Science and social control: the institutionalist movement in American economics, 1918-1947

  • Malcolm Rutherford University of Victoria
Keywords: institutional economics, science, social control, NBER, Brookings, SSRC, Dewey, instrumental philosophy


This paper deals with the concepts of science and social control to be found within interwar institutional economics. It is argued that these were central parts of the institutionalist approach to economics as the key participants in the movement defined it. For institutionalists, science was defined as empirical, investigational, experimental, and instrumental. Social control was defined in terms of the development of new instruments for the control of business to supplement the market mechanism. The concepts of science and social control were joined via John Dewey's pragmatic and instrumental philosophy. These ideas provided important links to the ideals of foundations, such as Rockefeller, and thus to access to research funding. Institutionalist concepts of science and social control were, however, displaced after World War II by Keynesian policy and positivist ideas of scientific methodology.

Author Biography

Malcolm Rutherford, University of Victoria

Malcolm Rutherford is professor of economics at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. He has published widely on the history of American institutional economics in journals such as History of Political Economy, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, European Journal of History of Economic Thought, Journal of Economic Issues, and the Journal of Economic Perspectives. He is the author of Institutions in economics: the old and the new institutionalism (Cambridge University Press, 1994). His latest book, The institutionalist movement in American economics, 1918-1947: science and social control, will be published by Cambridge University Press in 2011.