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#economicsfest: Does economics need to be ‘decolonised’?

Amid growing calls to ‘decolonise the curriculum’ in universities, economics has been particularly targeted for having problems with race and Eurocentrism. Addressing them would require a radical restructuring of how the discipline is taught and researched.

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in the summer of 2020 and the protests that followed, academic economists, along with others in higher education, have faced a reckoning regarding racism and Western (Eurocentric) biases within their discipline. It was against this backdrop that we had a pair of events led by the Diversifying and Decolonising Economics (D-Econ) initiative at the Bristol festival of economics in November 2020.

The conversations, chaired by Romesh Vaitilingam, featured Carolina Alves, Fadekemi Abiru, Surbhi Kesar, Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven, Keston Perry, Imran Rasul, Rhonda Vonshay Sharpe and Farwa Sia. You can watch them here:

Historical efforts to decolonise economics

The discussions highlighted that recognition of the need to tackle racism and to ‘decolonise’ economics is not new. Rhonda Vonshay Sharpe pointed out that in the United States, the organised struggle of black economists within the American Economic Association stretches back to 1969. Similarly, many Latin American intellectuals made explicit efforts to decolonise the social sciences in the 1970s (Kay, 1989); and Edward Said’s seminal Orientalism (1978) opened the door for an examination of the colonial discourse that had prevailed across the social sciences. Economics, however, has been a latecomer to these discussions (as noted by Zein-Elabdin and Charusheela, 2004).

This is why the festival’s discussions were infused with an urgency to tackle economics’ problems with race and Eurocentrism, and long-entrenched biases in the field that make reforms challenging. When thinking about how we got here, Carolina Alves reminded us of the expression that the victor writes the history, and the same is true in economics.

Viewed in this context, it should not be surprising that we learn a very narrow and Eurocentric version of economics. Decolonising the subject, from her perspective, is about exposing the biases in economics; it means exploring the development of the field, asking who defined and shaped it and why, and then questioning whether it is appropriate to consider economics to be a discipline with universal laws.

What do we mean by the ‘colonisation’ of economics?

Talk about decolonising economics inherently implies that it has been ‘colonised’. So, has it? Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven argues that one can think of colonisation of economics as the erasure of three elements:

The erasure of colonialism in the field’s depiction of the development of capitalism

In economics, and in large parts of the social sciences, the development of capitalism tends to be depicted as a period of triumph for rationality and incredible inventions from Watt’s steam Engine to Hargreaves’ spinning jenny. In this portrayal, the relationship between capitalism’s development on the one hand and colonialism, the slave trade and structural racismon the other, is completely ignored. Yet this depiction is the foundation of standardised economic laws that are seen to function uniformly across all social, political and historical contexts, abstracted from imperialism and exploitation.

The erasure of non-Western scholars in the history of economic thought

The history of the development of economic ideas tends to start with Adam Smith, despite many economists writing before him. For example, the Arab historian Ibn Khaldoun developed many of the insights about economics with which Adam Smith (writing 400 years later) has since been credited (for example, the central role of the division of labour in stimulating growth).

This erasure is not only about a distant past. For example, Fadekemi Abiru reflected on the important lessons from post-colonial and feminist perspectives on economics. These perspectives take us away from traditional economic ideas to approaches that are fruitful for understanding the impact of colonial rule and empire on economies and societies across the world, as well as gender-aware lenses for economic enquiry.

The erasure of pluralism and power

Since the Cold War, economics has increasingly narrowed to a fairly monolithic discipline, becoming ‘depoliticised’ and cloaked in language that suggests that economic theory is neutral and objective. This conceals power imbalances and structural inequalities in knowledge production itself.

Presenting mainstream economics as a ‘set of principles’ amounts to colonisation because it denies space for alternative ways of thinking about the world, especially those emerging from former colonies. It also fails to acknowledge that those principles are political, and highly contested. Several of the panellists expanded on this, by emphasising the wealth of alternative views of economics that can offer important insights but that are excluded from the hierarchical and narrow ‘top-five’ economics journals.

What is the impact of colonisation of the discipline?

These ‘three erasures’ have serious implications for the discipline. For example, Surbhi Kesar emphasised their impact on international development efforts, highlighting how they reproduce a Western-centric view of what economic development should be by assuming that developing economies are simply ‘late’ developers and can seamlessly follow the path of the West. Policies that take such a starting point have ultimately failed because they do not take into proper consideration the particular ways that colonialism fundamentally shaped the structures of those economies.

Farwa Sial built on this point, drawing on her own work showing that the neat distinction between the public and private spheres that we see in economics, which is based on enlightenment views of how a ‘modern’ economy operates, fails to capture alternative economic models in the Global South that do not delineate so clearly between these spheres.

What would a decolonised economics look like?

The discussions concluded that what decolonising economics means is:

  • To acknowledge that the development of capitalism was actually founded on a colonial and racist project. This has implications for how we theorise about capitalist dynamics today.
  • To ‘de-centre’ Western ideas in the history of economic thought.
  • To ‘re-politicise’ economic theory and give more space to theories emerging from outside the West.

Decolonisation in practice: teaching

Keston Perry described just how far behind economics in the UK is in terms of grappling with racial inequalities, as courses about race are almost non-existent in universities (see also ‘Rethink economics to help marginalized people’). Yet, there are a number of concrete steps that can be taken to decolonise the teaching of economics. At the Bristol festival, Carolina Alves highlighted the need to teach alternative (or heterodox) economics approaches in addition to the mainstream, and to emphasise to students that who and what they are taught is the result of a political battle over ideas.

A recent survey by Times Higher Education (THE) shows that over 70% of academics agree that decolonisation of the curriculum is important (compared with 22% who disagree). The survey also showed that around a third of the respondents said that the killing of George Floyd changed their view on the importance of this issue.

But there is a highly unequal distribution of attitudes across disciplines. For example, a recent study demonstrates that mainstream economists, especially those based in the Global North, are highly unlikely to teach about racial inequalities and colonialism, compared with heterodox economists, economists based in non-economics departments and economists based in the Global South (Kvangraven and Kesar, 2020) – see Figure 1.

Figure 1: Percentage of economists who teach about racialised inequalities or the role of European colonialism in their courses (by department)

Note: n=421; Others includes development studies, political economy, politics and interdisciplinary departments
Source: Institute for New Economic Thinking’s blog

Given that introductory economics courses today are largely organised around apolitical and ahistorical economic principles, the historiographical discussion of capitalism and its relationship to class struggle, colonialism and imperialism, has been watered down. The recognition that there is a plurality of ways to ‘do’ economics is often lost on students, which has contributed further to a reduction in the diversity of approaches.

As a result, there is much work to be done to decolonise the economics curriculum. The first step is to acknowledge the narrowness of the field and its problem with race – with particular attention to including excluded voices. As Rhonda Vonshay Sharpe highlighted, many economists fighting for the inclusion of marginalised voices feel fatigued after calling for change since the late 1960s. The second step is to challenge the status quo, and to question who gets to define and shape the discipline and why.

Decolonisation in practice: research

Discussions around research focused on two main issues: first, the research being done on race itself; and second, biases that prevail in academic publishing, which remains the dominant criterion for promotion.

Imran Rasul presented his preliminary findings from a study of the extent to which economists publish research on race. He finds that between 2000 and 2020, only 1.4% of economics papers were on race-related issues, compared with 9% in sociology and 4% in political science over the same period. All social science disciplines have seen an upward trend in the proportion of papers that deal with race, but economics today is where sociology was in the 1980s and where political science was in the 1990s.

We should note that Imran Rasul’s analysis considers the mainstream of these fields and that there are alternative strands where more race-related economics research takes place. Rhonda Vonshay Sharpe emphasised The Review of Black Political Economy in particular, as a place where economists publish on important race-related economics topics such as racial stratification, racial economic discrimination and racial capitalism.

In addition to the lack of race-related research, we also see other biases in academic publishing in our field. It remains much more likely that academic work focused on the United States will be published in a top-five economics journal compared with research on other countries, a bias that cannot be explained by data or researcher quality (Das and Do, 2014; The Economist, 2020).

Even within development economics, scholars based in the Global South rarely publish in top economics journals – for example, only around 10% of papers in development economics had an author or co-author from the Global South in 2018 (Naritomi et al, 2020). This indicates a familiar pattern of scholars in the Global North setting the research agenda and doing research on issues in the Global South, rather than engaging with local experts.

To decolonise economic research then, the whole publishing practice in economics needs an overhaul. There is already evidence that economics is among the most hierarchical and least interdisciplinary of the social sciences (Fourcade et al, 2015). It is also increasingly being recognised that it deals inadequately with colonialism and race (see also Tilley and Shilliam, 2018).

Concluding remarks

The discussions at the festival highlighted many of the challenges faced by the economics discipline, but also presented actions that can be taken to address the pressing issues of race and decolonisation. The panels brought to light an uncomfortable notion with which we as economists must sit: telling the truth about who we are and how our field developed requires recognising our own biases. Decolonising economics then is not only about the curriculum or our research, but also about being self-critical and aware of our own position and privilege.

Where can I find out more?

Who are experts on this question?

  • Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni
  • Meera Sabaratnam
  • Robbie Shilliam
  • William A. Darity
  • Darrick Hamilton
Authors: Carolina Alves and Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven
Photo by Marco Vaitilingam
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