The classical assumption in economics is that more is better — more products, services, consumption and money. But whether or not that is true largely depends on what theoretical perspective one takes when studying economics.

David Kristjanson-Gural

Professor David Kristjanson-Gural, economics, believes that the theoretical basis to which students subscribe when studying economics, or any subject, will largely dictate the conclusions that are reached. Certain areas will be highlighted while others are obscured. “Therefore, if you don’t have more than one theoretical approach to take, you end up not being able to be as critical of a thinker as you can be,” he says.

“In neoclassical economics, ‘more is better’ is built into the theory, so economists are looking for ways to use resources more efficiently so that we can have more of the same with the assumption that people will be better off as a result.”

But if other theoretical approaches to economics are considered, such as institutional theory or Marxian theory, students may reach a different conclusion. Kristjanson-Gural incorporates these alternate theories into his classes.

“Institutional theory will call into question the assumption that more is better. It suggests that social norms give us a sort of ‘arms race’ around how much we consume as a means of trying to establish our status relative to other people, and that these norms can actually degrade our well-being. Intervening at the level of those social norms is important for understanding economics,” he explains.

Marxian theory, which is Kristjanson-Gural’s specialty, suggests that consumption is nothing more than a means of maintaining the capitalist class process. This means that promoting continual consumption of goods is meant to keep in place the current social structure.

“We can then contrast Marxian theory with institutional theory and mainstream neoclassical theory and come to very different conclusions about why people act the way they do, whether or not that’s beneficial to them, where it’s just or unjust, and which policies or steps we should take to try to improve economic outcomes,” he says.

Kristjanson-Gural’s ultimate goal is to challenge his students to think differently and more critically than they have in the past, regardless of whether they end up favoring neoclassical, institutional, Marxian or an entirely different theory.

“The understanding of what individual institutions represent in our society is much more nuanced and developed in a student who has the opportunity to compare these different approaches. The theoretical framework and its application to the world is better understood,” he says, adding that that this approach to teaching economics is fairly rare.

“Only a small number of liberal arts colleges and graduate programs take such a contending-theories approach to the study of economics. This is the real strength of the economics program here at Bucknell. It is unique and special.”

Posted Sept. 23, 2016