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How to Write a Research Paper

Writing a research paper is a bit more difficult that a standard high school essay. You need to site sources, use academic data and show scientific examples. Before beginning, you’ll need guidelines for how to write a research paper.

Start the Research Process

Before you begin writing the research paper, you must do your research. It is important that you understand the subject matter, formulate the ideas of your paper, create your thesis statement and learn how to speak about your given topic in an authoritative manner. You’ll be looking through online databases, encyclopedias, almanacs, periodicals, books, newspapers, government publications, reports, guides and scholarly resources. Take notes as you discover new information about your given topic. Also keep track of the references you use so you can build your bibliography later and cite your resources.

Develop Your Thesis Statement

When organizing your research paper, the thesis statement is where you explain to your readers what they can expect, present your claims, answer any questions that you were asked or explain your interpretation of the subject matter you’re researching. Therefore, the thesis statement must be strong and easy to understand. Your thesis statement must also be precise. It should answer the question you were assigned, and there should be an opportunity for your position to be opposed or disputed. The body of your manuscript should support your thesis, and it should be more than a generic fact.

Create an Outline

Many professors require outlines during the research paper writing process. You’ll find that they want outlines set up with a title page, abstract, introduction, research paper body and reference section. The title page is typically made up of the student’s name, the name of the college, the name of the class and the date of the paper. The abstract is a summary of the paper. An introduction typically consists of one or two pages and comments on the subject matter of the research paper. In the body of the research paper, you’ll be breaking it down into materials and methods, results and discussions. Your references are in your bibliography. Use a research paper example to help you with your outline if necessary.

Organize Your Notes

When writing your first draft, you’re going to have to work on organizing your notes first. During this process, you’ll be deciding which references you’ll be putting in your bibliography and which will work best as in-text citations. You’ll be working on this more as you develop your working drafts and look at more white paper examples to help guide you through the process.

Write Your Final Draft

After you’ve written a first and second draft and received corrections from your professor, it’s time to write your final copy. By now, you should have seen an example of a research paper layout and know how to put your paper together. You’ll have your title page, abstract, introduction, thesis statement, in-text citations, footnotes and bibliography complete. Be sure to check with your professor to ensure if you’re writing in APA style, or if you’re using another style guide.


outline for economic research paper

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How To Compose A Good Economic Research Paper Outline

When tasked with writing an economics research paper, the place to start is with a good outline. Before you can outline your proposed paper, however, you have to decide what you’re going to write about. To do that, you need to formulate a question that you plan to answer with your research.

Since your assignment is for an economics paper, you’ll need a good economics question. Here’s an example of an economics question:

“How would the price of jelly increase in response to an increase in the price of peanut butter?”

Writing an Outline

The outline of your paper is your plan or blueprint for what you plan to write. Writing an outline will help you to organize your thoughts and present your arguments in a coherent manner. A well-constructed outline can make researching and writing your paper a more efficient process.

You outline page needs to include the following:

“Western culture, in particular American culture, can be described as a culture of capitalism, or more specifically consumer capitalism, and American society can be characterized as a society of potential perpetual growth.”

Once you have your outline completed, writing your actual paper should be easier and follow an efficient procedure. Your outline may be more detailed or less detailed, depending on your topic and the depth of your argument.

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Research paper manuals

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Kristin A. Van Gaasbeck

Department of economics, college of social sciences and interdisciplinary studies, california state university, sacramento, writing in economics :: components of a research paper.

An economics research paper includes the parts listed below. Some of these may be, and often are, combined into sections of the research paper. Depending on the nature of the research question, some parts may be emphasized more than others.

I've condensed information from several different sources. This is cursory content on how to write in economics, please make use of the additional resources . Also, every researcher has his or her own opinion about the best way to proceed. The information I've collected below is one of many possible ways to approach an undergraduate or graduate research project in Economics.

The abstract is a description of your research paper. The writing style of the abstract is very condensed - it should be no more than 350 words (or 5-6 sentences). The abstract is designed to identify the following to a potential reader:

The abstract is written when the paper is completed. It should not be the same as your introduction - the audience is different.


The introduction is designed to both identify and motivate your research question. Like an essay you would write in other subjects, the introduction begins with a broad statement, and then narrows down to your specific research question.

In the end, make sure that you've done the following in your introduction:

The first paragraph of the introduction is used to motivate why this research is important and of interest to economists and other stakeholders (e.g., parents and teachers in education economics, central bankers in monetary policy, and residents and businesses affected by pollution). It may conclude with a statement of your research question, followed by a discussion of who is affected by the economic issue under study. It is not appropriate to include personal anecdotes in a written research paper. Remember, you are motivating why the research should be of interest to the reader.

The second paragraph typically has more detail about how you plan to answer the research question, possibly citing other work closely related to your own research. In fact, many authors combine the literature review with the introduction in order to streamline this discussion. This paragraph may conclude with your general findings.

You should be able to write the first paragraph when you begin your research. The second paragraph can be written as you are concluding your research, as it draws on information from subsequent sections of your paper.

Literature Review

The literature review serves two main purposes:

If someone has done a similar analysis to yours, tell us, and then explain how yours is different. Explain their findings, and then follow up with what you expect to find in your own research, and compare.

Some things to keep in mind for your literature review:

Economic Model/Empirical Methodology

This section (or sections) or your paper are designed to show how you intend to answer your research question using economic theory (economic model) and empirically (using statistical tests). For the novice researcher, it is useful to think of these two approaches as separate. This avoids the temptation to confuse them.

Economic Model

This is what you have studied in most of your other economics classes. For example, what happens to the price of housing when the population increases? Using demand-supply model, we know that an increase in population leads to an increase in the demand for housing, increasing the equilibrium price. In reading economics research papers, the economic model is often not identified because it is assumed the reader (economic researchers) are familiar with the underlying model. However, to the novice researcher, the model may not be obvious, so it is important to outline the model and include it in your research paper.

Your economic model is how you make predictions of what you expect to find in the data. Based on the simple example above, we'd expect to see a positive relationship between housing prices and population, ceteris paribus (e.g., holding all other variables in the demand-supply model unchanged).

Another important point is that your economic model is what implies a causal relationship between the economic variables. While you may detect a positive or negative relationship in the data, this alone tells you nothing about which variable is causing a change in the other variable. The economic model can be used to model this relationship. In the example above, we assume that in the model, a change in population causes a change in the housing price.

The economic model should make no mention of data, regression analysis, or statistical tests. The model is a purely theoretical construct, based on an abstract notion of how the world works. The empirical methodology section of your paper is how you plan to test these relationships in the data. An economic model is NOT a regression equation.

Finally, you should use an economic model that is common in the literature on your subject. Unless you are proposing a new model, you should rely on those used by other researchers in the field. This will allow you to use your literature review to justify your choice of model. Also, this is why the economic model is often embedded in the literature review of the paper. For novice researchers, I recommend keeping it separate, to make sure you understand how to use your economic model to conduct theoretical analysis.

Empirical Methodology

This is where you describe to the reader how you plan to test the relationships implied by your economic/theoretical model. First, you want to identify your dependent variable. This is the variable you are seeking to explain the behavior of. Next, you want to identify possible explanatory variables. These are the variables that could potentially affect your dependent variable.

Often in economic models, there are abstract notions of how some variables affect others. For example, human capital affects production, but how would we measure human capital in the data? You can find suitable proxies for a variable like human capital by familiarizing yourself with the literature.

So, how could a researcher go about testing the relationship between housing prices and population? First, we know that housing price is the dependent variable. Population is one explanatory variable, but are there others that affect housing prices? Yes. We know this from the demand and supply model that there are other variables that shift demand for housing (income, prices of substitutes and complements, expectations, tastes and preferences, etc.) and the supply of housing (input costs, expectations, the number of sellers, etc.). In order to isolate the effect of population on house price, we need to control for these other factors.

The most common strategy for empirical work regression analysis because it allows the researcher to isolate the correlation between two variables, while holding other explanatory variables constant (e.g., ceteris paribus from the model above). Often in the empirical methodology section, the researcher will point out potential estimation issues, highlighting the need for more advanced econometric techniques that go beyond ordinary least squares (OLS).

This section does not actually do any statistical analysis, but it may include a description of the data (see below). In advising students on research papers, I usually recommend the following breakdown for the empirical methodology section:

Data Description

An alternative to the ordering mentioned above is as follows. You can begin with a regression equation, then provide a detailed description of the data, along with some preliminary data analysis. It is most common to have the data description as its own section of the paper - mainly to make it easier for readers to reference it if they plan to do similar research. You could then follow this Data section with an Empirical Methodology section that consists of the #3 Regression equation described above.

Empirical Analysis

This section is often titled "Results" in economic research papers, as it reports the results from your regression analysis above. There are commonly-used templates for reporting regression results. The best way to familiarize yourself with these templates is from the papers you cite in your literature review. You will see that it is common to report multiple regressions in one table, with the explanatory variables listed vertically on the left. See my page on Empirical Methods in Economics for more details.

The empirical analysis should include a table with your regression results, and your written analysis of these results. Note, this does not mean repeating the information in your regression tables. It means interpreting these coefficients in light of your economic model and comparing your findings to other papers from your literature review.

The conclusion usually consists of about three paragraphs. The first begins with a restatement of the research question, followed by a description of what we know about this research question from the literature (very concisely). Then the paragraph concludes with a brief description of the theoretical answer to the question.

The second paragraph begins with an answer to the research question, based on your empirical analysis. The researcher then proceeds to compare his/her findings to the consensus in the literature, pointing out possible reasons for differences and similarities. For example, perhaps you studied a different time period, or a different country. Perhaps you used a different measure of the dependent or explanatory variables.

In the final paragraph, it is common to draw policy implications from your research. In a practical sense, who cares about this research question (remember the stakeholders from the introduction..) and what can they do with this knowledge? Often the conclusion will point toward directions for future research, based on possible extensions to your research.


The bibliography contains complete references of the works that cited and referred to in your research.

It is essential that you give proper credit to all works that you cite, even if they are not included in your literature review. For example, if you obtained data from a publication that is not easily available, it would be appropriate to cite it in your data description and include it in your bibliography. Incomplete or inaccurate citations are akin to plagiarism, so please be sure to carefully check your references and keep track of them while completing your literature review.

In economics, it is most common to use APA style in citing references in the text of your paper and in creating a bibliography. For more information, see the APA style guide provided by the Library , or simply pick up a copy of the APA style guide if you will be using it frequently.

Annotated Bibliography An annotated bibliography is one that includes the reference (mentioned above), along with a few sentences describing the research and how it relates to your research paper. Often the description will begin with a statement of what the research found, followed by one or two sentences that are relevant to the research question you are studying.

Even though APA style calls for a double-spaced annotated bibliography, many researchers prefer a single spaced one. The Library has information on annotated bibliographies and I have posted an outstanding example from undergraduate Economic Research Methods .

The best annotated bibliographies are those written by students who have read the literature critically. See my page on Critical Reading for more information on strategies for how to read economics research papers. Even if an annotated bibliography is not assigned as part of your research project, it is a useful exercise for you to engage in, especially if you have to present your research orally or using a poster. If you are unable to write an annotated bibliography, then you are probably writing a poor review of the literature on your subject and a less than satisfactory research paper.

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Everything You Need to Know about Economics Research Paper Writing

Why do exactly students need to write research papers? If there is a certain question, why is it not enough just to provide the answer? Well, we bet you would be really happy if that was possible, but the point is not in answering the question, but proving that you are right and describing the process of how you have come to that. Sounds complicated? It is so if you have no idea what to do, but you are no longer in that situation because right now you’re looking at a guide that contains everything you need to know about research papers in the economics field.

Economics research papers usually try to find out in what way a group or an individual would sort out a specific problem or react to a specific incentive. Additionally, they also explore how variables change under the influence of exogenous shock. There are 2 main types of economics research papers that you are likely to get as assignments:

There are many more types of economics research papers like history papers, literature reviews, handbooks, etc., but the ones that we described are most commonly assigned. It’s important to identify which sort of writing you have to produce because this way you’ll be able to choose the relevant topic.

4 Steps to Come up with the Right Title for the Paper

research paper topics

The fact that each guide or manual on academic writing is shouting about the importance of the proper topic is for a reason – a topic practically decides the fate of your writing! That’s why it’s essential to devote enough time on the search for your perfect topic that will allow you to create an excellent economics paper. So, in order to achieve that, you need to:

Try a quicker way

1. Find out What Type of Economic Research to Conduct

As you can see, each piece of the information we provide you with is connected with the rest. For this reason we’ve told you about empirical and theoretical research papers, and you should take into account this division while making your choice. Just have a look at our list of sample topics to understand the difference.

2. Settle upon Something That Is Important to You

If you choose a certain topic just because it is hot right now or because your professor likes it, the success in such a case is very unlikely. You won’t care enough to make the right investment of time and effort to deliver a well-researched economics research paper. On the other hand, if you choose a cause that is really significant and topical for you, you will be ready to spend sleepless nights looking for information and building up your theories.

3. Choose an Interesting Economics Topic

You may say that it’s the same as selecting the topic that is important to you, and partly it is. But here we’re talking not only about you. You need to pick an issue that will manage to spark the interest of your professor as well. So, if you’re curious about why the prices on PS4 games have risen during the last years, make sure your supervisor is also thrilled to know the answer to that question.

4. Select the Issue Within the Courses You Have Taken

This lifehack will make your life much easier – if you settle upon the issue that you haven’t covered in any economics courses, you’ll spend a great deal of time “accommodating” yourself to a new field. However, if you stay with a fairly familiar topic, the researching and writing will go faster and smoother. These steps will help you critically evaluate your options and end up with a really suitable topic both for research and you.

Writing a Research Proposal for an Economics Research Paper

A research proposal is a small piece of writing that you create for your advisor or board committee. You describe the topic of your future paper and the direction of your research. After you submit the proposal, the consignee either approves or declines your project plan. But if you follow our economics research paper writing tips on writing it, there will surely be a positive outcome. So, your economics research proposal must:

Basically, the main purpose of a research proposal is to persuade the public that your topic is worth researching, is very important for the whole field of studies and will bring significant findings. Maybe it will be also helpful in this situation to know the personalities of your supervisor and board members as you’ll know their points of contact and how to convince them.

How to Structure an Economics Research Paper: Methods Our Writers Choose

An economics research paper like any other academic piece has an established structure that comprises several very important elements. It is essential to know the purpose and necessary content for each part, that’s why we’re going to dwell upon them in our further writing.

This paragraph summarizes the whole economics research paper in maximum 200 words. It’s quite challenging to stuff all the essential info in several sentences, but the practice shows that it is possible. So, in this synopsis, you need to focus only on the most significant points like: ● The topic of your work and the research question; ● Aims of the research; ● A few words about methods, discussion and results. Keep these points in mind while writing an abstract not to get into the weeds.


There are 2 approaches to writing an introduction: creating it before all the other parts of a research paper or leaving it for the end. Both of them are working variants, but you should choose the one that seems more logical to you. In an introduction to the economics research paper, there should be 3 sections:

Make your introduction concise, clear and to-the-point. It is the first full-value part of your economics research paper, so it will 100% be inspected by your professor with an excellent precision. Take that into account!


This stage doesn’t require a lot of efforts on your part – you just need to enumerate the methods you have used to research the issue. The economics methodology may include statistical modelling, observation, computational methods, different types of analysis, deductive/inductive reasoning, etc. Just ensure you know what they mean and how they are applied to create adequate account of used methods.

The results can be presented numerically, in the form of graphs or tables, or described with words. Of course, you will need to add your own commentary to link all the done work with findings, but don’t get too involved into discussing them as for that you have another section.

Here you review your results including as much of your interpretation as you wish. The important aspect to do on the discussion stage is to connect this part with the introduction, i.e. to make sure you’ve achieved all aims, answered the research question and proved your thesis statement.

The conclusion is your paraphrased introduction with the addition of some other elements: here you need to emphasize the significance of your research findings and how they can be applied in practice in your field of studies as well as others. You may also extend on the prospects of the further research.

Well, a good and proper way to finish an economics research paper is to enlist all the resources that you’ve consulted and referred to while writing your piece. Don’t forget to format them according to the citation style you’re supposed to follow.

paper structure

5 Fundamentals of Successful Economic Writing

Crafting an economic paper is not that easy. If it was, there wouldn’t be so many guides on how to write/improve this and that to get a good mark. Consequently, we’ve prepared for you a list of 6 fundamental tips that may enhance your economics writing.

NOTE: Don’t think about them while making an outline or creating your 1st draft. It’s better to apply them when you conduct proofreading/editing sessions. Moreover, it’s not necessary to take each sentence and check with these principles. If you come across a paragraph that seems a bit off, you can make use of several tips to improve it. But you can certainly rely more on your own logic.

1. Make Your Subjects Short

The readers are more eager to perceive the action than the subject. That’s why, very often they jump to verbs even without reading the noun. And if you make the subject too long (we know it’s tempting, especially with the official style of academic writing), you’ll confuse the reader.

2. Analyze instead of Analysis

Use active verbs to make a statement. As we’ve mentioned in a previous comment, your readers make it all about verbs and understand the information better if it’s expressed with the help of action.

3. Sentence Structure: First Old Info, Then New Info

Start every sentence by linking to the statement already mentioned in a previous piece, and leave new comments for the end. This way you make your writing flow and the reader doesn’t “stumble” on incoherent bits of data.

4. Avoid Passive Voice

Although passive voice is a certain feature of a formal style of writing, many experts still advise to minimize it in your writing. It makes it difficult to get who is the doer of the action, thus reading takes more time than it could have with the active voice.

5. One Paragraph = One Thought

Don’t stuff your paragraphs with many concepts just because you want to include as much information as possible. Remember the formula – one paragraph equals one subtopic. This way you make it easier for the reader to concentrate on the issues you discuss.

This economics research paper writing guide covers all the significant parts of an economics research paper. It is important for you to deal with one part at a time to produce high-quality writing. So, use our manual to do just that and earn a good grade!

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Research Papers on Economics: Writing Tips

Updated 24 Jan 2022

More and more students nowadays are faced with the problem: How to write an economics paper. Research papers  are one of the main results of researcher's operations and surveys. The main purpose of such working papers is to make the work of the author available to other researchers and to identify the priority in the chosen field of research. The main peculiarity of Economics Papers is that it should prove that you are a connoisseur of the economic theory. During your Economics Paper presentation, you need to establish new concepts concerning diverse fields of Economics. But if you haven`t any idea how to do that, you are welcome to find some helpful websites to get your best marks. In addition, you can find out  how to write an introduction for a research paper and what you should include statistical analysis and techniques of constrained optimization which is a stronghold of Economics as a branch of science.


Structure of economics paper

Structure of economics paper

These structure instructions are suitable for both Economics Research Paper format and digital format. With this guide now learn how to write economics research paper:

Economics Research Paper Topics May Be Diverse

How to make an excellent Economics Paper

One of the best writing tips: be precise and coherent.

Start your paper with the following phrases “According to...”, “It is common knowledge that...”, “Taking into account...”, “There is no wonder that...” etc.

For your conclusion, these cliches would be useful “Given these facts...”, “To conclude...”, “ to give you a snippet of…”, “here is a regurgitation of...”, “here is a run through of… ” etc. Look through managerial economics papers, economics papers 2016 / 2017 / 2018 / 2019, economic research paper ideas on the Internet to the overall idea of what to write on your own paper or just pay for research paper at Edubirdie. Dissertation Abstracts and papers on different topics like Psychology Papers, for example, will help you in your work. And remember, it's not about the length of the paper, it's all about the content. Less meaningless words, more useful research information.

Common mistakes

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outline for economic research paper


How to Write the Introduction of Your Development Economics Paper


outline for economic research paper

You win or lose your readers with the introduction of your economics paper. Your title and your abstract should convince people to read your introduction. Research shows that economics papers with more readable introductions get cited more. The introduction is your opportunity to lay out your research question, your empirical strategy, your findings, and why it matters. Succinctly.

Various economists have provided advice on how to write an introduction. Keith Head gives “ The Introduction Formula ”: (1) the hook: attract the reader’s interest, (2) the question: what your paper does, (3) antecedents: what work you build on, (4) value-added: how you add to the work you build on, and (5) roadmap of the paper.

Claudia Sahm provides related advice : (1) motivation, (2) research question, (3) main contribution, (4) method, (5) findings, (6) robustness check, and (7) roadmap of the paper.

How does this play out practically? I identified the most recent empirical microeconomic development papers from a range of top journals, including the American Economic Review (AER), the Quarterly Journal of Economics (QJE), American Economic Journal: Applied Economics (AEJ: Applied), and others. Then I outlined the introduction of each paper: What do the authors do in paragraph one? What about paragraph two?

Here’s what I learned.

The outline

Most introduction in top journals look something like this, which is consistent with what Head and Sahm recommend:

There is variation, certainly, but papers in the top journals largely follow the pattern. Why? That way readers come away from the introduction with a clear idea of why they should be interested, what you do, what you learn, and how you build on the work of others. Then they can decide if they want or need to dive into the rest of the paper.

Papers in lower-ranked journals (and let me be clear that I think these are all respectable journals and would be happy to publish in any of them) were less likely to have a clearly stated research question (Exactly what are you testing?) or to describe their results (What? I have to read the paper?).

The motivation

How do I convince readers that my topic is important? Here are some of the ways I observe:

Here’s a big development problem, and then here’s a specific aspect of that problem.

In Muralidharan et al.’s paper on education technology in the AER, they open with a big problem: massive expansion in education without quality. “Developing countries have made impressive progress in improving school enrollment and completion in the last two decades. Yet, their productivity in converting education investments of time and money into human capital remains very low.” Then, in the next paragraph, they transition to a narrower problem: When kids fall behind, they don’t have any support. “Specifically, the rapid expansion of education in developing countries has led to the enrollment of millions of first-generation learners, who lack instructional support when they fall behind the curriculum.”

Celhay et al.’s paper on results-based financing for health in AEJ: Applied uses a similar approach. It opens with “slow adoption of improved technologies has been extensively documented.” In the next paragraph, it transitions to the health sector specifically: “Slow diffusion of improved clinical practices (i.e., quality) in the health care industry is also a global issue as indicated by…”

Here’s a major policy that many countries or other entities engage in.

In Dell and Querubin’s paper on foreign military interventions , the motivation stems from the frequency of the policy: “Military interventions in weakly institutionalized societies were a central feature of the Cold War and continue through the present.” Let’s test whether it works! (Not so well, in this case.) In de Ree et al.’s paper on teacher salaries in the QJE, they start with, “countries sometimes implement large increases in public-sector salaries to attract higher-quality applicants to government jobs and to better motivate existing employees.” Let’s test it! (In this case, again, it didn’t work so well.) In Romero et al.’s paper on outsourcing education in the AER, they say, “Governments often enter into public-private partnerships as a means to raise capital or to leverage the efficiency of the private sector.”

Likewise, In Barrera-Osorio et al.’s paper on alternative conditional cash transfer designs in AEJ: Applied, they open with “Conditional cash transfers are one of the most prevalent and fastest-growing social assistance programs in the developing world.” Similarly, Haushofer and Shapiro’s paper on unconditional cash transfers in the QJE starts with “Unconditional cash transfers have recently received renewed attention as a tool for poverty alleviation in developing countries.”

Here’s a big debate in economics.

Breza et al.’s paper on pay inequality in the QJE start with a debate: “In traditional agency models, workers care about only their own wage levels.” But “a long tradition in economic thought—as well as in psychology, sociology, and organizational behavior—has advanced the notion that individuals also care about their pay relative to that of their coworkers.” So that’s what they test.

Hjort and Poulsen’s paper on the internet and employment in Africa , in the AER, opens with a debate: “Traditional trade theory predicts a decrease in inequality in developing countries during periods of integration in the global economy.” But “the slow economic progress of poor workers in many parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America during the last few decades, therefore, surprised economists.” They then lay out two potential explanations.

The research question

Clearly state exactly what you are researching. This is what this looks like:

“I focus on a particular dimension of diversity (economic status) and seek to answer the following question: what effects do peers from poor households have on students from relatively wealthy families?” ( Rao in AER)

“This paper asks whether elite colleges help students outside of historically advantaged groups reach top positions in the economy.” ( Zimmerman in AER)

“In this paper, we study the impact of a novel community health delivery program.” ( Björkman Nyqvist et al. in AEJ: Applied)

“Given these gaps in knowledge, the overall purpose of this paper is to evaluate the impact of a typical, large-scale teacher [professional development] program from a developing country on a wide range of teacher and student outcomes.” ( Loyalka et al. in AEJ: Applied)

“This paper investigates how working alongside friends affects employee productivity and whether this effect varies as a function of a worker’s personality skills.” ( Park in AEJ: Applied)

A few papers skip the motivation altogether and dive right into the research question.

The empirical approach

This is where you explain how you’re going to answer the research question. These are not all randomized controlled trials. Whatever the method, authors are stating their approach clearly.

“To shed light on the issue, we combine a detailed labor survey that tracks over 21,000 households, drawn from the entire wealth distribution in 1,309 rural Bangladeshi villages, four times over a seven-year period, with the randomized evaluation of the nationwide roll-out of a program that transfers assets and skills to the poorest women in these villages.” ( Bandiera et al. in QJE)

“My first econometric strategy exploits the plausibly exogenous staggered timing of a policy change that required elite private schools to offer free places to poor students.” ( Rao in AER)

“We compare individuals and firms in locations in Africa that are on the terrestrial network of Internet cables to those that are not. We compare these two groups during the gradual arrival on the coast of submarine cables from Europe that greatly increase speed and capacity on the terrestrial network.” ( Hjort and Poulsen in AER)

The detailed results

What exactly did you learn from this research? Papers in top journals dedicate a substantial portion of their introduction to their results, often 3–5 paragraphs (or between 25 and 30 percent of entire introduction). Some papers plow through a whole host of results (arguably more than half the introduction of Bandiera et al. ). Others alternate, setting up an empirical strategy, summarizing the results, then another empirical strategy, then more results. But don’t skimp: Readers should be able to confidently cite your paper after they read your introduction. (Of course, everyone will read the paper very carefully before citing it—wink wink—but why not make it easier on them?)

The value added

The value added is what your paper contributes above and beyond the existing literature. You probably didn’t invent this topic of study (good for you if you did!), so it’s important to position your work relative to previous evidence. In most articles in top journals, the bulk of that discussion comes toward the end of the introduction. The point of the introduction is to introduce your work, so don’t make readers wade through paragraphs of other people’s work to get to it.

I found that in lower-ranked journals, papers were more likely to have paragraphs dedicated to literature early on, in the second or fourth paragraph. One could argue that more original contributions get published in higher-ranked journals and don’t need as much of a literature review, but even the papers in the top journals are building on existing literature; they just hold off on the detailed discussion of that literature. This doesn’t mean you can’t have a reference to an existing study in the opening paragraphs. Many papers have a few references in the opening paragraph as they establish an economic problem or puzzle. But the bulk of the references should come later.

Don’t just review the literature : Review it as it relates to your paper and so that it highlights what your paper adds. Romero et al. in the AER write, “We contribute to the broader literature on outsourcing service delivery.” They then summarize that literature over the course of a paragraph and end with “In our setting, while outsourcing management improves most indices of school quality on average, the effect varies across providers. In addition, some providers’ actions had negative unintended consequences and may have generated negative spillovers for the broader education system.”

Dizon-Ross, in the antepenultimate paragraph of the introduction to her paper on children’s schooling in the AER, writes, “A large literature shows that providing information to households affects decision-making across many domains.” But here’s the hook: “However these interventions have primarily delivered information that one might not expect households to know, even richer or well-informed households.” Then she lays out both the highlights of that “large literature” and how her paper fills the gap she’s identified.

The optional paragraphs

Many papers have other elements in their introduction, usually either after the results or after the value added. Muralidharan et al. discuss policy relevance: “Our results are directly relevant to policy debates on effective strategies to address the challenge of mismatch between student learning and the level of curriculum/pedagogy.” So does Rao : “My findings are also of relevance to policymakers: the policy I study is being extended throughout India under the Right To Education Act, with consequences for over 300 million school-age children. This policy is controversial.”

A few papers discuss limitations. Breza et al. write that “Despite the magnitude of the results in our setting, one cannot draw conclusions about optimal pay structure.” But the paragraph ends with a reiteration of what the paper can say: “Our findings indicate that workers’ relative-pay concerns, especially in situations where pay differences are difficult to clearly justify, could affect this calculus.”

Some papers dedicate a paragraph or two to mechanisms (if you’ve got ‘em, show ‘em!), to robustness (show us your results aren’t a house of cards!), or to theoretical antecedents (oh yeah, theory!).

The roadmap

Twelve out of the 15 papers I examined in the AER, QJE, and AEJ: Applied have the roadmap. I usually include it because it’s a convention, but it doesn’t feel like great writing. Here’s what Deirdre McCloskey has to say about it in her book Economical Writing : “Still another piece of boilerplate, and one that kills the momentum of most papers on the second page, is the table-of-contents paragraph… Too many editors and referees demand it. Don’t, please … don’t. Ninety-nine out of a hundred readers skip to the substance, if they can find it. The one out of a hundred who pauses on the paragraph is wasting her time.”

So be warned!

The takeaway

Invest in your introduction. One reason that so many introductions in top journals have a similar pattern is that it’s clear: you tell the reader why the issue you studied is important, you tell them what you did, you tell them what you learned, and you tell them how it builds on what we already knew. You might tell them how it relates to policy or what the limitations of your work are. Interested readers can dive into the details of the paper, but good introductions give casual readers a clear sense of what they’ll get out of your paper.

Your introduction is your kingdom. Rule it well.

Thank you to Amina Acosta for tracking down articles and helping with analysis.

CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

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Economics Research Paper

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Evolutionary Economics Research Paper

Introduction, relationship between theories of biological and sociocultural evolution, the scope and methods of evolutionary economics, marxist models of evolution, original institutional economics, the new institutional economics, whither evolutionary economics.

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Evolutionary economics has gained increasing acceptance as a field of economics that focuses on change over time in the process of material provisioning (production, distribution, and consumption) and the social institutions that surround that process. It is closely related to, and often draws on research in, other disciplines such as economic sociology, economic anthropology, and international political economy. It has important implications for many other fields in economics, including, but not limited to, growth theory, economic development, economic history, political economy, history of thought, gender economics, industrial organization, the study of business cycles, and financial crises.

Historically, evolutionary economics was the province of critics of the mainstream, neoclassical tradition. Both Marxist and original institutional economists (OIE) have long asserted the importance and relevance of understanding change over time and critiqued the standard competitive model for its abstract, ahistorical, and static focus. In recent years, however, the rise of the new institutional economics (NIE) as well as game theory has resulted in wider acceptance of evolutionary explanations by the mainstream (Hodgson, 2007b, pp. 1-15; North, 1990). Consequently, it is now possible to identify three major traditions in evolutionary economics: the Marxist (Sherman, 2006), the OIE (Hodgson, 2004), and the NIE (North, 1990). Each of these major traditions encompasses multiple strands within it. As a general rule, Marxists and OIEs seek to replace the standard competitive model of mainstream economics, while NIEs seek to complement the standard competitive model, although the growing acceptance of game theory may make this less of an important distinction. Despite their differences, it is possible to identify some common themes that are shared by each of these disparate traditions. For example, authors in each tradition have exhibited a concern with how the interaction of technology, social institutions, and ideologies leads to changes in economic and social organization over time.

The goal of this research paper is to introduce the reader to a few of the major concerns, themes, and important authors of each respective tradition. In doing so, it will first address some general issues in evolutionary economics, including its relationship to evolutionary biology as well as some conceptual, definitional, and taxonomic issues. It will then proceed to provide a brief overview of the evolution of each respective tradition. Unfortunately, the length of this research paper precludes discussion of many worthy contributions to each tradition as well as important topics that can and should be addressed by evolutionary economics. For example, space does not permit a discussion of how evolutionary economics could be applied to gender economics or how economists who write on gender often incorporate the contributions of evolutionary economists. Nor will this research paper attempt to assess the extent of empirical or conceptual progress in evolutionary economics within or between respective traditions. In addition, the reader should be aware that evolutionary economics itself is an evolving field and that the boundaries between the three traditions are often fluid.

General Issues in Evolutionary Economics

Taken at face value, the word evolution simply means change. But Darwin’s theory of gradual (step-by-step) evolution by variation of inherited characteristics and natural selection (differential survival based on the level of adaptation) removed both theological and teleological explanations from the process of biological evolution and placed humans firmly in the natural world. The modern neo-Darwinian synthetic theory of evolution combines Darwin’s focus on gradual (step-by-step) change based on variation of inherited characteristics and natural selection with modern population genetics. Both Darwin’s original theory and the modern synthetic theory of evolution explain change within a species, the rise of new species, and the more dramatic kinds of change such as the rise of mammals, primates, and eventually human beings as a result of the same step-by-step process (Mayr, 2001, 2004).

At the risk of oversimplifying slightly, it should be noted that the neo-Darwinian synthesis formulated by Thedosius Dobzhansky and Ernst Mayr in the 1950s has given rise to two sometimes opposing strands within the overarching frame of the synthesis (Mayr, 2004, pp. 133-138). One strand, exemplified by Richard Dawkins, who has written many widely read books on evolution, focuses on the role of genes in building organisms and on the tendency of natural selection to result in highly adapted organisms. This approach is sometimes referred to as the strong adaptationist program in evolutionary biology. It is closely related to fields such as sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, which explain many human behaviors in terms of their evolutionary origins.

Other evolutionary biologists have de-emphasized the role of natural selection and emphasize the importance of understanding biological evolution in terms of emergence, chance, path dependence, satisficing, and punctuated equilibrium. Richard Lewontin and the late Stephen J. Gould are two widely read authors who have advocated this position. Both Gould and Lewontin have been strongly critical of biologically based explanations for human behavior.

Although these two differing approaches to evolution are sometime viewed as rivals, they are in actuality complementary to each other. It is important to understand both aspects of biological evolution. In addition, biological evolution is a very complex process, and evolutionary biologists continue to push their field forward. Contemporary research in evolutionary biology focuses on the important interactions between genes, organisms, and their interaction with the environment in the process of development. Evolutionary biologists have also become more aware of the importance of lateral gene transfer and endo-symbiosis in bacteria evolution. However, there is still widespread consensus among evolutionary biologists that the synthetic theory of evolution is a true theory. Evolutionary biologists reject theories that incorporate teleological explanations or inheritance of acquired characteristics because these theories have been discredited empirically. Evolutionary biologists reject theories that are premised on or seek to find evidence of supernatural design as this adds nothing to the explanation and draws the focus of science away from understanding and explaining natural law.

Evolutionary economists often draw on and incorporate concepts developed by evolutionary biologists to explain how economic evolution occurs. For example, many evolutionary economists view economic evolution as a nondirected step-by-step process that is non-teleological (it lacks a specific goal or predetermined endpoint). Many, although not necessarily all, evolutionary economists agree that humans have at least some genetically based cognitive and social predispositions that are a result of genetic evolution. Some examples include the ability to learn a language, to learn social norms, to cooperate in groups, and to develop complex tool kits with which to transform nature into useable goods and services. In addition, the use of the Darwinian concepts of inheritance, variation, and selection as analogs to explain outcomes is pervasive in evolutionary economics. Evolutionary economists also distinguish between specific or microevolution (change that occurs within a sociocultural system) and general or macroevolution (change from one sociocultural system to another).

Some evolutionary economists view the market as natural and as an extended phenotype. Other evolutionary economists argue that evolutionary economics should be viewed as a generalization of the Darwinian concepts of variation, inheritance, and natural selection with each case specifying additional, relevant detail (Hodgson, 2007a; Hodgson & Knudsen, 2006). Others have argued that while Darwinian concepts often provide useful analogies for understanding sociocultural evolution, aspects of sociocultural evolution are distinctly non-Darwinian (Poirot, 2007). For example, in at least some instances, social and economic evolution results from the conscious decisions of groups of purposive agents who intentionally design or redesign human institutions. Also, in the process of socio-cultural evolution, we can pass on cultural traits that we acquire through the process of learning. Biological evolution results in a branching pattern and barriers between different species. But human cultures can always learn from each other. The more emphasis that is placed on purposive design of social institutions and cultural learning as well as the abruptness (instead of the step-by-step nature) of social change, the less Darwinian a model of sociocultural evolution becomes. However, it would be difficult to identify anyone today who argued for a strong teleological concept of sociocultural evolution or who sought to explain sociocultural evolution in terms of divine or supernatural intervention.

Two other important concepts borrowed from the natural sciences, emergence and complexity, also play a key role in evolutionary economics. Emergence means that an observed system results from the complex interaction of the components of the subsystems. This process of interaction gives rise to patterns that would not be predicted from and cannot be reduced to the behaviors of the individual components. However, understanding the system still requires an understanding of its components and the interaction of the components. So it is important to understand what individuals do. And it is also important to understand how individual choices and habits interact with social institutions in a dynamic way. It is often easier to think in mechanical terms. But if we are careless with mechanical analogies, then we can be easily misled.

This raises the question of what it is that evolves in sociocultural evolution. In evolutionary biology, selection takes place at multiple levels but logically requires changes in the gene pool of a population over time (Mayr, 2004, pp. 133-158). This has led some evolutionary economists to suggest that institutions and/or organizational routines provide us with an analog to the gene. Others argue that there is not a precise analog. To understand this debate, we first have to understand what an institution is.

It is popular to define institutions as “rules of the game.” This is a good start, but it confuses the function of institutions with a definition of institutions. A more extensive definition of institution defines an institution as any instituted process, or in other words a shared, learned, ordered, patterned, and ongoing way of thinking, feeling, and acting. Institutions may be tacit and informal or highly organized and structured. By this latter definition, modern firms, medieval manors, technology, nation-states, political ideologies, and even technology are all institutions. In other words, virtually everything that humans do is an instituted process. Institutions are component parts of a sociocultural system.

But to just call everything an “institution” can make it difficult to conduct analysis. So it is useful to draw a distinction between entities such as social ideologies (e.g., Calvinism and democracy), social institutions (e.g., class, caste, kinship, the family, the nation-state), organizations (e.g., the modern firm, the International Monetary Fund, the medieval manor), organizational routines of actors within specific organizations, and technology (the combined set of knowledge, practices, and tool kits used in production). So in that sense, everything in sociocultural systems is constantly evolving. There is no precise analog in sociocultural evolution to the gene pool of a population.

As suggested above, social institutions are part of more general wholes, which it is convenient to term sociocultural systems. A sociocultural system includes the direct patterns of interaction of a society with the ecosystem (its subsistence strategy, technology, and demographic patterns), its social institutions, and its patterns of abstract meaning and value. Many anthropologists classify sociocultural systems by their scale, complexity, and the amount of energy captured by their subsistence strategy. Standard classification includes bands, tribes, chiefdoms, agrarian states, and industrial states, each of which corresponds roughly to subsistence strategies of foraging, horticulture, pastoralism and fishing, settled agriculture, and modern industrial technology. This classification system provides a useful scheme with which to understand the rise of large agrarian empires in the neolithic era and, ultimately, the Industrial Revolution in northwestern Europe. It also provides a useful classificatory schema with which to understand the interaction of multiple kinds of contemporary societies in a globalizing world. However, care must be taken to emphasize the multilinear and dynamic nature of socio-cultural evolution rather than rigidly applying these concepts as a universal and unilinear schema (e.g., see Harris, 1997; Wolf, 1982).

The evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr (2004) argued that biologists who study genetic evolution ask “why” questions while biologists who study things such as biochemistry ask “how” questions. Similarly, many mainstream economists ask “how” questions while evolutionary economists ask “why” questions. While the study of evolutionary economics does not preclude the use of formal mathematical models or quantification, most of its practitioners employ qualitative and interpretive methods. Also, as suggested above, some evolutionary biologists focus on changes that occur at the level of species, while others focus on more dramatic kinds of change. Similarly, evolutionary economists are interested in the study of sociocultural evolution on a grand scale, such as the rise of agrarian empires or modern capitalism, as well more specific, micro-level evolution such as changes in the organizational routines of individual firms.

Consequently, the kinds of issues that evolutionary economists are interested in overlap with the focus of other social sciences and even, in some instances, with the fields of ecology and evolutionary biology. Evolutionary economics reflects a tendency to counter the fragmentation of political economy into disparate social sciences that occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Evolutionary economists, like their counterparts in economic sociology, economic anthropology, and political economy, focus more directly on those institutions with the strongest, most immediate, direct relevance to the process of material provisioning. So there may still be a need for some division of labor in the social sciences. What is of direct relevance will vary according to what is being analyzed in any particular study. An economic historian studying the rise of capitalism may, following Weber, find an understanding of Calvinist theology to be essential. Someone studying financial innovation in twenty-first-century industrialized societies would most likely find the religious affiliation of modern banking executives to be of little interest or relevance.

Research Traditions in Evolutionary Economics

Evolutionary economics is composed of three rival but sometimes overlapping major traditions: the Marxist, the OIE, and the NIE. While there is some degree of ideological overlap between the schools, each of the respective schools tends to share a common overarching ideology. Marxists seek to replace capitalism, OIEs seek to reform capitalism, and NIEs generally view capitalism as beneficent. This is not, notably, to argue that the ideology necessarily determines the empirical and theoretical analysis. Also, as previously noted, Marxists and OIEs seek to replace the standard competitive model while NIEs seek to complement the standard model. However, the reader should be aware that the boundary between the three traditions is often fuzzy, and there is sometimes overlap between the three traditions. Similarly, each of these three schools is composed of multiple strands and has undergone significant change over time.

The remainder of this research paper will focus on outlining in very broad terms a few of the significant themes and concerns of each respective tradition, how these traditions have changed over time, and the contributions of a few representative authors of each of the three traditions. The reader may note that despite the differences between the traditions, there is a strong interest in all three in understanding how technology, social institutions, and cognitive models interact in the process of sociocultural evolution. The division made between the three traditions may be of greater interest and relevance in the United States, where there is a strong correlation between specific organizations and schools of thought. For example, the Association for Evolutionary Economics (AFEE) has been the primary promoter of OIE in the United States. In contrast, the European Association for Evolutionary Political Economy (EAEPE) has a much wider umbrella. So there may be hope someday for a grand synthesis of the three respective traditions.

There are, of course, many different Marxist and quasiMarxist models of sociocultural evolution. For the purposes of this research paper, it is convenient to make the differentia specifica of a Marxist model of sociocultural evolution a focus on class struggle: the conflict between social groups defined in terms of differential access to the productive resources of a given society (Dugger & Sherman, 2000). This way of understanding sociocultural evolution is often referred to as historical materialism. While Darwinian reasoning may at times be employed in Marxist theories of sociocultural evolution, Marxists have generally emphasized the non-Darwinian aspects of sociocultural evolution as well as sharp discontinuities between human and infrahuman species. At the same time, it is hard to think of any academic Marxists writing today who would advocate Lysenkoism or Lamarckian theories of inheritance as valid explanatory concepts for understanding genetic evolution.

To understand historical materialism, we must begin with Marx’s concept of the mode of production (for extended discussions, see Wolf, 1982, chap. 3, and also Fusfeld, 1977). A mode of production includes the techno-environmental relationships (e.g., agriculture based on a plough or factories using steam engines) and the social relationships of production (e.g., warlords and peasants or factory owners and workers) or, in Marxist jargon, the forces of production and the social relations of production, respectively. These relationships between groups of people in Marx’s view are characterized by unequal relations of power, domination, subordination, and exploitation. This gives rise to social conflict over the terms of access to and the distribution of the productive resources of society. Social conflict requires the creation of a coercive entity to enforce the interests of the dominant social class (i.e., a state). In addition, human beings develop complex ideologies with which to justify their positions. Thus, the entire civilization (or what above is termed a sociocultural system) rests on a given mode of production, with the mode of production distinguished by the primary means of mobilizing labor (e.g., slavery, serfdom, wage labor).

In his analysis of Western history, Marx distinguished between the primitive commune, the slave mode of production of the ancient Roman Empire, the Germanic mode of production, the feudal mode of production of medieval Europe, and the modern capitalist mode of production. In analyzing Western history, Marx argued that each successive mode of production had produced technological advance, thus elevating the material level of human existence.

Capitalism, in Marx’s view, is qualitatively different from extended commodity production. Capitalism requires that land, labor, and capital are fully treated as commodities. This means that labor is “free” in the sense of not being legally bound to perform labor for the dominant class and “free” in the sense that it has no claim to the resources needed to produce goods and services. Therefore, capital is used as a means to finance innovation in production, and labor is compelled by economic circumstances to sell its labor power. Because capitalism promotes endless accumulation of capital, it is thus far the most successful in a material sense. However, the dynamic of capitalist accumulation gives rise to periodic crises, and it is therefore unstable. In addition, it is often destructive of human relationships. So a relationship of apparent freedom is in actuality a relationship of power, subordination, and domination that will give rise to social conflict. The only way to end this conflict, in Marx’s view, is to redesign social institutions so as to pro-mote both development of the forces of production and social cooperation (i.e., replace capitalism with socialism). There is disagreement among scholars who study Marx as to whether Marx thought that the triumph of socialism over capitalism was inevitable.

Insofar as one seeks to explain the historical origins of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution, two historical epochs are of particular relevance. Marxist historians and Marxist economists (and many others) with a particular interest in economic history thus often refer to two transitions (one from antiquity to feudalism and the other from feudalism to capitalism) as giving rise to modern capitalism. Howard Sherman (1995, 2006), a well-known Marxist economist, has summarized and synthesized much of this existing literature.

Sherman traces Western economic history from tribal organization through the rise of modern capitalism. Sherman is a materialist who analyzes societies by starting with the material base of human existence and examines the interaction between technology, economic institutions, social institutions, and ideologies. Technology and technological innovation as well as social conflict between classes are key variables in Sherman’s analysis. But overall, Sherman’s schema is holistic and interactive, rather than mechanical or reductionist.

In analyzing the breakdown of feudalism, Sherman focuses on the tripartite class conflict between peasants, nobles, and monarchs and the ability of each of the respective classes to force an outcome on the other classes. As a consequence of this conflict, a new pattern of relationships based on private property and production for profit in a market, as well as increasingly organized around new sources of mechanical power, gave rise to a unique and extremely productive system referred to as capitalism. This system of production encourages constant cost cutting, innovation, and capital accumulation, thus leading to the potential for the progressive material elevation of human society.

However, capitalist society is still riven by conflict between property-less workers and property-owning capitalists. Because the capitalist has a monopoly over the productive resources of society, the capitalist is still able to compel the worker to produce a surplus for the capitalist. This creates social conflict between the capitalist and worker and also forces the capitalist into an ultimately self-defeating boom-and-bust cycle of rising profits and increasing concentrations of capital, followed by falling rates of profit, leading to cycles of recession and crisis. The institutional structure of capitalism also magnifies other social conflicts and problems such as environmental degradation and destruction, as well as relations between racial and ethnic groups and genders. The solution to this social conflict, in Sherman’s view, is to replace the institutions of capitalism with economic democracy (i.e., democratic socialism).

Sherman, who has long been a critic of Stalinist-style socialism, also extends his analysis to change in Russia and the Soviet Union. The October Revolution of 1917 occurred because neither the czar nor the Mensheviks were able to satisfy the material aspirations of the vast majority of Russians. But industrialization in the Soviet Union became a nondemocratic, elite-directed process due primarily to the particular circumstances surrounding the Bolshevik Revolution, the ensuing civil war, and the problems of the New Economic Policy. In time, factions among the elites developed as the Soviet economy proved unable to satisfy the material aspirations of the majority of the Soviet population. This created new pressure for change as elites were able to capture this process. Due also to pressure from the West, change in the former Soviet Union took the direction of restoring capitalism rather than developing greater economic democracy.

It should be noted that the standard Marxist model of historical materialism focuses on the ability of capitalism to elevate the material capacity of human societies. This focus has been challenged by the rise of world systems and dependency theory. Theorists who follow this line of thinking focus on the uneven nature of development and the tendency of core economies to place boundaries on the development of formerly colonized areas of the world. Some theorists in this tradition have been justly accused of having a rather muddled conception of the term capitalism, insofar as they claim inspiration from Marx. The late Eric Wolf (1982), a well-known economic anthropologist, resolved many of these conceptual issues in his book Europe and the People Without History. So rather than assume that capitalism leads uniformly to material progress, Wolf extended the historical materialist model to analyze the process of uneven development in the world system as a whole. In their textbook on economic development, James Cypher and James Dietz (2004) provide an excellent history and exposition of classical Marxism, dependency theory, and extended analysis and discussion of the new institutional economics, original institutional economics, and modernization theory.

Thorstein Veblen (1898) was the founder of OIE, and his influence on OIE continues to be prevalent (Hodgson, 2004). Veblen was strongly influenced by Darwin’s theory of biological evolution and held evolutionary science as the standard for the social sciences, including economics, to emulate. He was also deeply influenced by the evolutionary epistemology of the American pragmatists Charles Saunders Peirce and John Dewey. In addition, he incorporated the contrasting positions of nineteenth-century evolutionist anthropology, as exhibited by the work of Tylor and Morgan, and the historical particularism of Franz Boas. Although he was strongly critical of Marx and of Marxism, there are both parallels as well as differences in the writings of Marx and Veblen.

Like Marx, Veblen focused on the importance of understanding the interaction of changes in technology, social institutions, and social ideologies as well as social conflict. Veblen also had a stage theory of history, which he borrowed from the prevailing anthropological schemas of his day. However, where Marx focuses on concepts such as class and mode of production, Veblen focuses on instituted processes and the conflicts created by vested interests seeking to reinforce invidious distinctions. Veblen’s model of sociocultural evolution is a conflict model in that it focuses broadly on social conflict that arises in the struggle for access to power, prestige, and property. But it is not a class-based model in the sense that Marxists use class.

In “Why Is Economics Not an Evolutionary Science?” (1898) and in “The Preconceptions of Economic Science” (1899) , Veblen developed a critique of the mainstream economics of his day. In developing this critique, Veblen was critical of the abstract and a priori nature of much of mainstream economic analysis. In articulating this point, he contrasted the “a priori method” with the “matter of fact method.” This particular aspect of Veblen’s criticism has often led some to view both Veblen and later OIEs as “atheoretical.” But this misses the point for at least two reasons.

Veblen did not eschew theoretical analysis per se. He was however, critical of theory that divorced itself from understanding actual, real-world processes of material provisioning. But most important, in Veblen’s view, economics was not up to the standards of evolutionary science because economics continued to implicitly embrace the concepts of natural price and natural law by focusing on economics as the study of economizing behavior and the adjustment of markets to equilibrium. In contrast, Veblen argued that the process of material provisioning entailed a constant process of adaptation to the physical and social environment through the adjustment of institutions or deeply ingrained social habits based on instinct. Veblen’s understanding of the term institution was broad enough to encompass any instituted process. Yet he drew a sharp distinction between institutions and technology. He was sharply critical of the former and strongly in favor of the latter.

When Veblen wrote about deep-seated and persistent social habits developing on the basis of genetically based instincts, he did in fact appear to mean something similar to contemporary theories of gene-culture evolution. Social habits are not consciously thought-through, purposive behaviors—they develop out of the complex “reflex arc” of enculturation based on genetically based propensities to act in the presence of environmental stimuli. Instincts are acquired through genetic evolution and social habits through enculturation. Both are inherited, vary in nature, and may therefore be selected for or against in the process of sociocultural evolution (Hodgson, 2004, Part III). However, Veblen also borrowed from Dewey a view of socialization in which individuals are active participants in socialization, a concept that was later more clearly articulated by Meade. In addition, Veblen also emphasized the ability of humans to conceptualize and engage in purposive behavior.

Veblen drew a sharp dichotomy between the instinct of workmanship and the instinct of predation. He associated the instinct of workmanship with a focus on adaptive, problem-solving, tinkering, and innovative behavior. In contrast, he associated predation with a focus on brute force, ceremonial displays of power, emulative behavior, conspicuous consumption, financial speculation, and the power of vested interests. Veblen argued that the instinct of workmanship arose in the primitive stage of human history (roughly corresponding to what contemporary anthropologists would term bands and tribes) and that the instinct of predation emerged during the stage of barbarism (roughly corresponding to the rise of chiefdoms). These instincts gave rise to deep-seated social habits. Both instincts continued to be present during the rise of civilization (agrarian states) and persisted in modern civilization (industrial states). But because modern civilization is based on the rise and extensive application of machine technology, further progress would require the triumph of the instinct of workmanship over the instinct of predation.

But in Veblen’s view, there was no reason to expect this would necessarily occur. Vested interests were often capable of instituting their power to reinforce the instinct of predation. Hence, institutions often served to encapsulate and reinforce the instinct of predation. The behaviors of predation were primarily exhibited by the new “leisure class” or, in other words, the robber barons of the late nineteenth century. In contrast, workmen and engineers often exhibited the instinct of workmanship. Consequently, Veblen tended to view institutions in general as change inhibiting and the instinct of workmanship as change promoting.

In later works, Veblen extended this kind of analysis to study other topics such as changes in firm organization and the business cycle. Veblen argued that as modern firms became larger and more monopolistic, a permanent leisure class arose, thus displacing technological thinking among this new class. In addition, increasing amounts of time and energy were channeled into financial speculation, leading to repeated financial crises. Emulative behavior in the form of conspicuous consumption and ceremonial displays of patriotism and militarism served to reinforce the instinct of predation. In his analysis of the rise of militarism in Prussia, Veblen noted the socially devastating impact of the triumph of the instinct of predation. Thus, Veblen tended to identify institutions with imbecilic behaviors that serve to block the triumph of technological innovations.

Veblen’s focus on the conflict between the instinct of workmanship and predatory and pecuniary instincts is often referred to as the instrumental-ceremonial dichotomy. Ayres (1938) in particular reinforced the tendency of the OIE to focus on the past binding and ceremonial aspects of institutions and on the scientific and progressive nature of instrumental reasoning. This dichotomy was, at one point in time, a core proposition of the OIE.

Most contemporary OIEs, however, recognize and accept that at least some institutions can promote and facilitate progressive change and that technology itself is an institution. This rethinking of the ceremonial-instrumental dichotomy is also reflected in the incorporation of Karl Polanyi’s (1944) dichotomy between habitation and improvement. Polanyi noted that the need for social pro-tection may actually serve a noninvidious purpose. Some improvements destroy livelihoods and reinforce invidious distinctions while others promote the life process. So the distinction might better be thought of in terms of “invidious versus noninvidious.”

One OIE who had a more positive understanding of the role of institutions is J. R. Commons (Commons, 1970; Wunder & Kemp, 2008). Commons in particular focused on the need for order in society and thus addressed the evolution of legal systems and the state. Commons’s theory is primarily microevolutionary insofar as he focuses on the evolution of legal arrangements and shifting power alignments in modern industrial states. Commons is not as critical of existing arrangements as Veblen. Institutions, including the state, in Commons’s view, are clearly both necessary and potentially beneficial. For example, with the rise of big business, labor conflict, and the problems inherent in the business cycle, there is a need for a strong state to manage this conflict. At the same time, Commons developed a theory of the business cycle that has strong elements in common with some of Keynes’s analysis.

The Veblenian strand as expressed by Commons is, by the standards of American politics, moderately left of center in that it expresses support for much of the regulatory framework and expanded role of government in managing the business cycle that came out of the New Deal and the publication of Keynes’s (1936) The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. Not surprisingly, a number of OIE economists have begun to attempt to synthesize OIE and Keynes, relying to a large degree on the work of Hyman Minsky (1982). This project, often referred to as PKI (post-Keynesian institutionalism), is microevolution-ary in nature in that it focuses on the problems of financial instability created by financial innovation and deregulation. The goal of PKI is wisely managed capitalism (Whalen, 2008). PKI clearly has a focus on the possibility of designing effective institutions, which logically implies that at least some institutions can embody instrumental reasoning.

In contrast to the direction taken by some OIEs, Hodgson (2004) has argued that Veblen’s focus on technological thinking and the Commons-Ayres trend in OIE was a wrong turn for OIE. He has sought to revivify OIE by reinterpreting Veblenian economics as generalized Darwinism. Generalized Darwinism, according to Hodgson, generalizes the basic principles of Darwin’s biological theory of evolution (inheritance, variation, and selection) to sociocultural evolution. In Hodgson’s view, the mechanisms of inheritance, variation, and selection are not just analogies or metaphors to explain outcomes in social evolution—they are ontological principles that describe any entity that evolves. As noted above, because institutions and organizational routines are inherited through cultural learning and vary, they are subject to selection. Social evolution is therefore a special case of the more general case of evolution.

However, Hodgson (2004) also acknowledges that human agents are purposive and that culture is an emergent phenomenon. So Hodgson is not seeking to biologize social inequality or to reduce the social sciences to genetic principles such as inclusive fitness. Indeed, as Hodgson states, “more is needed” than just the principles of inheritance, variation, and natural selection. This would appear to be an understanding of how social institutions, in concert with instincts and human agency, generate outcomes in a complex, emergent process of social evolution. To this end, Hodgson has incorporated some elements of structure agency theory into his analysis.

Hodgson’s program could be taken as an injunction to OIEs to build models of change that incorporate both Darwinian principles as well as more complex concepts of structure and agency. Hodgson has used this model to explain how changes in firm organization can be selected for or against by changes in market structure. So there are strong parallels between the work of Hodgson and that of Nelson and Winter (1982), who could notably be placed in either the OIE or NIE camp. As noted in the preceding section, Hodgson’s view of evolutionary economics as “generalized Darwinism” is controversial, even among his fellow OIEs.

One competing strand of Veblenian economics is the radical strand as advocated by Bill Dugger (Dugger & Sherman, 2000). Dugger focuses on the role of technology, instrumental reasoning, and institutions as providing the capacity for improving the material condition of humans. The full application of instrumental reasoning, however, in Dugger’s view is blocked by the key institutions of capitalism. These institutions are reinforced by ceremonial myths. Dugger also puts more emphasis on the social and ideological implications of the respective traditions and has been sharply critical of the NIE. He has also notably been instrumental in promoting dialogue between Marxists and OIEs and has often copublished works on sociocultural evolution with Howard Sherman. Dugger also tends to emphasize the non-Darwinian nature of sociocultural evolution.

It can be fairly argued that Adam Smith was the first evolutionary economist, even though his contributions predate any significant consideration of biological evolution by naturalists. Adam Smith provides an account of how an increasingly complex society arises out of the natural propensity of humans to truck, barter, and exchange (Fusfeld, 1977; Smith, 1776/1937). Ironically, some of Smith’s concerns with specialization and division of labor, as well as the writings of another political economist, Thomas Malthus, influenced Darwin. Many Social Darwinists in the late nineteenth century drew on Darwinian reasoning to explain how competitive markets work and to justify social inequality. Some twentieth-century theorists such as Frederick Hayek and Larry Arnhart have tended to view the market as a natural outgrowth of human genetic endowments.

Taken as a whole, however, evolutionary explanations fell out of favor among economists in the twentieth century. In the late nineteenth century, the social sciences became increasingly fragmented, and the new field of economics increasingly lost its evolutionary focus. With the triumph of the standard competitive model in the mid-twentieth century, economics became narrowly focused on providing formal mathematical proofs of narrowly defined “how” questions. However, there are some signs that the standard competitive model is in the process of being displaced by game theory. There is also widespread recognition that it is necessary to supplement the standard competitive model with an evolutionary account. These developments have led to an increased acceptance of evolutionary explanations among mainstream economists and renewed attention to the importance of institutions in framing economic outcomes.

Some strands of the NIE, particularly the version espoused by Coase (1974) and Williamson (1985), view institutions primarily as providing “solutions” to the problems of asymmetric information and transactions costs. This strand of NIE does not significantly challenge the standard competitive model or its underlying behavioral assumptions. To the contrary, it is a complement to the standard competitive model. It is also to a large degree a micro-oriented theory of sociocultural evolution.

A more dynamic view of economic evolution is that of Joseph Schumpeter (1908, 1950). Schumpeter focused on the individual entrepreneur and his role in promoting technological innovation. This technological innovation disturbs the equilibrium and leads to gales of creative destruction. However, with the rise of the modern, bureaucratically organized firm, the role of the entrepreneur was lessened, leading to a static and moribund organization. Schumpeter thought that this would eventually lead to the destruction of capitalism, an outcome that, in contrast to Marx, Schumpeter viewed in a negative way. Schumpeter, however, drew a strong distinction between statics, exemplified by the Walrasian model of his day, and dynamics, exemplified by theories of economic evolution. Thus, “dynamics” was intended to complement “statics” (Andersen, 2008). Many contemporary mainstream models of economic growth, often referred to as new growth theory, explicitly incorporate Schumpeterian analysis.

Some of the richness of Schumpeter’s focus on technological innovation as gales of creative destruction has been recaptured by the economic historian Joel Mokyr (1990) in his masterful work on technological progress. Mokyr adapts Gould’s concept of “punctuated equilibrium” to the history of technology. He also draws a distinction between invention (the rise of new techniques and processes) and innovation (the spread of these new techniques). The Industrial Revolution, in Mokyr’s view, is ongoing but is nevertheless a clear instance of a dramatic change in technological and social organization. Similarly, the work of Nelson and Winter (1982), previously cited, which acknowledges the contributions of Veblen, can also be considered neo-Schumpeterian. There are, it should be noted, significant parallels between Marx, Schumpeter, and Veblen, as well as differences.

The most prominent and most successful NIE, of course, is Douglas North. North’s career has spanned several decades, during which his contributions to multiple fields in economics have been voluminous. Notably, North’s own views themselves have undergone significant evolution. North’s (1981) earlier work on economic evolution was an application of the work of Coase (1974) and Williamson (1985) to the problem of economic evolution and did not significantly challenge the standard competitive model. North viewed economic evolution as taking place due to changing resource constraints in response to the growth in population as rational agents calculated the marginal costs and marginal benefits of shifting from foraging to farming.

North’s later work (1990, 1991, 1994), however, has challenged many aspects of the standard competitive model. North has focused specifically on the role institutions play in cognitive framing of decision making. Notably, North has explicitly abandoned the theory of strong rational choice in favor of models of human behavior that focus on the limited ability of humans to obtain, process, and act on information. In most textbook models of market behavior, price is the primary means of providing information. But in North’s view of markets, information encompasses much more than price. In addition, norms, values, and ideology can blunt the ability of humans to obtain and interpret some information. North is not arguing that humans are “irrational” as his approach still logically implies some degree of calculation and conscious decision making based on self-interest. But he has abandoned the strong view of rationality, which implies humans are lightning rods of hedonic calculation. In that sense, his view of human behavior is much closer to that of the Austrians in focusing on the purposiveness of human behavior.

For the most part, North tends to see institutions as constraints on human action, though he acknowledges that institutions can provide incentives both in terms of the things we actually do, as well as the things that we do not do. Thus, institutions that reward innovative behavior, risk seeking, and trade will lead to efficient outcomes. Institutions that reward rent seeking and prohibit innovation and trade will lead to inefficient outcomes. Once an institutional structure is set, there is a strong degree of inertia that perpetuates the existing institutional structure. In other words, evolutionary paths, in North’s view, tend to be path dependent. Clearly, the kinds of institutions in North’s view that promote efficient outcomes are those that clearly define the rules of the game in favor of the operation of markets. This does not necessarily imply laissez-faire as the state may still be necessary to perform multiple functions. It does serve to distinguish between states, such as Great Britain in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries or South Korea in the past several decades, that were able to define an institutional framework that promoted innovation and growth as opposed to states such as Spain in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries or in the Congo (Zaire) today that destroy any incentive for innovation and economic growth.

This raises two very interesting questions. How does a particular type of path become established, and how does it change? North’s explanation is one that is rooted in a metaphor of variation and selection. Greater variation will allow for a higher probability that a particular path will be successful. Greater centralization will reduce variation and increase the chances that the state will adopt or promote institutions that blunt technological and social innovation. North explains the greater success of Europe versus the rest of the world as a result of the relative decentralization of Europe in the early modern period. Arbitrary authoritarian states that destroyed incentives for growth such as Spain existed. But Spain was unable to impose its will on Europe or on the emerging world market. Consequently, this enabled states such as England, where the power of the Crown became limited as Parliament enacted laws to protect commercial interests and innovation, to industrialize rapidly and emerge as world leaders. These contrasting paths were transferred to the New World. The United States inherited and successfully modified the institutional framework of Britain and therefore developed. Latin America inherited and failed to successfully modify the institutional frame-work of absolutist Spain and developed much more slowly.

Evolutionary economics clearly has a future. Economists in general are becoming more attuned to the importance of understanding how humans organize the economy through institutions and how institutions change over time. This entails extensive borrowing of concepts from evolutionary biology and a reconsideration of the underlying behavioral assumptions of mainstream economics. Understanding how institutions permit or inhibit changes in technology, as well as how changes in technology in turn require changes in institutions, is a concern of all three schools of evolutionary economics. As NIE economists push the boundaries of the mainstream, at least some have increasingly asked heterodox questions, and a few have been willing to acknowledge heterodox contributions. Some Marxist and OIE scholars have also begun to note that at least some versions of NIE, if not necessarily entirely new, are at least genuinely institutional and evolutionary. Any grand synthesis seems distant, but there is at least a basis for further argumentation and even dialogue.



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