on Reclaiming Economics: A case for radical overhaul of Economics
Economists for Future: Michelle, thank you for giving us your time and agreeing to interview for E4F. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and the beginning of the association that ultimately resulted into a beautiful resource like ‘Reclaiming Economics for Future Generations’?
Michelle Groenewald: Firstly, thank you so much for engaging so deeply with the book and for bringing more awareness to this topic.
I was born and raised in South Africa and did a very mainstream, mostly neoclassical undergraduate and postgraduate economics degrees. And so, when I finished my first masters, here in South Africa, I was very privileged to be able to get a Chevening scholarship to go and study at SOAS, University of London, a university that introduced me to more critical scholarship. I was introduced to some of the work that was happening at SOAS through a programme that happens here in South Africa, called the African programme on Rethinking Development Economics (APORDE). There I was introduced to a lot of the critical work in economics that I had really been craving in my undergraduate studies.
Soon after, I was offered a job at North-West University as a full-time economics lecturer. I’ve been back in South Africa now for five years. In my first year at North-West University, I got seed funding to attend an international conference. This speaks to the importance of investing in early career scholars and helping them to build up networks. So I was funded to go to IIPPE where there was a session for an organization that I’m now a part of called Diversifying and Decolonizing Economics (D-Econ). I met some of the original founders there and started working and collaborating with them. Now, I am also on the steering committee for D-Econ. D-Econ was asked to collaborate on this very book called, Reclaiming Economics for Future Generations. I certainly wanted to be part of what the book was aiming to write about and so myself, other members of D-Econ (Ariane Agunsoye and Danielle Guizzo) and other contributors from various organizations, started working with the editors of the book. So that’s how everything came together.
E4F: What was it about the aims and objectives of this book that resonated with you the most and why do you think they had to be enunciated with a diverse cohort as in the book?
MG: I think every contributor in this book would probably have a different answer to this so I am not speaking on behalf of everyone because, but drawing from my own motivations – to speak to lived experiences, was a really essential part of what drew me to the book. The various contributors and the ideas behind what we were trying to get across in the book is to draw very strongly from the experiences of people that have a range of different identities. And to emphasize that drawing from those lived experiences is going to ensure that one has a much richer, fuller, more realistic understanding of economics. There has previously been a lot of work that Rethinking Economics (and the specific groups on so many different countries), has done around the importance of pluralism in economics. I think one of the vital aspects of this book is that there is an acknowledgement that we can have pluralism in economics research, economics curricula, and policymaking. But even then, that ‘pluralism’ can still be very Eurocentric, and Americanized. So we were delving into really fundamental questions about how we can ensure that we not only bring pluralism into economics, but that we also focus on aspects around diversifying, democratizing and decolonizing economics. I also liked the humility around the project. So there was no attempt to say that this was a comprehensive or exhaustive guide or that we are providing all the answers or solutions. Rather this project is something that we are enthusiastic about, and that we are attempting to not just criticize and deconstruct, but to also make suggestions and to reconstruct the way in which we think about economics as a discipline and as praxis.
E4F: Why is the book titled ‘Reclaiming Economics’? And who are those reclaiming it, has it ever been theirs?
MG: This is such an excellent question. I would say, Reclaiming Economics for Future Generations is fundamentally grappling with how economics affects every single person. This is also something that we were attempting to get across in the book, to make it very approachable and very understandable. Sometimes in economics, there can be a lot of jargon and this keeps away people who are fundamentally affected by and embedded within the economy. It makes some people feel alienated and that economics is something for people with degrees in economics who are devoting their lives to the study of discipline. This kind of narrative makes it a territorial terrain. The idea behind a lot of what we’re trying to do in the book is explain that there are people who have been oppressed and marginalized across various identities, and that that has shaped our economic systems today; and if we were to reclaim economics, it is about fundamentally grappling with this marginalization, and acknowledging that. And those who are reclaiming it are people who acknowledge this marginalization and very much so those who are working towards this may very well not be found in the ivory towers of universities.
To answer the last part of your question, I would say that, yes, economics has always been theirs and that it has always actually been about people. However, oftentimes we have seen that those who are in positions of power, have actively attempted to make it look as if economics is this neutral, objective science, when realistically, this is not the case. There are all kinds of value judgments that are being made within economics. There are many very human elements to economics, there are so many social interactions that are happening within economies. It isn’t problematic that this is the case; what is problematic is when this is either not engaged with or when there are attempts to claim that acknowledging this means we are no longer “doing economics”. We shouldn’t try to make it seem as if there is a way for us to “do economics”, in this perfectly neutral, value-free objective way. Because economics is inextricably intertwined with the lived experiences of people.
E4F: The book at many junctures asserts that focus on diversity can’t just focus on individuals abstracted away from the knowledge, research agendas, structure and culture of economic departments, universities and the discipline as a whole. Picking on one of the many obstacles in academia – given the existing hierarchies, how difficult is it to secure a fund for a research project? And what does that look like for economists from marginalized groups or aiming at a research project that does not adopt the dominant mainstream narrative ?
MG: One could probably write an entire book to address this question. I would acknowledge that it is exceedingly difficult to actually get funding for a research project that doesn’t adopt the dominant mainstream narrative and methods. So to get funding for research, in general, is a very difficult endeavor. There’s a huge amount of competition and there’s a limited pool of funding. Let’s say you are using dominant methods within economics, which in many instances would be to try and set up a panel dataset. Then, often economists are going to use this data to try to find causality between the variables. This is often through a very narrow and insular view of causality that’s probably going to be unidirectional; trying to show forward causal inference. Now, let me be very clear, this can be useful, interesting and valuable research. So, it is not to say that we should never do this, and economists shouldn’t endeavor to understand this better and to apply for research funding around these types of questions. The major concern emerges from the overriding dominance of the specific method that gets used, which is overwhelmingly quantitative in nature. This is often unfortunately seen as the only valid and legitimate way to go about understanding economic questions.
As a result, if by any chance one wants to ask questions that perhaps draw from various schools of thought that are not mainstream, or make use of qualitative methods or draw from the work of diverse scholars, where you are asking fundamental questions about the system of capitalism for example, then in such cases it is exceedingly difficult to be able to get funding in an already competitive environment. But again, there are opportunities for us to build networks and communities where there is a greater acknowledgment of this problem in the first place. Then we can open up avenues for additional sources of funding to be able to do research that breaks down this dominance.
E4F: How do you see the process of meta-integration to neoclassical framework as being a disservice to content that brings out the complexity, multiplicity and uncertainty in any system? Could you illustrate this for tipping points or planetary boundaries?
MG: The first part of the question relates a lot to the debates around pluralism in economics. There is sometimes this idea that we can define pluralism very narrowly, where we can actually do a ‘pluralism by synthesis’, in comparison to what is sometimes called a ‘pluralism by juxtaposition’. I will push back very strongly on this idea that we can just synthesize what is going to be seen as the “best economics”. However, what we really have to do in our research, teaching, policymaking, activism, and our organizing, is to think about pluralism in economics by juxtaposition. This is to acknowledge that you can hold a duality or a multiplicity of ideas in your head, at the same time, and that you can at the very least be tolerant of different viewpoints. We would hope that you’d be more than tolerant and that you will be excited and curious to understand different viewpoints, in economics and beyond; and then hopefully we can grapple with the reality that sometimes there are aspects, ideas, models, findings, that are mutually exclusive and that we cannot just synthesize.
To the point about planetary boundaries, this brings up really important debates about relative and absolute decoupling. The journal called Development Policy Review has a 2021 article called “Can we live within environmental limits and still reduce poverty? Degrowth or decoupling?” by Jason Hickel and Stéphane Hallegatte. So one of the points Stéphane raises is from McCarthy et al’s 2018 work where Stéphane explains that “a review of 24 models suggests that the economic cost of shifting to a circular economy, in which waste is systematically recycled and reused to reduce the need to extract new materials, is negligible, if it exists at all”. Jason then responds to this debate by digging deeper into this very same review and points out “…this review finds improved rates of relative decoupling (i.e., a reduction of resource use from baseline growth projections), but it does not report any evidence of absolute reductions in resource use”. It is interesting to note that even relative decoupling is questioned based on some of the assumptions in these models such as exogenous technological change. Regardless, this points to the importance of pluralism by juxtaposition. In order for us to grapple with planetary boundaries, we have to present these multiplicity of ideas about relative and absolute decoupling.
Then, because pluralism does not mean that just anything goes, we have to engage with this critically. And the available literature we have on this, shows us that at best, we have relative decoupling, but we need absolute decoupling to live within planetary boundaries. We can’t synthesize this, we have to go through the process of comparing and contrasting these ideas through juxtaposition, acknowledging that they are different, and then using critical thinking skills to come to a conclusion based on the specific nature of the question at hand.
E4F: How important is it for non-economists to be actively involved with economics, especially when it comes to issues around the planetary emergency or the climate crisis?
MG: As an academic myself, I understand that academics and researchers have an important place in the knowledge systems concerning the climate crisis. But it’s simply not enough for us (who have a very specific skill set) to be the only ones dictating the conversation or shaping the policies.
E4F: Can we dive a little deeper into why recognizing the legitimacy of qualitative research methods in economics is important beyond the inclusivity parameter. How do you think such methods are valuable for someone working on issues like the climate crisis and for the groups who are most impacted by it?
MG: First, I want to emphasize that there is definitely a place for quantitative research and sometimes even the divide that we create between quantitative and qualitative research is not even all that useful. Sometimes just thinking through the importance of mixed methods can be really useful. But what I do think we are trying to discuss in this book, and we’re certainly not the only ones that are doing this, is to problematize the hegemony around quantitative methods being the only way that we can come ‘to know’. I think it’s so important for us to ask, what is the nature of the question that we’re asking? And what would be the best method to be able to get that answer? And so if the nature of our question is one that would best be answered by qualitative methods and if a researcher ends up using a qualitative method, whether it be at undergraduate or postgraduate level, or you want to get into top publications, the question often thrown at you is,“is this even economics?”
So to really emphasize the legitimacy of qualitative research, whether we’re using methods like Critical Discourse Analysis, or Comparative Case Study Analysis, or we’re doing semi structured interviews just as a few examples – this can give us different answers to different questions. But if we’ve already decided that the only questions that are legitimate for economists, who are in positions of power to be asking, are ones that can be answered only through quantitative methods, then we’re not even able to ask a whole host of massively important questions that could only be answered through a variety of other methods. And that gives us a very narrow and insular way of understanding our economies and then, essentially, the climate crisis, which is inextricably linked to questions of economic systems.
E4F: What is your vision for a democratized economics and how would you imagine the decolonisation of the economics curriculum in a broad sense?
MG: I think it is important to acknowledge that democracy and decolonial thinking has to be a lifelong commitment. From your question, I think the word ‘imagine’ is really important. There is a lot of debate amongst post- , anti-, and de- colonial scholars about what decolonization even means, never mind, what does it mean for economics curriculums or what might it mean for economics curriculums within the global south? So, to acknowledge all of that complexity is important. For me, it is a fundamental reckoning with power, which in economics, we have a very narrow view of most of the time. I think it also requires us to engage really deeply with history, which is something that neoclassical and even some mainstream economists are not too keen on.
That being said, I think I draw most strongly from two authors, Nayantara Sheoran Appleton and Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni. Appletonwarns really strongly about using the word decolonization to ensure that this doesn’t just become a buzzword. She writes “…..here are some alternative suggestions to talk about the work we are doing now, while thinking of a decolonised sovereign nation future… suggests …diversify our syllabus and curriculum, digress from the canon, decenter knowledge and knowledge production, devalue hierarchies, disinvest from citational power structures, and diminish some voices and opinions in meetings while magnifying others.”
I also feel the idea of epistemic freedom which Ndlovu-Gatsheni writes about, is an essential part of how we think about decolonizing economics curriculum.
E4F: In an era of crisis on multiple fronts, there is an increasing need for university education to adapt. What role do you see for movements Economists for Future as catalysts in this scenario? What more can we do?
MG: I think instead of being prescriptive here, what would be really useful is if academics are more willing and open to listen to, engage with and learn from collectives like Economists for Future and to think about ways for us to be able to collaborate, so that the students that are in our classrooms are more aware of the work that you’re doing, and to acknowledge that there is a huge amount of knowledge that already exists amongst the students in our universities. But also that knowledge exists outside of universities!
As academics, we should be able to think of much more collaborative approaches to knowledge creation – between student movements demanding for change, students in our classrooms, activists, journalists, artists, community organizers and policy-makers. There are various academics that are struggling with their own identities and what it means to try to make a difference within the ivory towers, whilst acknowledging that we need to move outside of them and to move beyond them. So I think this opens up a lot of possibilities for building more meaningful relationships.
Read and understand further:
- Parrique T., Barth J., Briens F., C. Kerschner, Kraus-Polk A., Kuokkanen A., Spangenberg J.H., 2019.
Decoupling debunked: Evidence and arguments against green growth as a sole strategy for sustainability.
European Environmental Bureau.
- The Global Center of Spatial Methods for Urban Sustainability on Youtube, Decolonial Thinking with Prof. Dr. Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni
- Perry, K, 2021. The new ‘bond-age’, climate crisis and the case for climate reparations: Unpicking old/new colonialities of finance for development within the SDGs. Geoforum
- Review of African Political Economy Interview. 2019. Talking Back: a conversation with Lyn Ossome
- Zein-Elabdin, E.O. 2009. Economics, postcolonial theory and the problem of culture: institutional analysis and hybridity. Cambridge Journal of Economics
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