The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

6.2 'Heterodox' modules

There are several ways to run heterodox modules. One way is to discuss a specific paradigm. An example of this approach is discussed in Figure 13.

Figure 13: A single-paradigm heterodox module on Post Keynesianism

One example of a coherent module based on one paradigm is a module on Post Keynesian Economics run at Trinity College, USA. The module opens with a discussion of what is Post Keynesianism: this is a key question because this school has been accused of incoherence. The module then considers methodology at some length, focusing on issues surrounding uncertainty, time and equilibrium. Specifically, Post Keynesians hold that the world is fundamentally non-probabilistically uncertain. They hold that economic theories should be predicated on historical (irrevocable) time, rather than the reversible, logical time in orthodox models. They are sceptical about the existence of equilibrium, partly because of history and uncertainty (Robinson, 1980). However, many Post Keynesian models do use equilibrium concepts. Again, there is a conundrum for students, which can generate classroom discussion. The remainder of the module focuses on three main areas of theoretical concern for Post Keynesians: pricing, inflation and money. Throughout the module, the critical reading of articles is stressed and reinforced by the assessment scheme, which includes critical reviews of readings, presented orally to class.

There are other examples of single paradigm modules, particularly on Institutionalism, in the USA. Such modules tend to have specific characteristics:

  • Methodology underpins the institutionalist theory. John Dewey, for example, was a pragmatist philosopher on whom institutionalists draw extensively. Dewey embraced a dialectical method. Similarly, Veblen and others stressed key distinctions in the economy, their maintenance, effects and their breakdown. Other key methodological tenets are the stress on systems, evolution and change, valuation, and the complex nature of the individual. These concepts can then be applied to theoretical issues. A commonly chosen issue is the analysis of work, as developed in particular by Juliet Schor.
  • Material from other disciplines, such as social psychology, is crucial. Students on these institutionalist modules are encouraged to read other disciplines', which is useful for a discussion of human nature, a common feature of institutionalist modules.
  • A historical approach is adopted, usually involving a historical account of economic development, in chronological order, beginning with pre-modern, through modern, on to contemporary economies dominated by large corporations. As institutionalist modules, they focus on the development of institutions over time. Also, their definition of institution is typical of the tradition, being much broader than simply defining an institution as a corporate body; rather, an institution includes habits of thought and of mind.
  • Many courses also involve the integration of ecological concerns into the economics syllabus.

Other angles to take are:

  • Political economy: The Foundations of Political Economy module formerly taught at Michigan State University also adopts a historical approach, and highlights institutions, but focuses more on policy-making. Policy relevance and focus is another heterodox tenet. It partly reflects that in heterodox thought, the distinction between fact and value (positive/normative) is rejected, or at least held less strongly. Economic theories are held to contain value judgements, and even though scientists do attempt to be objective, they are not neutral. This is an important point and one which is raised by Stretton (1999) early in his textbook for principles students. That is discussed below.
  • Parallel heterodox perspectives: A module in Alternative Approaches to Macroeconomic Analysis at Manitoba and a module in Comparative Economic Thought at Galway offer a different way to deliver a heterodox module. Both modules begin with a brief critical presentation of the neoclassical approach, and then proceed into a series of alternatives, including Post Keynesian, Cambridge, Marxian and Institutionalist. There is no attempt here to offer a single, unified heterodox approach. Rather, the different schools of thought are offered individually and students are invited to compare them. The only formal way in which schools are compared and reconciled is the way in which, in the Manitoba module, there is some grouping of alternative theories, such as those which focus on class conflict or policy critique. In both modules, the emphasis is on literature and on critique. The comparative analysis involved is clear, not least from the title of the Galway module.
  • A single coherent heterodox approach: Goodwin and Harris (2001) present a heterodox microeconomics module, based on a microeconomics text called Microeconomics in Context. They are advocating a new paradigm: contextual economics, which combines elements of ecological, feminist, institutionalist, Marxist, radical, and even (reconfigured) neoclassical economics which attempts to synthesise elements of those parts. Their position is that orthodox micro systematically ignores issues of context, particularly ecological issues (a common complaint). When the text presents standard microeconomic concepts, they are always positioned in the relevant contexts. Thus, the module structure focuses on a series of topics: the relationship between wealth, consumption, well-being and ecological balance; historical perspectives on capitalism; markets, industrialisation and culture; household labour and child rearing; trends in corporate growth and market power; wage differentials and income inequality; and environmental externalities and intergenerational equity.