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What does it mean to decolonise the economics curriculum?

Following last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, many university departments have been exploring what might be done to ‘decolonise’ the curriculum. Teachers of economics have the apparatus for rigorous discussion of topics like slavery, colonial exploitation and racial bias.

The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol a year ago spurred many universities to start or accelerate work on ‘decolonising’ their curricula. A number of higher education institutions have also removed icons and honours related to colonialists and eugenicists, and written anti-racist codes of conduct.

But there remains some confusion about what decolonising a curriculum entails. In particular, decolonisation seems to have become a synonym for a range of broad ambitions such as inclusivity, diversity and pluralism. Here, we put some definition around the term in the context of teaching and research in economics, so that university departments can focus on practical steps.

The project of decolonisation is ultimately concerned with reparative racial justice in a world that has not yet fully dealt with the legacy of centuries of colonial subjugation. Decolonising the curriculum in the universities of the Global North is an important part of rectifying the intellectual, cultural and social damage done by colonialism and its aftermath. But decolonisation within higher education will only be effective if it is informed by and connected to other global struggles outside the academy.

How can an economics curriculum be decolonised?

How – and whether – economics teaching should be decolonised is a contested topic (Kvangraven and Keasar, 2021). At a basic level, decolonising a curriculum involves respecting the range of relevant contributions – both theoretical and practical – that might be made on a topic.

As discussed in an earlier piece at the Economics Observatory (Alves and Kvangraven, 2021), this is to recognise the many voices that may have been marginalised or erased by the domination of knowledge by Western universities and colonial rule, and to question and change the hierarchies of power that exist in the production and dissemination of knowledge.

Even today, for example, much of the economic research output that is regarded as high quality is remarkably concentrated geographically, with only around 5% or so of articles published in the five most prestigious journals coming from outside the United States (Ek and Henrekson, 2019).

Broadening the knowledge base is not the same as a simple pluralism, a juxtaposition of theories and viewpoints or adding a sprinkling of non-Western scholars. Respecting and acknowledging other positions does not necessarily mean representing and teaching them. It may be difficult, for example, for an instructor in the UK to grasp all of the relevant contributions that might come from scholars in the Global South, and it would re-enact something of a colonial mindset to attempt to speak for them.

Exposing students to different approaches is valuable in its own right, but it is not the same thing as decolonisation. What is important is to make explicit the inevitable positionality of knowledge so as to acknowledge potential blind spots. This is tantamount to giving students the incentives to be constantly critical of what they learn, sensitive to its limitations and watchful of any knowledge that poses as mastery.

Instructors can certainly help students to develop critical skills of this type by asking them to think about how economic theories would fare in contexts outside those for which they were originally designed. How would they need to be changed? What other insights and models could shed useful light if they were integrated into the discussion?

The first step involves identifying courses and topics where decolonisation is necessary. Is the syllabus too ‘white’? For example, are the examples only applicable to developed economies? Are issues such as race, colonialism, segregation and inequalities sufficiently emphasised at relevant points?

The second step requires rethinking the focus of the material being taught. Is it fit for purpose in explaining certain contexts or cases that fall outside the Global North? For example, how would some of the basic macroeconomic models work in the context of a dual economy structure, in which an informal or non-waged labour sector exists at the same time as a ‘capitalist’ wage sector? Can basic economic models help to think about the institution of slavery and colonial legacies? (See Naidu, 2020, for a particularly insightful view on this question.)

The third step is to broaden locations. Economics educators can bring examples to the classroom that are not just from Anglo-American and European contexts, but also cases that come from the Global South.

As a data-intensive subject, economics presents many opportunities for instructors to allow students to assess the applicability of the models they learn by using data from many parts of the world (for example, using Our World in Data). The careful use of data in teaching provides authentic means for focusing on the worldly relevance, reach and limitations of the material that economists teach.

Without a strong push towards critical engagement, it becomes easy for taught material to seem universally valid and beyond challenge. Indeed, the close relationship between colonial powers and universities from the ‘mother’ country (for example, 18th century economist Thomas Malthus was an academic at the East India College) meant that knowledge created in universities was typically cast as ‘universal’.

As Gopal (2021) puts it, a ‘particularly damaging aspect of such narratives was the widespread sense that [the colonial university] was a “giver” and a “teacher” while others were “takers” and “taught”.’ It followed that such knowledge did not have to acknowledge the conditions of its production because there was no other valid knowledge against which it could be usefully pitted. In economics, Anglo-American curricular frameworks are often depicted as a case of success that developing countries should follow (Guizzo et al, 2021).

This culture of knowledge production no doubt contributed to statements such as those of the Victorian era political economist John Stuart Mill, who suggested that the laws of production in economics constitute ‘laws of nature’ (Mill, Collected Works Vol. 2).

In some places, it remains common to teach the theories of economics as immutable and settled facts. This is sometimes even the case when features of the analysis are at clear variance with any known reality, as with labour market models that never exhibit any unemployment.

Contrast this with the preface of the famous 1948 Principles of Economics textbook by Nobel laureate Paul Samuelson, where he stated that the book is limited to ‘an understanding of the economic institutions and problems of American civilization in the middle of the twentieth century’.

Decolonisation is related to pluralism but remains a distinct project. The same is true of the relationship with another term that is often confused with decolonisation, namely diversity. The benefits of diversity are well known, and it is increasingly apparent that economics has some way to go to become a truly representative body of staff and students (Advani et al, 2021).

But diversity does not guarantee a deep critical interrogation of the status of knowledge that is taught and researched in universities (Gopal, 2021). The same might be said for the diversification of reading lists, which has been an initial focus of many economics departments. Such diversification is valuable, but does not in itself constitute decolonisation unless the new material is integrated into the curriculum in a way that fosters critical engagement with existing material.

What about decolonisation in research?

There is an obvious sense in which teachers of economics can directly address the legacies of colonialism. This is by teaching subjects related to colonialism, economic history and racial justice. Economics has the apparatus for rigorous discussion of profits and slavery, international flows of humans and resources, racial bias, colonial exploitation and many other topics that are directly related to colonialism and its legacy.

The problem is that economics research has only come lately to these topics and material is still relatively thin on the ground. Recent analysis shows that out of 225,000 articles published between 1960 and 2020, less than 2% a year were on matters related to race (Advani et al, 2021). There are notable counter-examples (Cook, 2014) and critiques (Doyle, 2020), but the proportions of similar papers compare unfavourably with cognate subjects such as political science or sociology.

There is a thread within economics research of dealing directly with the question of racial bias using various econometric methods that estimate ‘statistical bias’. The problem with this body of research is that it shows the existence of racial bias and how it can result from rational decision-making under informational constraints, but it fails to engage with the question of what can be done about it (Cook, 2021).

From the point of view of decolonisation, which is concerned with reparative racial justice, this research stops just at the point where the important questions about eradicating bias need to be asked. Going beyond identifying biases towards recommendations that address these inequities must become a focus of future research. Such research will necessarily take a stronger interdisciplinary lens than is currently the case.

Towards reflective decolonisation

There are two senses in which decolonisation entails reflection. The first is to do with relevance for students whatever their origins and identities. To what extent does economists’ teaching reflect students’ reality? Can they see themselves and their lives within the economic actors, institutions and models that they are taught? Students learn best when they are active participants in the learning process and able to link new material with previous knowledge or experience (Barr and Tagg, 2015).

The second is to do with reflexive honesty in an instructor’s approach to decolonisation and acknowledging the limits of what might be achieved. It is particularly difficult to construct a ‘how-to’ guide for decolonisation because it presumes decolonisation is within the gift of academics in the Global North without involving contributions from those most damaged by colonialism. There is a danger that this repeats a logic of power that is reminiscent of colonialism.

Nevertheless, as the Trinidadian historian CLR James noted in his 1977 book Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution, it may be that the myths of colonialism damaged the coloniser as much as the colonised. Decolonisation is necessary in the universities of the Global North, but academics will need to proceed with due caution and humility.

What have efforts to decolonise the curriculum achieved in the past year?

The anniversary of events such as the murder of George Floyd and the toppling of the Colston statue presents an opportunity to take stock of what has been achieved in the intervening 12 months. Many visible legacies of empire such as street names, statues and civic buildings have been renamed or contextualised in an attempt to rebalance some of the myths that surround colonial history. Many university departments have been busy thinking about what is entailed in decolonising their curricula, and some of them have installed anti-racism within their institutional strategies.

These are important developments, but evidence of significant impacts on racial justice and the lived experience of black and brown populations have yet to be seen. Reports of significant racial inequality and conflict in society continue to emerge.

This may not be altogether surprising as one year is a tight timescale in which to make progress in the reversal of centuries of racial injustice. Perhaps ironically, the scale of the challenge is indicated best by the complacent ease with which these injustices can be explained away, as in the recent Sewell report on racial inequality commissioned by the UK government (Sewell, 2021).

The Sewell report uses selective evidence to support its view that racial bias is not a significant problem in education (see Tikly, 2021, for a critique of the report’s use of data). By excluding relevant documented experiences and data, it inadvertently models some of the most pernicious aspects of the institutional racism it seeks to deny. If confirmation were needed of the importance of the project of decolonisation in universities, the Sewell Report provides it admirably.

Can we achieve a decolonised economics?

Decolonisation of the curriculum entails broadening its scope to include other knowledges and new ways to interrogate and validate knowledge, including non-traditional approaches in economics from both the Global North and the Global South. This will require making space in the curriculum, which will be a critical step over the next year in economics departments wishing to make progress with decolonisation.

It would be too easy to suggest that the interventions described above will lead to a decolonised curriculum. But it would also be wrong to think of decolonisation as an end-state. Because it involves continual interrogation of the ways in which knowledge is produced and the uses to which that knowledge is put, decolonisation can really only be thought of as a continuous activity that is embedded within an institution’s culture, processes, research and teaching.

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Authors: Alvin Birdi & Danielle Guizzo
Photo by Ethan Holmes
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