Wandering through the Borderlands of the Social Sciences: Gary Becker’s Economics of Discrimination

This article contextualizes the writing, reception, and impact of Gary Becker’s first book, The Economics of Discrimination, in order to deepen our understanding of the relationships between economics and the other social sciences. First, we study the social scientific work on race relations prior to Becker’s book, work that was heavily influenced by the work of the economist Gunnar Myrdal and criticized for lacking an underlying theoretical framework. Second, we analyze the novelty of Becker’s contribution. Becker’s book introduced nonpecuniary motives into the neoclassical framework so as to respond to the criticisms leveled by institutional economists against the marginal analysis of labor markets. In doing so, Becker attempted to redefine the relationship between economists and other social scientists. Third, we study the reaction to Becker’s redefinition of disciplinary territories, which illustrated the current debates within sociology and labor economics. Finally, we study the impact of Becker’s book on social scientific research in the 1960s.

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