design overlay
What does it mean to “decolonize” economics?Upper left: Berggruen Fellow Devika Dutt. Graphic by Mohamed Hassan, Pixabay.

What does it mean to “decolonize” economics?

Sharing Tools

Link copied!

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

The discipline of economics needs to abandon its Eurocentric focus and center its teaching and scholarship on structural power, said Berggruen Fellow Devika Dutt at a Global Racial Justice Series lecture.

UCLA International Institute, February 4, 2022 — “The mainstream [economics] depiction of the development of capitalism is highly distorted and selective. It ignores power relations, oppression, qualitative changes in social relations and… most importantly, the role of colonialism and the slave trade,” said macroeconomist Devika Dutt at an online International Institute event on January 27, 2022.

“This has laid the foundations for a thoroughly Eurocentric understanding of economic laws [seen to] operate in a universal manner across the world … whereby history seemed to unfold according to a preordained path.”

Dutt was a featured speaker in the institute’s 2021–22 lecture series, Global Racial Justice and the Everyday Politics of Crisis and Hope. A Berggruen Institute Fellow at the University of Southern California, she earned her Ph.D. in economics from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

International Institute professor Alden Young, who teaches a Colonialism and Development course (Intl Dev 140) in the International Development Studies Program, served as discussant.

Economics as a discipline, emphasized Dutt, universalizes the economic development of the Global North, lacks critical self-inquiry and interprets economic development elsewhere in the world as an aberration or anomaly to what it already knows. “A lot of heterodox theoretical and methodological approaches are excluded [from] and marginalized in the field,” she said.

The young economist is the co-founder of the organization and online publication “Diversifying and Decolonizing Economics” (known as D-Econ). In addition to a publication and a blog, the D-Econ website annually publishes alternative reading lists in economics.

She described D-Econ as “a network of economists and social scientists who are trying to promote and create a field of economics that is inclusive” — that is, inclusive of a plurality of identities, theoretical frameworks and methodologies.

Dutt based her remarks on collaborative research she has conducted with D-Econ colleagues, as well as with her co-authors Carolina Alves, Surbhi Kesar and Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven on the book, “Decolonising Economics — An Introduction” (Polity Press, forthcoming 2022).

A discipline dominated by white men and the Global North

Citing a 2021 article by Professor Dani Rodrik of Harvard University, Dutt shared the findings of a survey of 49 leading economics journals to determine the geographic distribution editorial power in the profession.

“We are focusing here on economics journals because they’re considered the house of knowledge of the economic discipline,” she explained.

“[I]t’s important to look at… who’s calling the shots and what gets published and, therefore, [what] serves as the body of economic knowledge that is then taught and researched and built upon — and that influences economic policy.”

The survey found that editorial power in the economics is located mostly in the United States (66%) and the United Kingdom (27%), with only 7% located in the rest of the world — “which constitutes the majority of the world’s population,” said Dutt.

In another measure of the concentration of power in the profession, Dutt noted that among the 89 economists awarded a Nobel Prize to date,* 84 were white men and 89 out of 89 were based in a handful of universities in the U.S., UK or the European Union.

A glance at the world map shows how little of the world receives the attention of
academic economics journals. (Graphic: TeaTree/ Pixabay.)   

The geographic focus of the articles published in economics journals is also heavily weighted toward the United States. Citing a study that reviewed roughly 76,000 empirical articles in 200 economics journals over a 20-year period, Dutt said the overwhelming majority of articles concerned the United States, with statistically very few articles on developing countries — an imbalance that widened considerably in the top five publications. (See a brief distillation of the article here.)

“The ‘aberrations’ don’t really find much space in these journals,” Dutt commented wryly.

Economics, she observed, pays scant attention to economic history and the history of economic thought. And despite the fact that economics scholarship is overwhelmingly Eurocentric, mainstream economic theory nevertheless makes claims to universality and neutrality.

Dutt argued that the assumption that the Global North is the norm leads to a teleological understanding of history and development. “We have a view of the history of economic thought and the development of the profession itself outside of the development of capitalism.

“It basically makes impossible to grasp conflicting ideas and other ways of viewing the same developments.”

Diversification is NOT decolonization

Dutt repeatedly stressed that diversifying and decolonizing economics were not the same thing. Rather, increasing diversity in the ranks of economics professors is just one part of decolonizing the profession as a whole.

Existing attempts at introducing diversity in university economics departments have not made much headway because these efforts have failed to address the theoretical limitations of the discipline. Instead, she observed, they have focused on actions such as mentoring and eliminating individual biases.

“The larger problems of the discipline are structural,” insisted Dutt. She argued that mainstream economics lacks a plurality of theoretical and methodological frameworks, making it difficult for the discipline to recognize phenomena that inhibit development in places other than the Global North. These same structural problems contribute to the lack of diversity in economics departments.

“Economic theory doesn’t really have a good explanation for what causes discrimination and… the existing disparities that we see in the [U.S.] economy. Therefore, it makes sense that we don’t have an answer to our own problem of what the profession looks like,” she said.

The urgency of decolonization

“Why does [the decolonization of economics] matter?” asked Dutt. “The economics profession is extremely powerful, given that [it has] a direct line to policymaking.” Plus, she noted, it is essential for advancing material decolonization.

Decolonizing economics will not only impact the research and ideas taught to students — and made available to policy makers — it will also raise the scientific quality of economics research, by including data, observations and theories from around the globe, she said.

According to Dutt and her co-authors, decolonization requires, among other things, increasing the diversity of university economics departments by addressing the problems of structural exclusion, confronting the universalism of mainstream economic theory and “centering structural power within the study and research of the discipline.”

In addition, more diverse theories and methodologies need to be introduced. “Different lenses are extremely important for looking at economic processes,” she said. “Regional specificity is also important.”

Post  from CODESRIA (Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa) Community Facebook
site, Feb. 1, 2022, highlights an article on economic decolonilization in Tuniisia published in the
CODESRIA journal, "Africa Development." 

“If we’re only viewing the whole world through the lens of what … the Global North looks like, we’re basically excluding important other bodies of scientific knowledge and not even engaging with them — gatekeeping them outside of what could be used to understand the world,” she remarked.

A decolonized understanding of macroeconomics, for example, would have shed more light on the debate about whether current inflation in the U.S. is the result of too much economic stimulus or of temporary supply chain problems, explained Dutt.

“If we had seen how inflation plays out in a lot of developing economies, where the source of inflation is structural or a result of a failure of supply or problems of the exchange rate — I’m not saying those are the only things that cause inflation in developing economies, but these are some of the main problems — it would have already given us insight into what we're talking about today,” she said.

Dutt recommended that international development studies students expand their understanding of economics beyond mainstream theory by reading dependency theorists, world systems theorists and Keynesian and Marxist economists.

She also encouraged students to read widely in other social sciences. “If you're looking at a specific issue, don't only approach it from economics, because a lot of times other disciplines have a lot more and more interesting things to say, [and] that can influence how we view the economy,” she said.

Specifically, she recommended the works of numerous of individual scholars and activists, including her co-authors Carolina Alves, Surbhi Kesar and Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven; as well as Tim Mitchell (“The Work of Economics”), Walter Rodney; Kwame Nkruhmah (“Neocolonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism,” 1965), Joan Robison and Michał Kalecki (“The Political Aspects of Full Employment”).

“I think students have a really important role to play [in decolonizing the discipline], especially because the neoliberal university, funnily enough, looks at students as consumers and customers, and often what students want, students get,” she said.

*Dutt explained that the prize is actually the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. Not technically a Nobel Prize, it is nevertheless administered by the Nobel Foundation.

To watch the full video of the talk visit: