Decolonising and Diversifying Economics and Economic History (audio)

Speakers: Dr Ariane Agunsoye (Goldsmiths) and Professor Tirthankar Roy (LSE)

Chair: Dr. Akile Ahmet (Eden Centre, LSE)

20 February 2020 13.00-14.00 at CBG.1.04 

Listen to the talk here , transcript of the discussion given below.

This discussion is part of the Eden Centre initiated ’Thinking about Decolonising’ series

About Speakers

Ariane Agunsoye is a Lecturer in Economics in the Institute of Management Studies at Goldsmiths.  Her current research interests are centered on the impact of financialization on everyday life. In particular, she is interested in interdisciplinary approaches in studying financialization, combining social theory, finance, cultural and political economy. She is on the management committee of the Association for Heterodox Economics, on the steering committee of and a member of Reteaching Economics.

Tirthankar Roy is a Professor in Economic History at LSE. He teaches South Asia and Global History at the LSE, and the author of India in the World Economy from Antiquity to the Present, besides other books and articles. His work on economic history tries to answer three questions.  Is there a long-term pattern in Indian capitalism? When did the big breaks occur in that pattern? Does history help us understand how capitalism in India works today?

Akile Ahmet is an  Academic Developer for Inclusive Education in LSE Eden Centre and a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. Akile was previously a Senior Lecturer in the sociology of race and racism at Middlesex University where she developed, taught and led modules on race and racism

This event is organised by Eden Centre for Education Enhancement, Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity (LSE) and Decolonising LSE Collective   


Ariane Agunsoye

I am here on behalf of DEcon – the insights I am presenting to you are from the D-Econ committee overall.

D-Econ is a group where we as early career academics and researchers realized while going to economics conferences that quite often keynote speakers and panelists are always people from specific backgrounds. So we started to question this and think about what should be done in the future to diversify and decolonise this. That is mainly the background of D-Econ and how we set it up.  We started to work on different initiatives last year in March.

There are 3 key issues which we identified in economics connected to lack of diversity; they are:

Theoretical and methodological approaches,

Representation in the economics discipline as lecturers and as academics in general but also in the student bodies and conferences and publications.

Implication on what kind of knowledge we teach students, and how we approach inequalities research.

Even though gender is discussed more widely and even in main stream economics approaches now, or in career (job adverts etc- ) that there needs to be more diversity (in hiring), this in itself is not going to help – because that approach basically individualizes the problem.  For instance, mainstream programs are set up to support individual people to adjust to fit into the system. This is something we are critical about; we want to challenge that this is not just about individuals, but also about main structure and systemic issues.

Three main D s  – Deficits –are also currently part of a book project in collaboration with rethinking economics:

Representation deficit –who is represented as economists. There was a famous paper by Alice Wu (2017) that highlighted how female economists are treated differently than male economists. For instance lot of times attributes like being married, or pregnant or how we dress, are more important than academic attributes.

Just to give you an anecdote of my own experience which recently happened. I went to a conference in Poland and basically there was not a single female keynote speaker – at the same time the female academics, even though they all had same qualifications, were largely responsible for taking care of the catering and transport logistics.

Among the economics worldwide, female economics consist of just 19%. In the UK it is 29%, however, only 17%  at the professor level. So there is an issue of promotion.  In UK, BAME people are roughly 13 %, but only 6% work as academics. In the UK in 2017, in different disciplines, only 6 female black professors were in economics.

So where does this comes from. One issue is the publication itself. Of the top 4 economics journal just 15% had female authors, out of those only 8% were majority female- (most of the times not the main author) and only 4% were by female single author. For females it takes longer time to get published compared to male authors. In US, 62% of African American female economists stated that they experienced harassment, bullying and unfair treatment. In the UK too female academics quite often express about this unequal treatment.

Knowledge deficit: What kind of knowledge we see predominantly in economics and how it is produced.  There is high focus on mathematical modeling and certain view of universal approaches rather than recognizing local histories. Here the journals quite often act as gatekeepers. The ranking also plays a role in how and what kind of research methods they accept,.

The discriminatory practices are also implemented through the wider distribution of university practices. For example in Brazil, there is an attempt now to make it more standardized – similar to the UK.

In SA teaching is mainly uses US or UK textbooks, despite that students come from diverse backgrounds. So students don’t seem to relate to the books- they share different forms of  – for example how to set up a business is not just about the profit but also about relationships.

Why does this matter- why do we care about it- because if we have more different insights first of all we represent a more holistic view of the world. For example female academics tend to focus more on unpaid labour, and this is not recognized in the GDP; or different policy practices. For example, income distribution policies, or to set labour standards. Men are more critical of environment friendly solutions, but focus on market friendly solutions.

This influences the policies we introduce-  for example difference between financialisation and asset based welfare. Financialisation, for example argues –  by giving wide access to Finance to everyone, we become equals in society, However, as shown during the financial crisis, financial institutions mainly targeted female and ethnic minority population to sell subprime mortgages and those were the ones predominantly got affected afterwards.

Communication deficit- how do economists communicate? Quite often as David Colander has shown – economics is seen as superior to other social science- more scientific. – hence don’t necessarily communicate to everyone

Even there are problems in what they communicate. For example, 77% of the fictional people in examples are male – no representation from different ethnicities or gender. If there are, then most of the times – (this analysis is based on 9 most dominant text books) it is not in leadership roles or analytical roles.

 Economists speak in abstract  and non-inclusive terms, and not interested in communicating with the everyday world. The study that compared  25 most followed economics and the 25 most followed natural scientists using a 10 year twitter feed of 128,000 tweets, the natural scientists explained in more  accessible language whereas economists  tended to use very abstract terms, and developed a barrier with everyday person.

So economists are seen as  least trusted professionals below only journalists and politicians.

So what do we want to do with DEcon – we want to have a holistic approach and emphasize decolonizing.  We need to unpack where and how ideas are coming from. We need different methodological and theoretical approaches that can represent diverse identities and geographies.

The question is then how do we do that?

We set up different working groups in key areas. We are setting up different data bases- of scholars, of knowledge in non-English language, (to move beyond the English dominance and recognise studies from other countries), through translations etc.  We create alternate reading lists, we want to develop in future guidelines for conferences and institutions how to make it representative of the population.  There is a lot of resistance about this – with arguments like ‘we are free to read whatever we like’.

We are currently working on ways to improve the curriculum, by unpacking where knowledge comes from – not just adding options like economic history etc, but have it integrated in the program in itself.

Things to think about  include  – who writes, who benefits, who is missing? Who are we teaching, what authors are we including, is it a diverse reading list, is it predominantly white males, are different perspectives include- what kind of subjects are being included? How do we teach – quite often it is about the lecturer giving information. In order for critical thinking it is important to have a different method and different engagement. How do we assess these approaches then – essays or exams- or something else?  Who does the teaching – and how does research feed into teaching ?

Focus on developing knowledges – than knowledge (rather than rely on one economics txt books – diversify – different sources of information – blogs, and all), Integrate economic geography, economic anthropology, etc. Making sure you diversify the methods- more than quantitative economics, econometrics, etc. Integrate student expectations – by asking in the beginning

Thank you.

Professor Thirthankar Roy

I studied in India, and my academic career in India is longer than my time in LSE, so I will draw on that experience to talk about different dimension of the problems, but there are over laps with what Arianne talked about – fundamentally the problems are similar. 

In more precise terms – I am going to talk abut diversifying the curriculum more fully to include non-western world more fully than it is done now in teaching and research globally. I will draw on my field of research economic history; my field of training is economics, so I will switch between the two

I will express dislike for the world decolonisation to begin with and move on. The reason being it is a politically loaded word – it suggest to us that there is some kind of sinister conspiracy by a group of people to colonize or control intellectual disciplines and here we re a bunch of resistance fighters trying to break that. That misreads the problem quite a bit; the problem we are discussing here are legacies of intellectual history; the way some of these field are developed –  traditional disciplines within social science including economics and economic history .

Also decolonisation poses a certain danger- a risk – that decolonizing the field could be used as a trope to endorse certain nationalistic approaches , nationalist history which is a big problem in popular discourse in economic history.

However diversification I like, and I will try to talk about that. Why do I like diversification?

Most traditional social science disciplines have been very non diverse because they emerged in 19th century Europe to explain Europe’s rapid transformation that was going on then.  That legacy persists in methods, questions, examples, readings, location of social and intellectual hubs, journal editorial officers, and among editors themselves, editor’s biases and orientation. It is a big problem.

However it stopped being a static history, there have been big shocks in the world, and every time there is a shock it shook up the discipline as well, none more so than social science.  That happened with rise of communism in the 1940s, rise of Japan in 1950s, East Asian miracle of 1980s and we are living through another transition now- rise of India, China and other emerging economies.  

That creates two types of challenges – to diversify curriculum in older schools to make it in tune with what is going on the rest of the world, and also to rethink curriculum in the emerging economic schools.

We all know the problem tat many emerging economies face in reforming or producing a world class social science curriculum – that project hasn’t really emerged in a big way – many of the schools are following behind- in social science than in science and technology – and I will talk about why that is a particular problem – why is it so.

I will talk about this two and join these at the end. There are lessons for us here.

Going back to my student days as a undergraduate and postgraduate student – I studied in this small university town – away from Calcutta.  The economics I studied had a split down the middle. Half of our curriculum was theory – which copied American textbooks very faithfully-   which is what we studied as theory. And then there was another half that was called Indian economics very vaguely, which basically copied government reports of very low quality descriptive textbooks.

There was a clear disjoint between the two – we didn’t worry about it because all we wanted was just to get a degree and get a job- but looking back this was absurd-

We learned in American text books that market prices vary, markets clear; but most markets were regulated in India, they didn’t clear. We studied that production function in agriculture has 3 things – land, labour and capital. But you start doing agriculture in India economic textbooks and you hear that agriculture in India is a gamble with monsoon; where is monsoon in the production function? I can give you many examples of such mismatches.

Far more than that what it created was caste system among economists going through this education process. There were schools like Delhi School of Economics, Presidency College in Calcutta etc., where the theory training was quite good following American text books by teachers who were being trained in the US or Britain. These were finishing schools for students going to US to do their doctorate. And that job was done quite efficiently.

And there were a huge number of others who finished their MSc’s or doctorates in India who grew up with the illusion that they knew India much better. However, it is the US guys who publish in the big journals, they have much more prestige, their degree carries more weight, and this is not fair.

And the legacy of this caste system – or distrust or a lack of faith between these two types of products of the same system has persisted until the present times. You open any applied economics journal and see the articles  – almost all of them are collaborated- see who is collaborating with whom- you will very rarely find an article which deals with Asia or Africa collaborating with a scholar based in Asia or Africa. It doesn’t happen often.

As I said – as an undergraduate or postgraduate student in India, we didn’t worry about it, we just wanted to get good jobs.

But I ended up doing PhD in this place Centre for Development Studies (CDS) – in Trivandrum in Kerala – and some people including one of my teachers in a top university worried about this problem – of this caste system – the split down the middle.

It turned out – I didn’t know it then, that the CDS was set up by a bunch of people who thought about this and wanted to reform things. And what they did was this – they taught economics, with a different set of text books- we had a pre-PhD training for intensive 18 months before we moved into research. That had courses called micro, macro, standard ones; statistics and econometrics doesn’t pose any problem because they are tools, but in theory our teachers moved towards heterodoxy.

So in Macroeconomics while you will learn about usual stuff, we also had a very well written but crazily offbeat textbook that taught us how economic surplus was transferred from the country side to the city.

And in researching economics we had another message – that don’t think that research is about applying your training to practical fields. It is about explaining an observation that you pick up from anywhere. By reading books, news papers, going to country side and observing something; use your common sense to pick out that stylized fact, then try to explain it –and in the process think about where else in the social science has that problem been noticed and explained. Pick up your message from that need-based menu of approach – don’t think that economics research is about application of theoretical tools that you learned and that it will remain in your tool box for ever – your tool box needs to change from time to time.

I learned a positive and a negative lessons from this

The positive lesson was emphasis on common sense and observation is a very good one. It made my research definitely much more interesting that it might have otherwise been. I don’t select a research problem – now for a long time – based on what I read in the economic history journals. They don’t often inspire me – lot of that is about Europe and North America.

I read a body of sources randomly- and try to find out if there is a puzzle out there that nobody has written about –and then I go back to econ history journals to find out what insights I can get from there- this has been a lot of fun. 

But, teaching is another matter. And CDS itself very quickly within a few years gave up this model of teaching macro economics with offbeat textbooks. And the reason I can see very clearly- is – grounding in heterodoxy doesn’t work – if you do not have grounding in orthodoxy first. You do not see where the innovation is.

The second problem – is that theory is not only a problem solving tool in economics, it is also a language – it is a ticket to a guild – if you don’t know that language or speak the language of other economics professors, then you aren’t a member of that guild –and people will need to do that to learn that language – just to show that I am like you- I fulfill the bench mark of quality that you apply – and there is no real other bench mark of quality of people.

To conclude then – what do I think is the way forward on this diversification agenda?

My message is based on my own experience to – research administrators, coordinators whatever you call it, the journal editors, they are the key people here – is to shed method fetish, be experimental, diversify questions and observations, no matter what kind of tool box is bought to use to explain those observations.

On teaching I will be much more conservative- because I don’t know any other model – which is, do not shed method fetish in a hurry – keep that as a long term goal – we don’t know of any alternative pathway at this point-

Thank you.

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