We tell of the evolving meaning of the term coordination as used by economists. The paper is based on systematic electronic searches (on “coord,” etc.) of major works and leading journals. The term coordinationfirst emerged in professional economics around 1880, to describe the directed productive concatenation of factors or activities within a firm. Also, transportation economists used the term to describe the concatenation of routes and trips of a transportation system. These usages represent what we term concatenate coordination. The next major development came in the 1930s from several LSE economists (Hayek, Plant, Hutt, and Coase), who extended that concept beyond the eye of any actual coordinator. That is, they wrote of the concatenate coordination of a system of polycentric or spontaneous activities. These various applications of concatenate coordination prevailed until the next major development, namely, Thomas Schelling and game models. Here coordination referred to a mutual meshing of actions. Game theorists developed crisp ideas of coordination games (like “battle of the sexes”), coordination equilibria, convention, and path dependence. This “coordination” was not a refashioning, but rather a distinct concept, one we distinguish as mutual coordination. As game models became more familiar to economists, it was mutual coordination that economists increasingly had in mind when they spoke of “coordination.” Economists switched, so to speak, to a new semantic equilibrium. Now, mutual coordination overshadows the older notion of concatenate coordination. The two senses of coordination are conceptually distinct and correspond neatly to the two dictionary definitions of the verb to coordinate. Both are crucial to economics. We suggest that distinguishing between the two senses can help to clarify “coordination” talk. Also, compared to talk of “efficiency” and “optimality,” concatenate coordination allows for a richer, more humanistic, and more openly aesthetic discussion of social affairs. The narrative is backed up by Excel worksheets that report on systematic content searches of the writings of economics using the worldwide web and, using JSTOR, of Quarterly Journal of Economics, Economic Journal, Journal of Political Economy, American Economic Review, and Economica.
Related content: Working Paper No. 116
Klein, D. & Orsborn, A. (2009). ”Concatenate coordination and mutual coordination.”Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 72(1): 176-187.