Economics Education: The Indian Context

Economics is viewed in most schools, colleges (Management institutes as well) and universities as a monolithic enterprise. It comprises mainly Microeconomics and Macroeconomics and uses Econometrics and Mathematical Economics as tools to understand the economy. Interestingly, tools like philosophy, history, sociology, anthropology lie forgotten. Or probably they are not viewed as tools anymore. Or they are not scientific enough!

This post deals with the dominant perception of Economics within India and how these perceptions adversely affect the spirit of economics in particular and of scientific inquiry in general.

Courses like History of Economic Thought are extended to include Classical Political Economy, Marxian Economics, etc. They are taught as outdated ideas and not as relevant approaches in understanding the economy. This is visible from the responses of students when works of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Karl Marx etc are mentioned. I shall discuss Malthus in this post and in the next post, I shall discuss some of the theories of Marx.

Unfortunately, Malthus is known only for his ‘bad’ population theory. Interestingly enough, all that Malthus [1798] said was ‘that population, when unchecked, increased in a geometrical ratio, and subsistence for man in an arithmetical ratio.

Let us examine whether this position be just. I think it will be allowed, that no state has hitherto existed (at least that we have any account of) where the manners were so pure and simple, and the means of subsistence so abundant, that no check whatever has existed to early marriages, among the lower classes, from a fear of not providing well for their families, or among the higher classes, from a fear of lowering their condition in life. Consequently in no state that we have yet known has the power of population been left to exert itself with perfect freedom.‘ (Italics added)

Such an argument is what philosophers of science classify as a ‘thought experiment’. But mainstream economists classify this as a theory which has provided wrong predictions.

Thought experiments are devices of the imagination used to investigate the nature of things. And in our own time, the creation of quantum mechanics and relativity are almost unthinkable without the crucial role played by thought experiments. [Brown 2007] If one were to discredit and disregard Malthus’ theory, then there is no reason why the theory of perfect competition should be considered in Economics at all. The issue is that, there is hardly any work being done in methodological issues pertaining to economics and on the structure of a good economic theory, therefore one definitely needs to consider each and every theory in its own context. By context I refer to the historical background and the general argument that is being put forth.

Philosophical debates within Economics are very essential for the growth of both the disciplines, but more significant for economics. Methodological and epistemological issues are not commonly discussed in economics. This is very necessary because economics, economists and economies are ever growing in importance. Their policies have far reaching effects. And if they are not constructed in the right spirit, the objectives of the policy might not be fulfilled at all. The Indian budget 2008-09 is one such example. None of the Indian universities have a course pertaining to the Philosophy of Economics in its Masters’ courses. This shows the importance it has received vis-a-vis econometrics and game theory.

Also, economics claims to be a science and Professor Peter Englund, Secretary of the Economics (Nobel) Prize Committee thinks so as well when he says ‘In all relevant respects the committee understands and treats economics as a field of science.’ I see it as a shirking away of economics from questioning itself- its methodology and its knowledge.

It is primarily this attainment of a scientific nature by mainstream neoclassical economics that is bringing doom to the people constituting the economy. The present analysis in mainstream economics is not only ahistorical but also asocial. Economics needs to understand its origins and its epistemology. It ought to be a pluralistic enterprise. And let theoretical anarchism prevail because ‘it is more humanitarian and more likely to encourage progress.’ [Feyerabend 1975]

Author: Alex M Thomas

A passionate student of economics!

9 thoughts on “Economics Education: The Indian Context”

  1. I fully agree with you about the significance and educational value of methodology as well as history and philosophy of science. So many people today – and even professional scientists – seem to me like somebody who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest. A knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is – in my opinion – the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth. — Albert Einstein.(From WIKI, Philosphy of Physics)

    The study of mainstream economics today is mainly to create more and more profits for MNC’s. Ethics and purpose of economics has been lost in this mad scramble for economic growth.

    Alex, can u give ur email id plz.

  2. Business schools teach capitalist economics. You will find it to be less than a satisfying experience. Many people who teach in or administer these schools are business or accounting types who have little time for intellectual pursuits.

    There are universities in the world which teach Marxist-Leninist economics. Unfortunately they are all in China (ironically). Maybe soon there will be some in Nepal.

    In any case, if you want to really understand the world, switch your major to philosophy or political science. The un-inspiring pseudo-science of capitalist economics you can easily pickup in your free time.

  3. It’s to late to take up polsc or philo. now.

    Can we study real economics at mphil or phd level?
    Say a thesis or dissertation on philosophy of economics??

    If there is option, would u take up the topic Alex?

    What r u studying reasoninrevolt?

  4. Kshitij,

    If you want to understand more about the world (substitute economics for world), you can always do that by reading more-interdisciplinary, interacting more with profs and peers, etc. Engaging in constant debate/discourse.

    In India, doing a dissertation purely on the philosophy of economics will be difficult, as very few people are interested and let alone capable to guide you.

    I am planning to work mainly on philosophy and economics and also draw insights from literature, history etc. (Look up postcolonial studies, critical theory, human geography etc)

  5. Hello,

    Might any reader here comment on any of the following:

    1. Why does Jagdish Bhagwati disagree with Amartya Sen’s analyses on famine and entitlements?

    2. relationship between: world market versus world economy.

    3. division of US GDP 2007/2008 into wages and profits and GDP accounting..can’t seem to pin down concrete arithmetic on this distribution of product today.

    4. Is Kuznets (Y/K) ratio of three still applicable today? If so does that mean US capital stock is about 3×14 trillion=42 trillion dollars?

    These are not meant as trick questions but are straightforward and sincere.


    richard melson

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