1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Special Events (2000 - 2009)

For an Emancipatory Socio-Economics (Draft)

I would like to take as my starting point the need to rethink all of economics, not only the kind of analysis and policy that is applied to the ensemble of countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America that are often labelled ‘developing’. The problem is not that neoclassical economics works well for ‘developed’ countries while not fitting ‘developing’ countries, but that it does not work well for any country. In rethinking what kind of economics is needed for ‘developing’ countries, it is important to make links with currents of thought that are also challenging the hegemony of neoclassical economics in ‘developed’ and ‘transition’ countries. If neoclassical economics is allowed to appear (even by default) as the appropriate economics for rich and powerful countries, then any reconstituted ‘development economics’ will continue to be marginalised, both in the policy arena and in the curriculum.

There are several currents of thought that contain challenges to the dominance of neoclassical economic thinking- structuralist, post-keynesian, evolutionary economics among them. My remarks draw in particular on two -the human development current and the feminist economics current (see also Elson, 1997; Elson, 1999;Elson and Cagatay, 2000). They reflect a belief in the importance of pluralism in thinking about economies.

Unlike the World Bank’s World Development Report, the UNDP Human Development Report examines issues of poverty, inequality and growth in all countries. The human development approach challenges the merely instrumental treatment of human beings as ‘factors of production’ in the service of economic growth no matter where it takes place. Similarly, feminist economics (as exemplified, for instance, in the journal Feminist Economics, and in special issues of World Development on gender, trade, and macroeconomics, Vol 23, No 11, 1995 and Vol 28, No.7, 2000) challenges the validity of ‘rational economic man’ for rich countries as well as for poor ones; and argues that unpaid time spent caring for family, friends and neighbours is an economic issue, not just a personal issue, all over the world. This does not mean that human development and feminist economics try to force all countries into a ‘one size fits all’ straitjacket. Rather they have rejected straitjackets as an appropriate way of dealing with intractable reality.

Of course, any social science has to engage in abstraction. The problem is to choose the forms appropriate to the question in hand. ‘Horses for courses’, as Joan Robinson was fond of saying. Rethinking cannot avoid some grappling with methodological issues.

There is a need for thought experiments at high levels of abstraction to think through possible regularities in interconnections and linkages; but in applied analysis, there has to be scope for investigating particularities that may subvert those generalities. The same set of stylised facts will not fit the whole world. This was indeed the premise of ‘development economics’. However, there is no longer, if indeed there ever was, a neat bifurcation between a set of stylised facts that fit ‘developed countries’ and a set that fit ‘developing countries’. A much richer typology is needed.

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