Diversifying the Monoculture of Economics

By Helen Scharber

Champ maïs

Like any system, the system of theories and methods known as economics needs diversity.  Diversity is critical, as students of biology know, because it allows systems to adapt to inevitable changes.  While economics has a variety of subfields— from micro and macro to behavioral and monetary— the discipline is mostly a monoculture, in that it rarely looks outside of the theoretical lens known as neoclassical economics, which focuses heavily on individualism and markets.  The effects of the lack of diversity and overreliance on neoclassical theory were made very visible in the failure of the economics discipline to predict and appropriately respond to the most recent global economic crisis.  The Queen of England (and everyone else) rightly wondered why so many clever, well-trained economists failed so miserably.  The economists who responded chocked it up to “a failure of the collective imagination of many bright people,” but perhaps their imaginations would have failed less spectacularly had they not all had the same, narrow training.

Fortunately, a movement is afoot to propagate diversity in economics education.  While the push for pluralism in economics is nothing new— some graduate programs, organizations and networks have been expanding the discipline’s boundaries for years— the recent injection of energy has come largely from students and young people.  The International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics (ISIPE), with member groups from over 30 countries, released an open letter in May decrying the “lack of intellectual diversity” in the discipline that “limits our ability to contend with the multidimensional challenges of the 21st century – from financial stability, to food security and climate change.”  They call on economists to reconsider the way economics is taught, including 1) Hiring instructors and researchers who can bring theoretical and methodological diversity to economics programs; 2) Creating texts and other pedagogical tools needed to support pluralist course offerings; and 3) Formalizing collaborations between social sciences and humanities departments or establishing special departments that could oversee interdisciplinary programs blending economics and other fields.  These are all very good ideas.

Other indications that change is afoot have been bubbling up from other corners.  Rethinking Economics, one of the signatory groups to the ISIPE letter, held their second conference in London on June 28 and 29, to explore “both the problems with the current system” and “alternatives to the way things are done now.”  The group will organize another student-run conference in New York City in September 2014.  The Curriculum in Open-access Resources in Economics (CORE) project, funded by the Institute for New Economic Thinking, is developing curriculum that aims to close the gap between “the questions we are being pressed to answer by the public…and the often-unrelated content of our curriculum.”  Toward this end, the CORE curriculum attempts to introduce tools in response to questions and observations— rather than providing tools and axioms in search of things to explain— though there has been healthy debate around how well it will achieve its goal.

In early June, I was on a panel at the New Economy Coalition’s CommonBound conference called “How to Change the Teaching of Economics.”  The room, filled with eager participants and tangible energy for the topic, was another testament to the interest in making change.  How can we move from a world characterized by the domination of one unified body of economic theory— one in which many powerful people are heavily invested— to a world where different lenses are appreciated and taught?  There is no quick fix, but change will likely involve answering another question, posed (and tweeted) by a participant at the Rethinking Economics conference in June: How do we learn to co-operate in a society that puts individualism on a pedestal?  Indeed, many of the panelists’ ideas involved collective action: organizing students and other activists, creating mentorship networks for sympathetic teachers, sharing resources. Personally, I’ll do what I can to support this movement— with so many economic, social and environmental obstacles to overcome in coming years, we cannot afford another failure of the collective imagination of economists.