The merits of visual images in conveying truths about the social world is widely recognized in social science, but some commentators have suggested the possible inadequacies of postwar economics on that score. Unimpressed by the omnipresence of diagrams in economics, they note that these are not images in the sense that maps are. The story of Boulding, an admirer of maps and strong believer in visual reasoning, who moved away from economics to become a general social scientist in the late 1940s, seems to confirm the above assessment. Yet, the difference between economists and other social scientists does not so much reside in the absence of images in economics—some diagrams in economics are maps—as in their declining role in postwar economic modeling. In that respect, the story of Boulding, his lack of influence on economics and his increased recognition among other social sciences testify to the gradual backsliding of visual imagination in postwar economics. If many today recognize the usefulness of diagrams for the dissemination of economic knowledge, only a few are aware that preceding the attempts to make these diagrams intelligible to their users, a real effort of visual imagination was required for their creators to ensure their explanatory power.
Skip Nav Destination
Philippe Fontaine; Kenneth Boulding’s Visual Imagination: From Textbooks to Scholarship, 1941–62. History of Political Economy 1 April 2021; 53 (2): 213–241. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00182702-8905991
Download citation file: