Theory, tools, fieldwork, research – Tirthankar Roy turns back the pages on his education as he attempts to make sense of the debates on diversification and decolonisation in economics
Most social science disciplines emerged in 19th-century Europe to explain Europe’s transformation. That legacy persists in methods, questions, examples, course readings, and journal editorial orientation. Economics is no exception.
In the 20th century, big shocks shook up the disciplines and added new problems to explain. Thus, the Great Depression changed economics. The decolonisation of Asia and Africa saw the birth of development economics. The rise of Japan revised cultural theories of economic growth based on European history. The present-day emergence of the emerging economies is again a phenomenon that standard theories of economic growth cannot explain very well. There were revisions no doubt, but not an internationalisation of economics in a real sense.
The mismatch between the real world and the toolbox of economics has long troubled those who taught the subject in the developing world. I studied economics in a small university in India in the 1970s. The economics I studied had a split down the middle: “theory” was taught with American textbooks and “Indian economics” taught mainly with Indian government reports. There was not even a pretence of fitting theory with practice.
Anyone could see that this was a sham. Theory did not ask the questions that those in charge of the economy thought needed answering. Take one example: the Indian economics said that nature deeply influenced economic conditions. Much of mainland South Asia falls in a climatic zone called the tropical monsoon, which is a combination of extreme aridity and a powerful monsoon. The climate causes drought if the monsoon is weak and floods if the monsoon is strong. Surely, any worthwhile economics for such a region should start with an account of geography and environmental risk. In the American textbooks that we read, geography and environmental risk did not exist.
More than being a sham, the economics taught in India created a caste system.
More than being a sham, the economics taught in India created a caste system. A few schools in India taught “theory” well. A good theory training did not deliver deep knowledge of the economy, but delivered proficiency at using optimisation tools. The products of such education left India to do a PhD in the USA. Other graduates stayed on in India to do a PhD in an Indian university. Usually their work built around a practical observation and were fieldwork-based. As their careers progressed, these two sets stood further apart. The Indo-Americans were members of a global academic set and had more prestige. The locals thought they knew India better and yet their knowledge went unrecognised.
Thinking people tried to reform this absurd system of education. One such set of reformers established the Centre for Development Studies (CDS) in Kerala, where I did my doctorate. CDS designed pre-PhD economics coursework which exposed the students to many types of theory in tiny modules. The message was, since there is no one right economics, you should know different economics, orthodox and heterodox; but only in small doses, for at the end of the journey, there is no reassurance that the right tool to solve a practical problem can be found in this clutter. Why invest time then?
Where did that leave research? Since the toolbox is a jumble, research cannot be an application of tools learned at school. Research is explaining an observation. Economic theory may have the tool to explain the observation; or it may not. The research programme, therefore, must be fieldwork-based, and the choice of tools interdisciplinary. CDS did not call this message “decolonisation.” But seeing how America-dependent our economics was, the experiment could be called that.
With hindsight, I believe CDS failed on teaching. Theory is a language. One needs to know it well to be able to use it at all. Knowing anything well does not happen in bite-size pieces. Besides, varieties within economics are not just different types, but products of internal criticism. A knowledge of heterodoxy does not develop without a solid base in orthodoxy. In teaching theory, any attempt to experiment is potentially a waste of time.
With hindsight, I believe CDS succeeded on research. Answering real-world economic questions is not application of the tools one has learned in school. Research and practice start from a study of people, not a study of calculus.
To be bound by a language of discourse is slavery for the scholar and the practical economist. The current worldwide movement to reform economics shows the truth of that statement.
Note: This blogpost is a version of a talk Tirthankar Roy was invited to deliver at Decolonising and Diversifying Economics and Economic History, an event held at the LSE on 20 February 2020 organised by the LSE Eden Centre, LSE Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity and Decolonising LSE Collective.
This post is opinion-based and does not reflect the views of the London School of Economics and Political Science or any of its constituent departments and divisions.
Image source: CDS