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Foucault and Economics

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 23rd December 2008

This post is more of a suggestion than an explanation. There has been hardly any scholarly work done with respect to applying Michel Foucault’s ideas and approaches to political economy or economics. On searching the internet, all I could find was a conference conducted in 2005 titled ‘Rethinking Foucault, Rethinking Political Economy’ at University of Leicester, UK and a PhD thesis submitted by Iara Vigo de Lima at the University of Stirling in 2006. This post is a result of my reading of certain sections of Dr. Lima’s thesis and the sadness associated with the knowledge that economists have not studied/read/understood Foucault.

I find it difficult to believe that nobody has tried to think/rethink the methodology and historiography of Economics by applying Foucauldian themes. To do justice to this area of research, it is necessary that I quote certain sentences from Dr. Lima’s thesis, as my knowledge of Foucault is limited.

“Foucault followed Nietzsche’s genealogical approach aiming not ‘simply to gain access to the unfamiliar past’, but mainly ‘to articulate and illuminate the familiar present’, and ‘the past, then, becomes a means to access the present’.” [p. 16]

“For Foucault, concepts, notions, theoretical frameworks, methods, etc., are bounded by time and culture.” [p. 21]

“Michel Foucault’s particular insight, especially his way of thinking about history – which he preferred to call ‘history of systems of thought’ – does offer elements that let us think about this question, and specifically in economics (given that he applied it to the history of economic thought). According to him, every age has its way of producing ‘the truth’, which can be uncovered as we think about history.” [p. 24]

“… one of his objectives in OT: to find out how political economy established itself as a discipline (discourse) at the end of the 18th century.” [p. 29]

Very often economics is taught (in India) as if the present day economics is what has evolved out of the previous economic theories. Therefore, the multiple paradigms that prevail in economics are seldom expressed clearly. It is not uncommon to learn the theories of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Thomas Malthus, etc under Classical theories. Then, they are forgotten. They are mentioned as the initial thinkers. No more are they mentioned nor their relevance. For, neo-Smithians, neo-Rocardians, neo-Malthusians, etc are very much present. And, they do come out with better theories than the neoclassical economists.

This post suggests that one ought to know that there are ‘other’ truths (heterodox economic theories) apart from the truth that we are taught – neoclassical economics. And in this aspect, a reading of Foucault will prove to be immensely insightful.

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Posted in Adam Smith, Classical Political Economy, Economic Thought, Economics Education/Teaching, Malthus, Michel Foucault, Neoclassical Economics, Thomas Malthus | 4 Comments »