Decolonising economics teaching, Part 1: Some thoughts on the curriculum

Ariane Agunsoye, Michelle Groenewald, and Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven[1]

As it is becoming increasingly clear that the social sciences, including economics, have Eurocentric and colonial roots that need to be challenged (see e.g. Charusheela and Zein-Elabdin 2004), the question of how to do so is often not adequately engaged with (Bhambra et al. 2018). For this reason, D-Econ has established a working group to discuss how to think about decolonising academia in praxis: in research, teaching, academic partnerships, publishing, hiring and promotion practises, conference organising, and more.

We have decided to share our discussions and thoughts in a series of blogs in order to stimulate debate and critical thinking about these questions, and also to seek feedback and contributions from students, academics, and other members of society beyond the D-Econ network itself.

As many of us grapple with teaching  – as students or lecturers – we start our first post with some ideas around decolonising economics curricula, while the second one is on decolonising pedagogy. Given that decolonisation is a process and a collective endeavour, we strongly encourage you to make use of the ‘comment’ feature to provide feedback, to highlight where you might differ with some of the points we have raised and to share your ideas about decolonising curricula. This post is not intended to be prescriptive, but hopefully an opportunity for meaningful discussions and more engagement on a topic too easily dismissed and often largely unaddressed by many in the economics discipline.

Decolonisation as process

Before we launch into a discussion of how we might think through the process of decolonising the curriculum and what it can entail in practice, we want to emphasise that decolonisation is a much bigger and wider process than simply challenging the colonial university. Nonetheless, universities were also key sites through which colonialism was institutionalised and naturalised, so they are an important institution to challenge within broader anti-colonial efforts. These efforts to decolonise the curriculum itself should therefore be embedded in a wider approach to decolonising the university and society.

We take seriously the contributions made by Nayantara Sheoran Appleton that it is our “obligation as academics to make plans for a decolonized academia… and hold people to account who use this amazingly powerful word recklessly for their own self-interest.” As such, when thinking of ways to decolonise in practice, we must consider in which ways we – or others – may be perpetuating colonial inequalities and think deeply about to what extent we are challenging colonial hierarchies with our praxis.

As per some of Appleton’s suggestions, as members of D-Econ we believe decolonising the university involves diversifying curricula, digressing from the canon – as the canon itself is politically shaped -, decentring knowledge and knowledge production from the imperialist core, exposing and challenging existing hierarchies, disinvesting from citational power structures and diminishing some voices while magnifying others. Some of the questions we suggest below may allow us to act on these, in order to work towards the longer term goal of decolonising economics.

Moreover, we want to caution against what decolonisation is not. In some instances, “Decolonising” in economics has become a buzzword, despite its radical roots in other social sciences. And as with all buzzwords, there is a risk of widespread misunderstandings and confusion about what it actually entails (amounting to what Shringarpure aptly called ‘fake decolonization’). While the examples listed below, can be valuable, they are not sufficient to take on the challenge of decolonising economics curricula:

  • Retaining core economic curricula, but introducing economic history
  • Retaining core economic curricula, but introducing scholars based elsewhere or that are not white men, in order to diversify the curriculum
  • Retaining core economic curricula, but introducing more empirical case studies
  • Adding more diverse scholars and examples without challenging colonial ways of thinking

Economics has much to learn from the social sciences. You may easily find guides and ideas about how to decolonise curricula in disciplines such as politics (e.g. Shilliam, Choat, Sabaratnam) and sociology (Meghji, Gukurume & Maringira), where the decolonisation movement has come much further than economics. In terms of addressing postcolonial critiques of social theory, Kayatekin argues that “economics proved to be the discipline most resistant to change.”

What are some problems with economics curricula?

The economics discipline is among the most monolithic fields in the social sciences, with many scholars “either unaware or actively hostile towards alternative approaches”. Given that there is one dominant theoretical framework in the mainstream of the field – neoclassical economics – the curriculum often presents economics as a set of (neoclassical) principles, rather than neoclassical economics as one theoretical entry point among many. This has the effect of making it seem like economics is apolitical, neutral and objective – rather than a discipline filled with competing views of how the economy functions. In many textbooks, students are taught to “think like an economist”, which involves thinking like a neoclassical economist, which thereby involves students having to fit economic questions into pre-existing frames, such as marginal utility, comparative advantage, utility maximisation, etc (for critiques by heterodox economists, see for example Stillwell or Mearman, Berger & Guizzo). A consequence of the heavy reliance on neoclassical tools is that it becomes difficult for students to grasp structural problems such as colonial legacies, imperialism, as well as class struggle. Within such an educational framework it also becomes difficult for students to see that inquiry in the social sciences is also embedded in wider political, methodological and ideological debates.

How can we address some of these problems?

Decolonised curricula will not come in neatly packaged textbooks with convenient supplementary materials all laid out. This means decolonising curricula may be a real challenge, especially for lecturers that may not have taught any of what they endeavour to add to their teaching portfolio. As with any transformative change, decolonising curricula will take time, effort, trial and error, and commitment. In this instance, we cannot emphasise enough the importance of reaching out to networks of other scholars. Greater collaboration and being aware of what others are also working on, can help to lighten the load and build a sense of community when you as the lecturer feel uncertain about how to take the next step.

To begin to address some of the problems with the discipline laid out above, we put forward some questions lecturers can ask themselves and some initial ideas from us, originating from our own experience or from discussions surrounding the topic of diversifying and decolonising the curriculum. With this, we hope to invite more students, academics, activists, policy makers and members of the public to this important process.

Whose scholarship are we teaching? Pluralism of theories, perspectives, and identities

Given that this post is specifically about economics curricula, the content of our reading lists or the textbooks we use are crucial to interrogate whilst still keeping in mind that this, in and of itself, does not fully encompass what it might mean to decolonise economics teaching. Some questions we might ask ourselves are: Are the theories available to students based on a diverse authorship? Are they representing the real-world with a diverse population? Who might benefit from the theoretical viewpoints presented? Do we provide the context of the economic theories we discuss? What are the implicit messages we send to economics students from all around the world when our curricula teach predominantly white men based in the Global North?

Besides teaching various schools of thought and disciplines, we need to make sure that students leave the university knowing that scholars can come from all corners of the globe and from many different walks of life. Students benefit from seeing themselves reflected in their curricula in order to not get the impression that only certain types of identities can be legitimate voices in economics. Here, we believe it is essential to not only include women scholars, scholars of marginalised ethnicities, and scholars from the Global South, but provide the context of theorists. Providing contexts allows students to see that the scholars they are studying are not speaking from a place of neutrality, and the very fact that certain scholars have become a part of ‘the canon’ is not accidental.

Moreover, teaching various schools of thought or disciplines relating to a specific topic or country context can often be challenging and lecturers may worry that a plurality of perspectives may be confusing for students. On top of this, a host of specific institutional factors, including political opposition to decolonising the curriculum within your own department, is often also a challenge for economists. So you may decide to adopt a step-by-step approach within a course or within the programme searching for allies as you go. For instance, when approaching economic growth theory within a course, you can introduce students to the mainstream literature on this and then juxtapose it with feminist or anti-colonial approaches to growth. On a programme level, different schools of thought could be introduced in the beginning and used throughout the degree when discussing different topics in economics. The key here is to be explicit in showing your students that there are competing and alternative ways of knowing and how the vantage point from which one theorises impacts how one sees the economy.

This kind of pluralism extends to methods as well. Many economics students will encounter econometrics as a course throughout their degree. This places a heavy focus on quantitative methods. While it may be important for students to have strong quantitative skills, methodological diversity will allow students the freedom to be able to ask broader research questions. It might also be useful for us to explicitly expose our students to the idea of trying to dediscipline, in order to break down some ideas around the superiority of some knowledges over others.

What topics are we teaching? Centering key issues and topics that have been marginalised

Another consequence of our monolithic discipline is that the Global North-centric mainstream presented in textbooks is often presented as the ideal, and processes that do not fit with this ideal, including realities in both the Global North and South, are seen as deviations. If we are serious about decolonising curricula, therefore, it is important to challenge the idea that cases in the Global South are ‘special cases’ to be complemented with the dominant conceptual categories of the Global North.

Depending on context, there are a host of concepts and examples that are entirely excluded from economics teaching. One might, for example, ask: what can scholarship on the informal economy in the Global South teach us about ongoing transformations in the Global North? When teaching about finance, could we use examples such as stokvels (often invitation-only, community based saving schemes in South Africa), as well as formal banks?

Furthermore, it is important to teach about urgent societal issues that are often neglected (or reduced to ‘add-ons’) in economics curricula, such as racial and gender inequalities, and ecological breakdown, but also to acknowledge that the way we understand these issues is not neutral. As with any other issue in economics, we believe it is important to introduce students to the rich debates about racial capitalism, structural violence and unpaid work. Moreover, the teaching of economic history, specifically that of slavery and colonialism is indispensable to the understanding of present day inequalities and structural violence. 

Finally, decolonising the curriculum should be thought of in parallel with decolonising pedagogy. See here for our thoughts on how this might be approached.

Positionality statement

Who we are and how we are brought up and trained matters for how we see the world. To be open about our own backgrounds, biases, and potential blind spots, we include a joint, yet differentiated, positionality statement. We invite all blog post contributors to consider doing the same, although we recognize that this may be too sensitive or not feel appropriate for some people. Ariane Agunsoye, Michelle Groenewald and Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven – the three of us – are all white heterosexual cis-women, which has certainly informed the ways in which we see the world and the kinds of injustices we most easily can spot. While Ingrid is from a middle class background, Ariane and Michelle’s working class backgrounds add a different layer to their experience of the world and the classroom. As a German, Ariane grew up in East Berlin which was up until she was 7 years old part of the GDR, as a South African, Michelle grew up in South Africa, and as a Norwegian and daughter of a teacher and development worker, Ingrid grew up in Mozambique, Botswana, and Cambodia, as well as Norway. Growing up white in South Africa, Michelle is personally well aware of the extraordinary privilege her skin colour has afforded her. Similarly, growing up in both the Global North and South, Ingrid’s sense of immense privilege originating in her skin colour and passport have been felt at a personal level early on. We are aware that our positionalities both allow us to see certain injustices more easily than others, but also that our positionalities create certain blind posts that we must interrogate in all social settings, including the classroom. What’s more, Michelle, Ariane, and Ingrid are all fundamentally shaped by their training in heterodox economics.  

[1] Refer to the positionality statement at the end of the post.

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