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Economics for the Masses: The Visual Display of Economic Knowledge in the United States (1921-1945)

Yann Giraud () and Loïc Charles ()

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Abstract: The rise of visual representation in economics textbooks after WWII is one of the main features of contemporary economics. In this paper, we argue that this development has been preceded by a no less significant rise of visual representation in the larger literature devoted to social and scientific issues, including economic textbooks for non-economists as well as newspapers and magazines. During the interwar era, editors, propagandists and social scientists altogether encouraged the use of visual language as the main vehicle to spread information and opinions about the economy to a larger audience. These new ways of visualizing social facts, which most notably helped shape the understanding of economic issues by various audiences during the years of the Great Depression, were also conceived by their inventors as alternative ways of practicing economics: in opposition to the abstraction of "neoclassical" economics, these authors wanted to use visual representation as a way to emphasize the human character of the discipline and did not accept the strict distinction between the creation and the diffusion of economic knowledge. We explore different yet related aspects of these developments by studying the use of visual language in economics textbooks intended for non-specialists, in periodicals such as the Survey, a monthly magazine intended for an audience of social workers, the Americanization of Otto Neurath's pictorial statistics and finally the use of those visual representations by various state departments and administrations under Roosevelt's legislature (including the much-commented Historical Section of the Farm Security Administration). We show how visualizations that have been created in opposition to neoclassical economics have lost most of their theoretical content when used widely for policy purposes while being simultaneously integrated into the larger American culture. It is our claim that those issues, which are familiar to those involved in cultural and visual studies, are also of crucial importance to apprehend the later developments of modern economics.

Date: 2013-10-07
New Economics Papers: this item is included in nep-his, nep-hme and nep-hpe
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Related works:
Working Paper: Economics for the Masses: The Visual Display of Economic Knowledge in United States (1921-1945) (2013)
Working Paper: Economics for the Masses: The Visual Display of Economic Knoledge in the United Staes (1921-1945) (2010) Downloads
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