Crusoe, Friday and the Homo Economicus of Econ 101 Courses

Speaker: Matthew Watson (University of Warwick)

5-6.30pm, Wednesday 13th February

Richard Hoggart Building room 143

This is an event designed for student understanding of economics, but all are welcome.

The figure of homo economicus in Econ 101 textbooks can be traced back to characters in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719). While Defoe’s most famous novel has been rewritten innumerable times – and its racist and sexist narratives exposed and satirised – orthodox Economics teaching persists with using its original 18th century characterisations. In this talk, based on a recent article of his (link), Professor Matthew Watson tries to solve the puzzle of Econ 101’s infatuation with Defoe’s homo economicus.

Matthew Watson is Professor of Political Economy at the University of Warwick. He is an ESRC Professorial Fellow engaged on the project, ‘Rethinking the Market‘ and author of many articles and books, most recently The Market (Agenda/New York: Columbia University Press, 2018) and Uneconomic Economics and the Crisis of the Model World (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).


Why should a political economist like me be interested in the technical details of debates presented within literary theory?  In particular, why might I have persuaded myself that it is a good use of my time to find out as much as I can about what literary critics think of Daniel Defoe?  The answer is relatively straightforward.  Much of the discussion of Defoe’s literary characterisations focuses on the extent to which he was able, in the early eighteenth century, to distil the essence of an abstract homo economicus with whom we are still familiar today.  However, that same answer also reveals other puzzles.  Defoe’s characters in Robinson Crusoe continue to find their way into many economics textbooks, and they are used as pedagogical tools to enable students on Econ 101 courses to begin to ‘think like an economist’.  They might remain fundamental abstractions, but they retain a rhetorical power derived from their familiarity which unlocks for students the essential relationships which economic theory attempts to describe.

In the absence of appeals to Crusoe and to Friday, the homo economicus of the economics textbooks would usually remain entirely unnamed.  But the economics textbooks themselves are almost the last place in which Defoe’s original characterisations remain pretty much exactly as they were in his 1719 novel.  Robinson Crusoe is almost certainly the most rewritten story in the English language, with each generation of novelists since the early twentieth century providing multiple rewritings of the basic plot.  Postcolonial and feminist authors in particular have engaged in a conspicuous ‘writing back’ to the original novel, in an effort to expose Defoe’s racist and sexist story lines through a mixture of caricature, satire and carefully constructed plot reversals.  The absence of any similar attention to rewriting Defoe’s original novel in economics should give us pause for thought about the typical content of Econ 101 courses.  Are we happy with a pedagogical approach to economic theory which tells us that we are all approximations in our economic behaviour of either the active white colonial settler Crusoe, or the passive enslaved person of colour Friday?

All are welcome and no registration is required. For details on how to find Goldsmiths, click here.