Decolonising Knowledge in the Medium of a Monolithic Language

by Farwa Sial

‘If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different world.’

– Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Matters of form, usually viewed as ornament, are commonly in fact matters of argument.’

– McCloskey (1992:56).

This short article explores the construction of Economic Neologism in English and its global impact on shaping implicit and explicit policies in countries around the world. I focus on how economic neologisms in English language project an air of neutrality, but in fact have no basis in the socio-economic realities of developing countries. This is demonstrated through explaining 

a) the role of English as an organised system of thought,

b) the nature of academic English in economics and its influence on developing countries,

c) a recent example of the use of Value of Statistical Life (VSL) in Pakistan based on a misguided comparison with the US, and

d) the limitations of interpreting other languages in English. 

English as an Organised System of Thought

One of the great successes of empire, binding its economic and cultural usurpation of the colonies, was the proliferation of English as a global language and as the only ‘official’ language of the world.  The strength of this legacy has defied time; the diverse geographies, languages and cultures of India are more strongly overcome by the use of English today than by any local language, signifying how English, as the language of the colonial state, took precedence over the many languages of India.

Although the Francophone sphere has remained a well-preserved niche, this enclave is no match for the global stamp of English. Outside the colonies, English has very much overshadowed the regionalism of the European Union (EU). International organisations such as the UN, IMF and the World Bank continue to lean towards the ascendency of English, in spite of their charters of multiple languages. The rise of the Chinese language as a formidable opponent, is uncertain.

As the most dominant currency, English is not particular to race, but cuts across class and geography. Its exclusiveness is not so much in the basics of the spoken word but in the intricacies of how it fuels knowledge. People across countries can communicate on some basic level using minimal English, but the source of its inaccessibility lies in the dense articulation of the language as a specialised realm of knowledge production.  This is not straightforward, since many academics from developed countries do not use English as a first language; on the other hand, many in developing countries have learned it from their earliest years of education. Nonetheless, a distinction emerges in the use of English, not simply as a language of communication but as an organised system of thought. The empire’s proliferation of language reproduced a structure of socialisation, which streamlined a linear set of ideas as opposed to embracing diverse and alternative systems of thought.

The Russian linguist V.N Voloshinov, explored the origins of language as an inherently social phenomenon, and saw language as the most efficient medium of capturing the dynamics of material changes. He described the ‘word’ as ‘the most sensitive index of social changes’ (Voloshinov 1973:19). Importantly, for Voloshinov, the significance of words was not just limited to their representational role of capturing change but went beyond the symbolism, enabling a transformation, which added new dimensions and layers to a word’s original meaning.

‘‘[l]ooked at from the angle of our concerns, the essence of this problem comes down to how actual existence…determines the sign and how the sign reflects and refracts existence in its process of generation (ibid:19).

Voloshinov aimed to develop a theory of linkages between structure and agency in the framework of particular semantic frameworks. His emphasis here is on how signs are influenced; refracting the material and social existence of a phenomenon. The socialised impact of English, as an imperial language lies not simply in what it signifies but also in what forms its refractions take on. Patois and Pidgin English are some particular linguistic examples. Additionally, English has also been instrumental in exporting Anglo-American soft power to developing countries. This is visible especially in the formation and the role of media in developing countries (Suleria 2016). These derivative languages and effectively hollowed cultural influences are accompanied by the shaping of the global academic landscape, with English as the monopolistic medium for exploring knowledge. The consumption of the English language, precedes consumption, in any sphere of knowledge. In economics, the refractive role of English lies in how it shapes ideas and economic policies.

The Medium is the Message

As a conduit of pedagogy, the English language has a history of not simply conveying the message but actively creating it. Concepts like ‘western enlightenment’, ‘scientific rationality’ of the market and a consequent linear vision of growth, encompass a message of neutrality because the language embeds an exclusivity, canonising a singular system of thought. This canonisation is fuelled by ideologies, which seek homogenisation across geographies; the ‘Washington Consensus’ for instance was exported beyond Washington but never as a consensus. In addition, compared to other social sciences, economic concepts and neologisms, carry the potential of shaping the entire direction of scholarship. A brief look at any basic course in the history of economic thought verifies this.

The ascendency of neoclassical economics and its impact in transforming the entire discipline to become an imitation of natural sciences had a reductive impact on the scope of economics as a social science. For Mirowski (1993) the pursuit of projecting economics as a ‘science’, borrowing metaphors from physics and resorting to mathematical formalism is rooted in the Western tradition of economics. By imitating natural sciences and giving a central value to empiricism, neoclassical economics transforms how metaphors operate. This is evident in metaphors, which constitute the conceptual basis and pedagogy of economics using natural laws but ultimately bearing little resemblance to the social processes, which constitute an economy. Statistical rigour, and mathematical proofs thus often take a life of their own by validating a seemingly value-free concept.

If economics is considered as a repository of selectivity as well as of careful omissions (McCloskey 1992) the responsibility of exploring the structure of metanarrative behind the curated message is a constant struggle for those outside this thought system. Other languages are inserted in the English language as loan words, strictly tied to culture (such as the Chinese concept of Guanxi or the Japanese business philosophy Kaizen). Words also sneak into English through a shared history of colonial/imperial experiences.  However, ‘foreign languages’ have no power to determine economic methods or produce similar neologisms. Economic concepts in English on the other hand are canonised, refracted and socialised, as the most objective and rational ways of determining other concepts such as efficiency, growth and ultimately, ways of living life.  The usage of the Value of Statistical Life (VSL) in context to the COVID-19 pandemic and its internationalisation as a ‘global policy’ tool is of relevance here.

Interrogating the Universality of Economic Neologisms: The Value of Statistical Life (VSL)

The Value of a Statistical Life (VSL)  is normally used to monetise fatality risks in cost-benefit analyses and reflects the amount of money that a society is willing to pay for the reduction in the probability of the loss of a human life. This human life is generally, a statistical, hypothetical person on a population-average basis and refers to the hypothetical victim of a circumstance or of a policy or the lack thereof, and fully discounts class, ethnicity, nationality, religion or other characteristics that such a person may or may not have. It is designed as an objective, value-neutral concept to be applicable in contexts, where cost-benefit analysis would enable a synthesis or reach an objective resolution, to an empirical evaluation of saving lives. 

As a statistical measure of predicting fatality risks, VSL, like Ogden tables[1] etc. is a construct and subject to the broader operations of how an economy is structured. This method of assessing risks to human lives are ultimately a valuation exercise and the underlying ethical concerns are tied to how capitalist systems perceive value and public utility. This is important since the construction and adoption of VSL in the US has a complex history, rooted in its origins in the Cold War.

These considerations remain unexplored, especially in the internationalisation of the concept. For example, VSL for climate change, calibrated to different contexts of developing countries, is in widespread use. These calculations do not address the fact that climate change in developing countries has been primarily led by accumulative patterns initialised and deepened by developed countries, rooted in the history of colonialism. For those arguing for a long-standing case of climate reparations, such applications of VSL to developing countries would be akin to technical fixes which pay no attention to history. Tailoring the VSL to country-contexts also raises questions about the criteria of implementing VSL based on mitigating fatality risk. Although VSL had origins in the Cold War, it has not emerged as a basis for measuring the fatality risks of soldiers or casualties in recent conflicts, for instance in the ‘War on Terror’ in Afghanistan and the invasion in Iraq.  Needless to say, in situations which  are invariably related to the opportunity cost to human life, VSL is an objectionable measure.

However, the current Covid-19 pandemic has revived the appeal of using economic modelling based on VSL. In a recent paper, Barnett-Howell & Mobarak (2020) used VSL to advocate social distancing policies in some “developed” countries as opposed to others, in the developing world. Pakistan was one of those countries cited in the paper. The Government of Pakistan eased its lockdown on May 9, 2020, with the Planning Minister invoking this paper among other reasons to support the government’s policy stance. As a result of the ease of the lockdown, the infection count in Pakistan increased from 36,000 (April-May 2020) to 165,062 (June 2020).  A full account of the paper, its critique and the situation in Pakistan has already been covered succinctly by Khurram Hussain and also debated by academics and activists here (in Urdu language). Without repeating the details of their critique, I summarise the bases for the largely erroneous use of VSL in this case, as follows.

Barnet-Howell and Mobarak’s estimated country-specific costs of mortality and use of VSL is based on another paper by Viscusi and Masterman (2017). The latter employed an analysis of data from the US Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI) to value VSL, “to avoid hypothetical bias.” Referring to low to upper-middle income countries as “economies” as opposed to upper income “countries” Viscusi & Masterman conclude from a base U.S. VSL of $9.6 million, that different countries value human life differently[2].  Following this paper, Barnet-Howell and Mobarak’s used this US VSL of $9.6 million, to then discuss essentially Covid-19 policy recommendations, employing the VSL figures suggested for different developing countries.

A first problem with this analysis is that this value does not in any way reflect the value that the US society places on a human life vis-à-vis the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead it is actually a representation of hypothetical costs to US policy makers and businesses, of making marginal improvements and mitigations to all those risks, be they in the workplace or by the quality of civic infrastructure and so on, which affect human life.  Aside from issues of monopoly pricing across the wider economy, the US has the most artificially inflated healthcare costs in the world. It would follow that VSL (if indeed a normal good as Barnett-Howell & Mobarak seem to be insinuating) would thus be equally over-valuated.

This situation is not true of other countries including emerging economies, in which different systems of goods and services pricings persist. Using this highly (and artificially) overvaluated US base VSL as a concrete foundation for “upper income countries” as the basis for an extrapolated comparison, is thus unjustified.  Alongside having amongst the highest global rates of infection and deaths, the United States also has one of the highest unemployment rates and attendant social unrest, as a result of the pandemic. The Covid-19 pandemic, if anything shows that life in the US has become exceedingly cheap, and indeed far cheaper than one would have imagined, merely a decade ago. This application of VSL in this manner, assumes that monopoly-pricing in the US, is somehow a base condition by which to measure the rest of the world. Such attempts at valuation only serve to insinuate a global marketplace for human lives, almost imperialistically conforming to the norms of the American market and economy.

Interpreting Methods

Methodological problems are often also problems of unchallenged ideas. Economic ideas, concepts and textbooks in English are translated and absorbed globally, in effect strengthening the canon as opposed to opening the space, for careful examination. Translations are not interpretations. Describing the third world literature’s feeble attempts at expanding text in other languages, Aijaz reminds us that a

 ‘mere aggregation of texts and individuals does not give rise to the construction of a counter-cannon… for the latter to arise there has to be the cement of a powerful ideology’ (Aijaz 1992:93).

Attempts at counter-ideology are made more complex, by the fact that knowledge production in English reproduces the erasure of knowledge production in other languages; many academics writing in English in fact lose formal writing and speaking skills, in their native languages.

For these reasons decolonising knowledge in economics is a complex process since it entails excavating alternatives, which demand a reimagination of possibilities and limits. Being truly multilingual would mean equal attention to all languages. Separating the objectivity of the language from its message and pluralising and empowering pedagogical practices in other languages is a start.

[1] The ‘Ogden’ tables help actuaries, lawyers and others calculate the lump sum compensation due in personal injury and fatal accident cases.

[2] According to their calculation’s lower income countries value human life at of $171,000, lower-middle income countries at $420,000 to $676,000, upper-middle income countries at $1.23 million to $2.09 million and finally the average upper income countries at $6.40 million. 

Knowledge, Power, and Economics: D-Econ Blog Launch

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.

D-Econ Blog Editorial Statement

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. The blog seeks to facilitate conversations that explore and emphasize 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 to enrich the economic study of society with a plurality of perspectives and methods rooted in objective realities of marginalised and oppressed communities. 

We are happy to receive contributions in the form of articles, opinions, and rich media content (photographic, and audio and video material). We welcome original contributions of up to 1500-2000 words and short commentaries and book reviews up to 1000 words.

Entries can be addressed to members of the editorial team at

Editorial team: 

Carolina Alves is an economist with an interest in international macro-finance, macroeconomic theory, Marxist economics and Latin America.

Aditi Dixit is a historian with an interest in social and economic history, development, and global histories of labour and capital.

Surbhi Kesar is an economist with an interest in political economy, development economics, applied microeconometrics, specifically informality, capitalist transition in labour surplus economies, and issues of growth and exclusion.

Deepak Kumar is an economist with an interest in political economy, development, philosophy, and social justice.