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Economics Salons
What is a salon?

During the 1700s in France, an individual would host private gatherings, or salons, in a home to discuss issues of the day and generate debate around new ideas, culture, and society. The salons were typically hosted by women (salonnières), and they were responsible for the guest list, the agenda, and format of the event. Most salons began with a reading from a novel or essay before proceeding to a discussion among the participants. Eventually, these salons began to serve as “de facto universities.” 

How does an economics salon work?

There is no required format for hosting an economics salon. For a typical event, professors would invite students to their home to discuss a particular economic issue. Students would be expected to read an article and be prepared to discuss it with salon participants. Recently, Professor Michael Jones hosted a salon at his home to discuss "Who are the Essential and Frontline Workers?" around an evening bonfire. COVID-19 prompted individuals and political leaders to address this question, and students discussed their perspectives on the issue.

Michael Jones - Firepit.jpg
Why salons?

As Justine Kolata explains in A Renaissance of Salon Culture“There is a palpable sense of fatigue with a society immersed in vacuous social media posts…but few institutions exist that offer an alternative culture, form of community or voice in society and politics. Seeking deeper meaning and more profound connections with others, in an often self-absorbed society, is a daunting and at times disparaged pursuit.

Salons are one way of addressing this modern dilemma of isolation and malaise. They evidently do not replace the internet, social media, or other transformations in communication, which undoubtedly also have great benefits, but they offer an essential foundation for communication that has been corroded in the process of technological advancement, by creating communities around ideas in the real world where they matter most.

…since an ideal salon facilitates sustained contact with people from diverse backgrounds who think differently, there is a greater possibility to overcome false biases and wrong assumptions. It is easier to feel compassion for, understand, and responsibly act towards a person (and the groups that he represents) when you look him in the eye, interact with him on a regular basis, and have a more developed knowledge of his personal history, lifeworld, and underlying motivations.”

Why now?

Recently, the Carl H. Lindner College of Business updated its mission statement to “empower business problem-solvers to tackle the world’s challenges.”

The Kautz-Uible Economics Institute, along with the Lindner College of Business, believes that “solving problems requires diverse views, critical thinking, and collaboration.” An economics salon is one way to implement this mission statement.

What topics will be discussed at an economics salon?

Tackling the world’s challenges means taking on what Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber called “wicked problems.”

At each economics salon, participants will discuss a wicked problem. These wicked problems have the following ten characteristics.

  1. They do not have a definitive formulation.

  2. They do not have a “stopping rule.” In other words, these problems lack an inherent logic that signals when they are solved.

  3. Their solutions are not true or false, only good or bad.

  4. There is no way to test the solution to a wicked problem.

  5. They cannot be studied through trial and error. Their solutions are irreversible so, as Rittel and Webber put it, “every trial counts.”

  6. There is no end to the number of solutions or approaches to a wicked problem.

  7. All wicked problems are essentially unique.

  8. Wicked problems can always be described as the symptom of other problems.

  9. The way a wicked problem is described determines its possible solutions.

  10. Planners, that is those who present solutions to these problems, have no right to be wrong. Unlike mathematicians, “planners are liable for the consequences of the solutions they generate; the effects can matter a great deal to the people who are touched by those actions.”

How will economics salons be successful?

If students believe the following statement accurately reflects their involvement in the salon, then the initiative will be successful.

A salon offers people a positive and vital opportunity to engage with their fellow citizens through a subtle balance of sensitively structured interaction, self-development, empathy, and collective understanding, which is the basis for a more just, equitable, and secure society.”

For the Kautz-Uible Economics Institute, feedback from students about wicked problems will drive curriculum innovation in the economics department. For example, recent ransomware attacks that require cryptocurrency payments from US companies led to the development of a new Digital Money and Banking course in the economics department. Innovative curriculum can result from the participatory nature between faculty and students at economics salons.

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