Dialogos: Economics Education and Pedagogy. An Interview with Peter Söderbaum


Malgorzata Dereniowska: Welcome to “Dialogos: Economics Education and Pedagogy,” Peter! In this interview we will focus on the questions of institutional change in economics education system, economic pedagogy and social responsibility of universities.

Could you tell me something about your background and your professional experience as a teacher of economics?

Peter Söderbaum: As a student at Uppsala University I became interested in political science, economics and business management (or business economics). My first teaching experiences were at Uppsala University and the department of economics (course in international economics) but I later moved to the department of business management where I was teaching marketing courses and also took my PhD on Positional Analysis. Later I moved back to economics now at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala, to become associate professor and lecturer in environmental and natural resource economics. 1995-2005 I was responsible for ecological economics Bachelor and Master programs at Mälardalen University in Västerås.

At an early stage Uppsala University organized an interdisciplinary course in environmental science and I became the person responsible for the environmental economics part of the course. I am referring to the 1970s and this was a time when the borders between disciplines became less respected and interdisciplinary work and courses increasingly encouraged. If I as a lecturer in marketing can learn something about consumer behavior from social psychology – why should I refrain from such learning opportunities?

Malgorzata: How did you come to appreciate pluralism and diversity in economics teaching?

Peter: It seems to me that leading actors in university departments of economics tend to think in Kuhnian ‘paradigm-shift’ terms. Either the neoclassical paradigm is correct or some other paradigm will be proven superior. If there is no other economics paradigm based on the same or similar positivistic premises then we have to accept the present monopoly position of neoclassical theory. There is not yet any alternative according to this view.

But just as there exist different disciplines that can be both complementary and competitive in relation to a particular set of phenomena (such as consumer behavior), it becomes meaningful to refer to co-existing paradigms in economics, each one having its strengths and weaknesses. ‘Paradigm coexistence’ then becomes a key concept. There may still be shift in ‘dominant paradigm’ but advocates of different paradigms should continue to respect each other and the paradigm losing its dominant position may still have something to contribute.

At the mentioned agricultural university there was a period in the early 1990s when students had a choice between neoclassical environmental economics and institutional version referred to as ‘ecological economics’. This idea of separate courses and separate supervisors in thesis projects became a success at least as I saw it. (I am inclined to say that it became too successful for the neoclassical department leadership to accept.)

The big issue here is about values and ideology. Neoclassical economists tend to assume that ‘value-neutrality’ is possible while I as an institutional economist argue with Gunnar Myrdal (1978) that “values are always with us”. Neoclassical theory is science but at the same time values and ideology and the same holds for institutional theory of a particular kind. In a democratic society we need to refer to more than one economic theory to match reasonably well the different ideological orientations in a particular community. In ideological terms, neoclassical theory is close to neoliberalism, I.e. extreme beliefs in markets, monetary profits in business and economic growth in GDP-terms. Today we are instead expected to relate to 17 UN sustainable development goals (SDGs) where economic growth plays a more modest role and other dimensions are emphasized.

Malgorzata: Why do you think pluralism is important from a pedagogical point of view?

Peter:As already indicated I believe that there is often a complementary relationship between two conceptual frameworks and paradigms where one paradigm can add to the understanding offered by another. Pluralism also adds to the freedom of choice for the scholar scientifically and ideologically.

I also feel that comparing one conceptual and theoretical framework with another is an excellent way of learning or doing research. If you want to understand neoclassical theory you may need to compare it with some other theory or perspective.

Malgorzata: In your work you repeatedly emphasize the importance of democracy as both a subject and method in economics research and teaching. You point to the fact that in economic textbooks the term democracy can be searched in vein. How do you see the connection between democracy and economics?

Economics is ideology as I have argued and limiting education to one single paradigm such as neoclassical theory at university departments of economics means that such departments become centers of political propaganda for the ideology built into neoclassical theory. Neoclassical Cost-Benefit Analysis (CBA), an analysis focusing on the monetary dimension, is an extreme case of how economists as experts dictate correct market values for purposes of decision-making at the level of society. Methods that are more open in ideological terms are very much needed.

In my recent writings I am even arguing that economics as a discipline needs to be redefined as “multidimensional management of resources in a democratic society”. One-dimensional monetary analysis of resources does not go well with the multidimensional complexities of the real world and we need to take ideological options seriously if we want to deal with present unsustainable development.

Malgorzata: Why does democracy matter in economics curriculum and pedagogy? 

Peter: As I said, present development is unsustainable in many ways. As many other ecological economists I believe that the monopoly of neoclassical theory has a role in this fact. In attempts to deal with climate change, biodiversity loss, environmental pollution and inequality for that matter, we cannot limit debate to one scientific and ideological perspective.

Students need to face courses and textbooks in the history of economic thought and they should learn about essentials of some versions of heterodox economics. Dialogue between professors who differ in their scientific and ideological preferences should be encouraged rather than avoided.

Malgorzata: Why, in your opinion, there is so much reluctance to open up the issues of democracy and democratization of economics within the discipline?

Peter: I can of course only speculate about this. I think professors of economics and many of their students like to see themselves as experts in an extreme sense. Admitting that there are competing conceptual frameworks and theories may imply uncertainty and confusion for students while protecting neoclassical theory is expected to strengthen the profession.

Actually, neoclassical public choice theory may have something to offer by understanding professors of economics as a relatively homogeneous rent-seeking category. If they cooperate, they can become successful in terms of salaries and otherwise. Fortunately, there is some remaining heterogeneity among neoclassical economists that in the future may open the door for tolerance and democracy.

Malgorzata: Do you think that something can be done about this situation now, given the current institutional settings and existing power relationships between the actors at the higher education institutions?

Peter: What can be done now? We should of course not exclude the possibility that an increasing number of neoclassical economists become more open-minded. I believe however that this tendency to hide behind positivism, mathematical modelling etc. has to be dealt with also at the university level and the political level more generally. The leadership of universities need to understand that there is no value-free economics and that from that follows that reliance on one single paradigm is a mistake. The existence of more schools of thought than one in economics is a fact of life and this has to be reflected in curriculum and pedagogy.

Something is “already” happening at the level of students in economics with their calls for change and networks. We are now waiting for response to these calls from university administrations, ministries of education and other concerned actors. We should encourage politicians and political parties to act. The idea that universities and professors are ideologically neutral persons has to be abandoned. Good science has to become compatible with democracy in addition to other qualitative indicators.

Malgorzata: How would you diagnose the current state of economics education, and how do you perceive the role of pedagogy in this system?

Peter: When looking for a more pluralist economics I think that it is more meaningful to focus on developments outside economics departments. While many actors in the latter departments are rather narrow-minded something happens at university departments of economic history, department of management science and departments of political science. Students have after all some chances to choose disciplines with interdisciplinary openings.

Another possibility is to continue debate about the “Bank of Sweden prize in economic sciences in memory of Alfred Nobel”. This prize was perhaps less of a problem in its early stages but tends now to be part of the protection of neoclassical theory and a neoliberal ideology. Today we need to ask questions about the present global and national institutional framework but neoclassical theory only contributes to a protection of the status quo.

Malgorzata: In your work on sustainable development, you raise the need for wide-range institutional change processes. These institutional changes are meant to counteract the current unsustainable trends that endanger the future possibility for economic growth and human development. Another target of sustainability transformation pertains to the current lack of accountability of individual and collective actors. Since education plays a role in these processes, how do you envision the needed institutional change in economics education?

Peter: In neoclassical theory consumers and firms are understood as mechanistic entities. Instead we need to look upon individuals and organizations as actors guided by an ideological orientation or mission and with responsibilities in a democratic society. Institutional change can be a result of social movements and initiatives by individuals as actors.

There are (unfortunately) many candidates for institutional change if we want to move away from one-dimensional monetary thinking in business or if we want to see global trade relations in new light. Joint stock companies and WTO are thus institutions that deserve consideration. Even UN institutions such as UNEP and UNEP are heavily influenced by and limited to mainstream neoclassical theory. Behind a reluctance to discuss institutional change is of course present power positions and relationships where business interests play a role.

Malgorzata: You tend to emphasize the manifold role of economics professors: as researchers, as teachers, and as citizens, viewing them as agents who exercise, to various degrees, social responsibility in their various roles. This outlook promotes a certain philosophy of education and pedagogy. For example, you seem to be distanced from the view of economics as a purely objective science, and a resulting image of economics teaching as a process that produces experts-analysts, leaving aside the considerations about their role in society and the social consequences of their work. How would you define the basic tenets of your philosophy of teaching? In your view, what is the role of economics teachers, and how do you see the potential of economics students?

Peter: Here we are back to the ideas of positivism and the tendency to hide behind ideas of value-neutrality. Instead we need engaged professors that are capable of extending their views beyond self-interest. Conceptual frameworks and theories should be seen in the light of their ideological implications and each narrative should be contested rather than protected. Incentive systems for professors and students should facilitate an open debate about our common future.

Malgorzata: You promote the idea of University Social Responsibility. Can you tell something more about it?

Peter: Yes, I have suggested that just as some business actors refer to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) we need a similar debate about University Social Responsibility (USR). Some would say that this is a non-issue. Actors within universities are always doing the right thing, searching the truth about various phenomena. My experience of many years of teaching and doing research in ecological or sustainability economics suggest that research and education is not only influenced by a desire to deal with contemporary problems in society but also with the protection of self-interests and personal career opportunities.

Thank you!

Peter Soderbaum-214x267Our guest, Peter Söderbaum, is a professor emeritus in ecological economics at Mälardalen University, Västerås, Sweden. His books include Ecological Economics. A political economics approach to environment and development (Earthscan, 2000), Understanding Sustainability Economics. Towards pluralism in economics (Earthscan, 2008), Economics, ideological orientation and democracy for sustainable development (World Economics Association Books, 2016), and Positional Analysis for Sustainable Development. Reconsidering Policy, Economics and Accounting (2017) co-authored with Judy Brown and Małgorzata Dereniowska. He has written numerous chapters in other books and articles and is member of the editorial advisory board of Ecological Economics and International Journal of Pluralism and Economics Education.

3 thoughts on “Dialogos: Economics Education and Pedagogy. An Interview with Peter Söderbaum

  1. The whole paper raises many issues that need to be considered to connect economic thinking to the real world Furthermore because it seems logical to me that if economics is about people then despite the difficulties involved people have to be considered and involved in the conversation. As a result I support Peter’s emphasis on democracy my concern here is that from observation the public and many economists have little or no understanding of the privileges and obligations required for a democracy to function. The point I am trying to make here is that in a democracy there is no room for the elite holders of power to distance themselves from the general public or academics with alternative views. Ted

  2. We need to better understand how our social system works. Present technologies confuse due to the failure to distinguish between landlord functions and those of capitalists. My recent book overcomes this difficult and makes our past dismal and pseudo-science into a true one. See “Consequential Macroeconomics via my e-mail address chesterdh@hotmail.com for an 310 page e-copy for free! It will blow clear your past thinking process and allow you to better understand how our social system works.

  3. Excelente síntesis derivada de una larga trayectoria comprometida con la formación de estudiantes. Pero no creo que se esté pensando en términos kuhnianos, porque T. Kuhn abre las perspectivas al científico al aceptar multiplicidad de ejemplares en el proceso del aprendizaje de la ciencia. Lo cual significa un NO al paradigma único y su consiguiente pensamiento.
    Karl Popper sí contribuye con la protección de los intereses propios y las oportunidades de carrera profesional al perpetuar un saber reconocido. Pero en las ciencias sociales hay que recurrir a la abducción para poder compartir posibles paradigmas y multiplicidad de hipótesis que enriquecen el saber..

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