Economics in Popular Film




Note Bene:  This course is open to all students. No prerequisites. Please note that all films will be streamed on demand by LITS.

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An introduction to political economy using a wide range of popular films as the object of analysis.  The films are analyzed as both representations of reality and expressions of social relationships, including economic relationships. However, we also recognize that films may, at times, reflect poetic visions of human consciousness and relationships. Thus, films sometimes are attempts to capture certain real aspects of social life and, at other times, films are poetry. Both these approaches to film may contain information useful for identifying relationships that shape economic decisions, as well as providing insights into observations, data collection and analysis. For example, The Matrix will serve as the foundation for a discussion of epistemology, ontology, and different conceptualizations of society, and the role of these differences in shaping observed economic decisions; Matewan, The Mission, Norma Rae, and Do the Right Thing will serve as raw material for an exploration of a general concept of constrained decision making and income/wealth distribution. Comparative analysis of social systems depicted in films provides insight into the various ways in which political, cultural, economic, and environmental conditions generate class processes and highly variable income distributions. For instance, feudalism, slavery, communism, capitalism, and self-employment have shaped different social relationships and income distributions. Economic processes, particularly class processes, have differential impacts on the natural environment. Erin Brockovich is a film that provides an opportunity to explore the mutual determination of economic, environmental, and cultural processes. The course will also look at the finance nexus, which is a critical element in the evolution of certain economic systems, particularly in the growth of slavery in the 17th century through much of the 19th century, and the dramatic growth of capitalism in the 19th century and beyond. Oliver Stone's Wall Street provides an excellent "text" for exploring financial developments in the 1980s and J.C. Chandor's Margin Call does the same for the 2008 financial crisis.

The basic goal of the course is for students to learn the basic concepts and logic of economic theories, orthodox and heterodox, and the language of contemporary social scientific debates over class, agency, colonialism and post-colonialism, and structuralism and post-structuralism. Economic concepts will be used in a variety of theoretical contexts in producing different understandings of the market, freedom, bureaucracy, state, labor, capital, and so on.

The course begins with an exploration of identity formation, epistemology, and consciousness. Economic theory is analyzed as a lens shaping the way reality is perceived. The neoclassical concept of autonomous preference orderings and utility maximization as the key to understanding agency is juxtaposed to contemporary theories in psychology and alternative economic conceptions of agency and subjectivity. Film as cultural artifact, an embodiment of theories (representations of the world shaped by theories), is understood, in this context, as both an object to be analyzed (theory deployed in making sense of the composition of the film) and as a transmitter of theories (carriers of culture). Thus, exploring film is, in a fundamental sense, an act of intellectual archeology (as Foucault would have put it). The first film examined in the course, The Matrix conceptualizes consciousness and identity as fluid and malleable, human experience as subject to interpretation and reconstitution, and poses epistemological questions about perceptions of reality and will, therefore, serve as an appropriate starting point for this journey.

A key objective of the course is to help students to become comfortable engaging in discussions of economic and broader social scientific issues. There are no prerequisites for this course.


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This is not a course in the economics of the film industry.

This course provides an introduction to both the study of economics and film studies. Since this course began about twenty years ago, it has been much imitated and inspired academic papers and books, some referencing the course and others not, including at least one paper that takes many of the films used in this course and attempts to illustrate the way they could be used to teach neoclassical economics. Imitation is, indeed, the best form of flattery.

It is hoped that students will become more comfortable using economic theory for analysis and be capable of constructing stories using more sophisticated economic analysis (including the use of such theoretical tools for creative writing purposes).

Grading will be based on three papers (the first paper contributes 20%, the second paper 25% of the course grade, and the third paper contributes 35% of the course grade). Class participation contributes 20% of the course grade.    

Key Concepts:

  • Epistemology and Ontology
  • Class and Income Distribution
  • Behavior and Economic Outcomes
  • Externalities
  • Capital and Finance
  • Comparative Economic Systems
  • Economic Crises




    Copyright 1999-2016 Satya J. Gabriel, Mt. Holyoke College