Classifying Economics: A History of the JEL Codes

41 Pages Posted: 18 Dec 2014 Last revised: 1 May 2017

See all articles by Beatrice Cherrier

Beatrice Cherrier

CNRS; University of Cergy-Pontoise - THEMA

Date Written: June 12, 2015


In this paper, I suggest that the history of the classification used by the American Economic Association to list economic literature and scholars is a relevant proxy to understand the transformation of economics science throughout the 20th century. Successive classifications were fashioned through heated discussions on the status of theoretical and empirical work, data and measurement, and proper objects of analysis. They also reflected the contradictory demands of users, including economists but also civil servants, journalists, publishers, librarians and military, and rapidly changing institutional and technological constraints.

Until the late 1940s, disagreements on the general structure of the classification dominated AEA discussions. As the subject matters, methods and definition of economics rapidly evolved after the war, methodological debates raged on the status of theoretical and empirical work and on the degree of unification of the discipline. It was therefore the ordering and content of major categories that was closely discussed during the 1956 revision. The 1966 revision, in contrast, was fueled by institutional and technical transformations rather than intellectual ones. Classifiers essentially reacted to changes in the way economists' work was evaluated, in the nature and size of the literature they produced, in the publishing industry, and in the use of computer facilities. The final 1988-1990 revision was an attempt by the Journal of Literature editors to translate the mature core fields structure of their science into a set of codes and to accommodate the new types of applied work economists identified themselves with. The 1990 classification system was only incrementally transformed in the next 20 years, but that the AEA is currently considering a new revision may signal more profound changes in the structure of economics.

Keywords: classification, JEL codes, core, economic theory, applied economics, American Economic Association

JEL Classification: A10, A14, B10, B20, B00

Suggested Citation

Cherrier, Beatrice, Classifying Economics: A History of the JEL Codes (June 12, 2015). Journal of Economic Literature, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: or

Beatrice Cherrier (Contact Author)

CNRS ( email )

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Paris, 75794

University of Cergy-Pontoise - THEMA ( email )

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F-95011 Cergy-Pontoise Cedex, 95011

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