By Deepak Kumar, Carolina Alves, Aditi Dixit, and Surbhi Kesar
In a world marked by stark hierarchies, the constitution of knowledge is not immune to social contradictions. Varied axes of power relations among and across genders, classes, races, castes, and nations play a pivotal role in the making, remaking, and regulation of knowledge. Critical scholars from across the disciplinary and geographical spectrum have tried to understand how the social production of knowledge perpetuates inequitable power (see Stoddard, 2007).
This phenomenon is all the more critical in the field of economics where the disciplinary objective is the study of economic relations through which societies create and distribute wealth. The role of economics has not only been to passively identify and analyse these relations but also in actively moulding them. Given the significance of the economic in reproducing the social, it is important that economics as a discipline be conscious of the myriad ways in which these hierarchies influence the scope of its study, its frameworks, and methods of analyses.
Mainstream and the scientific method
While social reality is shaped by historical contingency and social conflict, mainstream economics is premised on eternal natural laws and harmony of social interests. The discipline relies on an approach that is largely limited to viewing social behaviour through the lens of methodological individualism and economic macrodynamics within the framework of equilibrium solutions of mathematical models (Hausman, 1992; Dow, 1997; Alves and Kvangraven, 2020). In this view, the ‘scientific’ progress of the discipline has been an incremental march, each ‘development’ leaving behind some inadequacy in theories past, towards a more proximate understanding of historically invariant laws.
Ideologues and adherents have rationalised this view of a ‘pure economics’ on grounds of a near exclusive claim among social sciences on the scientific method. They argue that it proffers on their disciplinary framework, and by extension its practice, a ‘value-neutrality’ – impartiality and overcoming of biases – that other approaches and social science disciplines purportedly lack (Robbins, 1932; Friedman, 1966). This is expressed in the branding of ‘economic sciences’ that gained common currency through the 20th century.
The belief and attachment to a unique ‘way’ to do economics has imbibed in it an inflexible hierarchy, with scholars located in positions of relative privilege having disproportionate influence in defining and regulating necessary bounds of knowledge and participation. This gatekeeping is evidenced in the tyranny of the top five journals (Heckman and Moktan, 2020), the prejudice against ideas from outside the economics mainstream (Javdani and Chang, 2019), the exclusion of heterodox contributions from mainstream journals (Reardon, 2008), dominance of the US and Europe in the discipline (Das et al, 2013), and the largely white male social constitution of the profession (Bayer and Rouse, 2016; CSMGEP, 2020).
There are inherent limitations in searching for invariant laws of the social world in the image of the natural sciences. People’s behaviour is shaped by a confluence of social, economic, cultural, and legal factors; coevolving with their relation to the natural-physical world. The laws of motion of society are then far more contingent, diverse, and volatile than can be accommodated in the reductive estimation of science subscribed to by mainstream economists. The issue here is not one of whether some degree of abstraction is necessary (to which the answer is yes), but rather if such unrealistic assumptions and claims of universality, objectivity, and neutrality are necessary.
Heterodoxy, diversification, and decolonisation
The discipline’s monolithic approach has limited the development of a pluralist intellectual edifice suited to study the reproductive mechanism of the economic system and the society in which it is embedded. It does this by delegitimising and relegating to the side-lines people and perspectives whose contribution to knowledge systems is at odds with and therefore poses a challenge to this ideological hegemony.
This hegemony has from the outset birthed opposition from scholars and allies located on the punitive end of exploitative social relations. Contributions from feminists, people of colour, scholars from the underdeveloped world, and scholars writing from non-mainstream perspectives have not only advocated greater representation and diversity of perspectives in the discipline but also enriched its practice by overcoming scholarly limitations of its more orthodox persuasions. They have operated – at times only implicitly – within the mould of heterodoxy given its more organic treatment of power.
Take, for instance, issues surrounding gender. Feminist contributions alleviate the otherwise blindness of economics to gender (Ferber and Nelson, 1993). Their contributions supplant much of the traditional mainstream analysis based on rational-choice and utility-maximizing frameworks by gendered processes and embeddedness of individual action in social and economic structures (England, 1989; Ferber, 2003; Woolley, 1989).
In the same vein, economists working on the political economy of race emphasise mechanisms and practices that give rise to unequal opportunities and the explicit discrimination that racial minorities confront in the labour market. They centre the role of power, emphasise the social construction of race, and focus on social relations that condition these economic outcomes. This explicitly contests the mainstream frameworks that explain racial inequalities as mere outcomes of differences in productivity owing to differences in human capital, preference, market incompleteness, or informational asymmetries (Feiner and Roberts 1990; Darity et al, 2006; Cook & Kongcharoen, 2010).
There have, likewise, been remarkable contributions from the peripheral economies of the world, examining how unequal global relations have affected economic outcomes for underdeveloped countries (Shie & Meer, 2010; Patnaik & Patnaik, 2016). A distinctive illustration is the sharp criticism of structural-adjustment policies (Ghosh, 1997, Chandrasekhar and Ghosh, 2002) expressly rationalised with the self-assured ‘value-free’ and ‘scientific’ claims of mainstream economists. Furthermore, several scholars from the South have critiqued the conception of economic development in the image of capitalist institutions of the Global North (Frank, 1967; Amin, 2009) and have articulated alternative ways of understanding the post-colonial development process (Sanyal, 2007).
These instances are illustrative of how a pluralist approach to economics has strengthened not only the representative element in the discipline but also its intellectual prowess in explaining the nature and dynamics of economic relations.
Resolving the contradictions
An intellectual project that seeks to decolonise and diversify economics then necessarily progresses through a re-examination of the philosophical and methodological basis of mainstream economics and by questioning its disconcerting lack of representation in terms of both identity and alternate schools of thought. It is by design a radical project. It is not, however, without formidable opposition from entrenched interests in the discipline.
Mainstream economic thought plays a fundamental role in reproducing and valorising structures of power both in its disciplinary practice and in the social world it seeks to investigate. In doing so, it in effect hinders the progress of the discipline and its potentially progressive, democratising welfare implications for the real world. The nature of contradictions arising in the contemporary world – intensifying social hierarchies, their reactionary political manifestations, and pressing ecological constraints – demand from the discipline breaking of these restrictive moulds that hinder their comprehension and their resolution.
The D-Econ blog series is a collective initiative to bring together contributions from academics and activists who share the vision of decolonisation and diversification of economics. It is a positive project of enhancing scholarship that challenges the Global North-centric mainstream understanding and its universal and objective claim. It promotes a diverse community of scholars and pluralism of perspectives in order to emancipate the economic study of society from the restrictive clutches of privilege and power. It seeks to engage with a community of scholars employing a Global South-centric lens of analyses, located in marginalised social spaces, and discuss issues and concerns systematically overlooked in the discipline. In doing so it hopes to democratise participation and practice of the discipline, to better understand and overcome the intense social contradictions of the contemporary world.
The blog facilitates conversations that explore and emphasise how varied axes of power relations, such as gender, class, race, caste, colonialism, religion, and sexuality among others, affect participation in the academy, limit knowledge production, and contribute to its colonisation. Through this engagement, it seeks to enrich the economic study of society with a plurality of perspectives and methods rooted in objective realities of marginalised and oppressed communities.