of knowledge unsatisfied.
“Constructing Economic Science” is an important and innovative contribution to the scholarship on the rise of economic thinking in modern societies. The empirical nuances and the narrative skill of the author make the book a pleasure to read. Without neglecting transnational dimensions, it provides a grounded and situated understanding of the rise of economics as an academic discipline in the UK. It definitely deserves a wide readership among scholars interested in the history of economics, higher education and the history of human sciences and knowledge in general.