Incentive Problems for Interdisciplinary Research on Economics and Theology

by Paul Oslington
18th September 2019

Contemporary scholars seldom venture across disciplinary boundaries despite being regularly urged to do so in presidential addresses to academic societies, university vice-chancellors’ speeches, policy papers regularly produced by bureaucrats for their political masters, and various other invocations from the good and great. 

 As well as the rarity of actual ventures across disciplinary boundaries, the quality of the results is at best mixed (Thompson 1990).  Why is this so?

 Not all the barriers to dialogue between economists and theologians are intellectual, and I offer some brief comments here on the contemporary non-intellectual barriers to interdisciplinary research.  Surveys of work on economics and theology include Waterman (1987) and Oslington (2014). These comments draw on mainstream incentive economics, so theologians with a distaste for economics might wish to sigh about human sin and move on.  For those who read on, I hope there is some illumination on why interdisciplinary research on economics and theology and interdisciplinary research more generally, is so difficult in contemporary universities.

 One barrier to interdisciplinary work is high costs of entry to the disciplines of economics and theology. Contemporary economics almost invariably involves mathematical modelling, or estimation and statistical testing of economic models.  For most theologians, the mathematical prerequisites for engaging with contemporary mainstream economics are significant. Economists perhaps have an even more difficult task because it is easy as a regular church attender to mislead oneself about one’s depth of theological understanding (which is not the same thing as quality of one’s Christian life). Theology is a demanding academic discipline, requiring expertise in languages, history, philosophy and a degree of subtlety that often eludes economists. As well as the prerequisite skills and knowledge, the very different disciplinary cultures of economics and theology mean that time learning the culture of the other tribe is necessary even to understand the other tribe.

 These incentive problems are greatest for the young and untenured economist or theologian.  Once an investment is made in particular analytical tools or research area then it is very hard for the career minded academic economist or theologian to reinvest in order to undertake interdisciplinary work. This is why it is most commonly retired economists or retired theologians who begin to write in the other field.

Incentive problems are also greater for high ability economists and theologians doing mainstream work at well-resourced institutions, because the opportunity costs of interdisciplinary work are higher.   Ability and research support matter, and this aspect of the incentive problem may contribute to the low quality of some interdisciplinary work.

 No simple schema can adequately capture the difficulties, but the following figure is offered on the barriers to interdisciplinary engagement:


Incentive and intellectual barriers table

The four quadrants of the figure represent different combinations of incentive and intellectual barriers to interdisciplinary engagement.

In the top right quadrant, the intellectual difficulties of interdisciplinary work are high but incentive barriers are low.   This is the typical situation in US Christian colleges.  Many such colleges mandate integrative scholarship or use it as a signal of commitment to the institutional mission in promotion or tenure decisions. Or they might provide particularly generous and undiscriminating funding for integrative scholarship. If it is used in this way the quality of the scholarship does not matter much, and the result predicted by incentive economics is an avalanche of safe, ill-informed and shoddy integrative scholarship. Such a result was observed by David Richardson in his survey of Christian scholarship on economics (see Richardson 1988, which he updates in Richardson 2014).

This tendency to low quality work is magnified by something similar to the “lemons” mechanism described by Akerlof (1970).  George Akerlof considered the market for used cars where limited information available to the buyer about the quality of used cars means that buyers rationally assume cars on the market are poor quality “lemons” - sellers cannot get a good price for quality used cars, and the market often collapses. The mainstream economist or theologian with limited information about the other field has difficulty distinguishing good interdisciplinary scholarship from the rubbish, and rationally expects there is a low probability of coming across good work, and so ignores the whole literature on economics and theology. This kills the market for interdisciplinary scholarship on the demand side.

 So, despite the low incentive barriers in US Christian colleges to supplying interdisciplinary research on economics and theology, little high-quality work is produced, and such high-quality work that is produced is not adequately rewarded. This is an especially unfair outcome for scholars producing high quality interdisciplinary scholarship at US Christian colleges.

 The other area where low-quality interdisciplinary work abounds is the theological sub-discipline of Christian ethics. Ethicists have a professional imperative to write about economics and economic issues, for reasons like those in the opening paragraphs of this chapter.  This imperative exists regardless of their expertise in economics, and their audience is mostly other theologians or clerics who similarly lack the expertise to properly evaluate the economic aspects of interdisciplinary work. So we have another area where the incentive barriers are low and the Akerlof lemons problem of a small amount of valuable work being swamped by endless ill-informed tirades against economics, the neo-liberal economic order, and related bogeys. Most economists therefore quite rationally ignore the whole field of Christian ethics.

 Consider now the bottom left quadrant where incentive barriers to research on economics and theology are high but intellectual barriers low.  This is often the situation in UK/Australian or US research universities. Here interdisciplinary work is paradoxically likely to be most fruitful – that which is produced will tend to be of high quality.

 The bottom right quadrant is similar but the relaxation of the incentive barrier to research on economics and theology increases the amount of high quality research.  There is sadly no environment in contemporary academia that corresponds to this.

 In the top left quadrant where both incentive and intellectual barriers are high there is little or no research on economics and theology.



Akerlof, G. A. (1970). “The Market for "Lemons": Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism.” Quarterly Journal of Economics  84(3): 488-500.

Oslington, P., Ed. (2003).  Economics and Religion. International Library of Critical Writings in Economics  Cheltenham, Edward Elgar  2 volumes.

Oslington, P., Ed. (2014).  Oxford Handbook of Christianity and Economics. Oxford, OUP.

Oslington, P., P. S. Williams and M. L. Hirschfeld, Eds. (2018).  Recent Developments in Economics and Religion. International Library of Critical Writings in Economics.  Cheltenham, Edward Elgar.

Richardson, J. D. (1988). “Frontiers in Economics and Christian Scholarship.” Christian Scholars Review  17(4): 381-400.

Richardson, J. D. (2014). "Interface and Integration in Christian  Economics" in Oxford Handbook of Christianity and Economics edited by P. Oslington. Oxford, OUP: 282-304.

Klein, Julie Thompson. (1990). Interdisciplinarity: History, Theory, and Practice Detroit, Wayne State University Press.

Waterman, A. M. C. (1987). “Economists on the Relation between Political Economy and Christian Theology: A Preliminary Survey.” International Journal of Social Economics  14(6): 46-68.


Paul Oslington is Professor of Economics at Alphacrucis, the national college of the Pentecostal movement in Australia. Alphacruics was ranked no. 1 in Ausstralia across all universities and colleges for student satisfaction with the overall quality of educational experience in postgraduate business and management courses, according to the most recent government QILT survey of student experience.