This past weekend I attempted to explain to a non-economist what it is exactly that I study, more specifically than “economics” as a whole. I was not able to give a good description, and it occurred to me that I really should have an answer prepared for that. To most people, I simply study economics. They’re not particularly interested or engaged in the subject beyond that. This answer works most of the time. On the other end, the way I talk with economics colleagues is far more detailed, but I can’t take that explanation to the dabbler types. I need one for the person in between these two categories, who has more knowledge than the average man on the street but isn’t a specialist. Other academics and people who took some undergraduate economics largely fall into this category.
Basically, what I study are the perspectives in economics that emphasize individual decision making and the process of adaptation to circumstances. The textbook Keynesian-Samuelsonian economics that people learn as college undergraduates focuses on static equilibrium, aggregates, and the God’s eye view of society. These analytical tools have their uses, but they are not the be-all and end-all of economics. An economist who seeks to understand the world to the fullest extent possible will need to account for the discovery process that uses limited information and realistic incentives and works over time.
That is the reasonably short explanation of what it is exactly that I’m interested in. If anybody wants to know more, I’ll let the discussion develop from there.