Economics and the decolonising agenda

SOAS Senate House

This blog explores the challenges that the decolonising agenda raises for economics teaching, particularly for those Departments like SOAS Economics that seek to pursue heterodox approaches.

Part 1: The challenges

To set the scene, it’s important to establish what we mean by the decolonising agenda.  Most of us would recognise the political manifestation of the ‘decolonising the university’ movement worldwide; the most famous being the “Rhodes Must Fall” campaigns both in South Africa and in Oxford

However, it’s sometimes less easy to distil the intellectual foundations of these movements. At SOAS we have a number of academic colleagues, such as Meera Sabaratnam, Manjeet Ramgotra and Kerem Nisancioglu, who have written on the decolonising the university agenda, and who set out these foundations well.  There are three core components to that agenda:

  1. To dispute liberal visions of the university: as a space somehow distinct from society and as a place where there is a meritocracy of ideas.  Instead, we need to recognise and work to overcome the hierarchies that exist for both staff and students in terms of access and success. These hierarchies have racial and gendered characteristics.
  2. To dispute the characterisation of the university as a gender blind and race blind institution – a space where anyone can contribute.  Instead, we need to recognise power gradients within the classroom that contribute to very different rates of success, sense of belonging, and academic expectations. This viewpoint actively seeks to cultivate a teaching space that empowers students.
  3. To highlight the way in which ‘established’ academic knowledge privileges particular views reflecting a particular global order which privileges a Western lens on global political and economic events and legitimises certain voices. This commonly results in ignoring non-Western speakers and non-Western viewpoints. Instead, these colleagues argue that we should disciplinary perspectives that are self-reflective, that understand the interests that deploy them, and understand the social impacts that they create. 

These three components allow us to see a new way forward for higher education – a way that can overcome previous exclusion and disadvantage of both certain students and certain academics.  Moreover, it promises to strengthen academic disciplines by making visible their epistemological limitations and challenging them to respond to wider viewpoints.

What challenges does decolonising then present for heterodox economics?

First, within political economy there has still been limited attention to its implications for classroom pedagogy, in terms of the need for a diversity of approaches to learning.  To some extent, we have been content with the idea that because we teach with real world examples and with less maths that all students will automatically find this more empowering.  There has been far less attention to the wider set of factors that affect the classroom and tacit nature of much of the knowledge needed for university success. The danger of this is that diverse student bodies may not see themselves as either the producer or the subject of knowledge. The danger is then that political economy or heterodox economics departments just recreate the same racial and class awarding gaps that exist within mainstream economics departments. 

More fundamentally, within the varied branches of heterodox economics, there is uneven recognition of gendered or racialised experience in economic phenomena (or indeed, sexual orientation or religious affiliation). The nature and relevance of intersectionality between class positions both for capital and for labour and how this is influenced by other socioeconomic characteristics is a long debate within political economics. However, there remain branches of work that are silent on the way that gender and race intersect with class.

Finally, there has been similarly uneven attention to the diversity of academic reproduction within political economy, in terms of the attainment of academic posts, research funding, or citations.  While heterodox economics has been, rightly, concerned with its overall preservation in an inhospitable environment, we have neglected to look at the characteristics of who it is that constitutes our academy. 

At the same time, while we have contradicted simple stories about identity (e.g. producing important critiques of popular messages such as ‘if only all central bankers were women’), we have not commonly established a view on the role that identity does play.  The danger of this is that we are seen as being irrelevant to particular categories of students and activists, and irrelevant to particular debates and political issues. Indeed, this is extraordinary when we consider that some of the most powerful thinkers within political economy have been prompted by their own social and economic marginalisation. 

Part 2: The opportunities

We pursue the discussion further by highlighting the opportunities that decolonisation presents for heterodox economics as well as by pointing to specific ways forward.

I propose that there are four areas that present a huge opportunity in terms of shared agenda and shared interests:

  • The tradition of the study of political economies can make visible the origins and purpose of the discipline of neoclassical economics. That’s important in a debate about the way that disciplines are deployed and the way academic knowledge is used and produced.
  • Specifically, Development Economics has been founded on an understanding of the historical development of the profession: not an economic history, but a history of economics.  It’s a key approach that I think is shared across every place that professes to teach political economy.
  • Political economy creates spaces for differently located debates over values and concepts.  What is economic value?  What is the market?  What is the household? These are its starting points.
  • Heterodox economics cultivates diverse geopolitical viewpoints.  We tend to eschew a universalistic model of the economy, instead favouring case studies that take place in particular geographic locations, at particular moments in time.

The challenges set out in Part 1 may explain why there has not been a significant interaction, as yet, between those working on decolonising and those who work on radical heterodox economics.   I have five suggestions about the way forward, both for the Department of Economics at SOAS, and more widely for heterodox economics. 

First, political economy’s ability to contextualise our discipline becomes hugely relevant. Heterodox economists have a long history of understanding how their disciplines (both mainstream and heterodox) have evolved, as well as a keen understanding of the way that academic viewpoints can be deployed to serve particular political interests that can be served by that. This is a key component of the decolonising agenda and an area for which both the theorisation and historiography of heterodox economics can be helpful.

Second, heterodox economics usually teaches through juxtaposition, a methodology that is commonly shared across our diverse makeup.  The tools to evaluate that this creates easily relate to the decolonising agenda of an empowering pedagogy and self-reflective approaches to the discipline.

Third, I think that the debate around classroom pedagogy could become a very exciting one for us if we can find a way that we support our students to be knowers of economic phenomena. Our diverse classrooms – people come from varied geographic backgrounds; students have different gender, class; different sexual orientation; different religious affiliation – all features that are systematically excluded from a neoclassical text book approach or included in a way that flattens and narrows them. The potential for political economy to really engage students is there if we create spaces for these kind of debates.

Fourth, in a related way, the Decolonising agenda with its focus on exclusion reinvigorates debates about the power of different social identities in economic phenomena. This creates a new space to talk about work being done on class, gender and race within heterodox economics.

Fifth and finally, we should celebrate what has been achieved in terms of academic reproduction.  The ability of heterodox economics to recognise and investigate real economic phenomena has itself proved attractive to a diverse group of young researchers, and we should both recognise and celebrate that.

Deborah Johnston completed her PhD at SOAS in 1996 and was a member of the Economics Department between 2003 and 2020 and served as pro-Director of Teaching and Learning at SOAS between 2016 and 2020.

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