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4. The ‘contending perspectives’ approach

4.1 Summary

Arguably, the best way to achieve the development of comparative and critical capacities is to combine the two approaches above. This can be done in a ‘parallel perspectives’ approach, in which issues or concepts are considered from different perspectives in parallel. This is pluralist but somewhat weakly so. A stronger version of this is ‘contending perspectives’, in which different perspectives are brought intentionally into contrast. The essence of this approach is summarised in Figure 6.

Figure 6: Characteristics of a ‘contending perspectives’ approach

  1. Core economic concepts or problems are examined from an orthodox perspective (as would be done in an orthodox module).
  2. The orthodox perspective is criticised from a heterodox perspective (as in the orthodox-plus design discussed above).
  3. The concept or issue is discussed from a heterodox perspective (as in the module design discussed in Section 3).
  4. Any orthodox rebuttals of the heterodox position and debate that has occurred are examined.
  5. Students are invited to evaluate the debate and argue for a position. In some ways, this may have already been done in the heterodox module, if issues were dealt with in turn from multiple heterodox perspectives. However, the contending perspectives approach does this more explicitly and systematically and allows both orthodox and heterodox positions to be examined.[1]

In terms of learning outcomes, students will gain awareness of a variety of substantive concepts (albeit possibly slightly narrower in scope than on any individual orthodox or heterodox module). However, the key to using the approach successfully is not to compromise on the need to be critical and comparative. The contrast between the perspectives is utterly crucial and must pervade the presentation and assessment of the module being taught.

[1] In theory, one could start with heterodox concepts. In an introductory module that makes most sense. In higher-level modules, in which students have most likely already studied some orthodox economics, the orthodox is most easily taught first.

4.2 Examples

This section outlines a contending perspectives approach. We start with general discussion of the distinction between orthodox and heterodox economics, based on a model of ten competing principles. The two sets of ten principles are presented in Table 1 below and are offered as a useful teaching device. That discussion places particular focus on the purpose of economics, the methods of economics, and the role of values in economics. Section 3 of the curriculum booklet sets out a particular Introductory Microeconomics module structured around contending perspectives.

At whichever level a contending perspectives approach is applied, a crucial first step is to get students thinking comparatively as early as possible and about fundamental issues. A useful device to assist that process is to employ Table 1, adapted from Knoedler and Underwood (2003). The principles shown there are not meant to be exhaustive but are an example which individual tutors can adjust according to their modules. The principles shown apply well to a microeconomics module.

Table 1: Ten Things Every Student Should Learn

(adapted from Knoedler and Underwood, 2003)

Orthodox (Side A)Heterodox (Side B)
1. Economics is the study of choice under conditions of scarcity.1. Economics is about the social processes of providing for people’s needs, not merely choices and scarcity.
2. Economic actors are motivated by rational self-interest to maximise their satisfaction from consumption (based on a given set of preferences).2. Both scarcity and wants are socially defined and created.
3. Economics, practised correctly, is a ‘positive science’ premised upon value-free, objective knowledge. The role of the economist is to engage in the science of ‘positive’ analysis of the economic processes described above.3. Economics is not ‘value-free’ and ideology shapes our analyses and conclusions as economists.
4. The history of economic thought is a specialist subject inessential for the study of contemporary economic theory.4. The history of economic thought is critical to the study of ‘basic principles’ of economics.
5. The individual – understood as an entity separated from others – is the principal unit of economic analysis.5. The individual should be understood, but as complex and connected to others – and as a means to understanding the operation of the whole economy.
6. Economies and markets tend to equilibrium. Equilibrium is a foundational concept in economics.6. Although equilibrium can be a useful concept, economies generally do not tend to equilibrium; indeed, there may be no equilibrium to tend to and thus, economics should focus on dynamic processes rather than equilibria.
7. The market values (prices) established in a ‘free market’ economy are the critical guide to economic efficiency. Anything that ‘distorts’ free market values reduces efficiency, thus imposing costs on society.7. Valuation is a social process.
8. Although a free market is believed to be the ideal way to achieve efficiency and maximum social welfare, there are many failures in the market requiring intervention by government.8. Markets are social institutions that could never work as posited by the orthodox theory. Many of the failures described by orthodoxy are essential features of markets.
9. Distribution of wealth and income rests on marginal production of individuals, determined by their characteristics.9. Distribution is shaped by membership in groups according to race, gender and class, and the relative power exercised by those groups.
10. The natural world, the source of all energy and materials and the repository for all waste, is not a necessary (complementary) element in production.10. Ecological literacy (economy–ecology interface, unity between biophysical first principles and economic sustainability) is essential to understanding the economic process.

One useful way to employ the table is to print it on two sides of a sheet, with the orthodox principles as side A, the heterodox side B. This resource has been used successfully at Principles level.[1] It is one of the first resources given to students. They may immediately read it all – and if this stimulates their thinking that would be desirable – but it may also introduce too much early confusion. Thus it may be better just to have students refer to it as directed by the instructor. The initial segment of the module must be devoted to creating the impression of a division and making students comfortable with that. For beginning students, without preconceptions – or perhaps for those from other disciplines – it is straightforward to argue that there are simply two competing views, and then to explain them. Certain points from the ten things sheet are desirable and indeed necessary to establish the orthodox/ heterodox distinction.

The first issue to discuss is ‘What is the prime focus of economic analysis?’ Immediately students see the standard scarcity view contrasted with other views. As Table 1 shows, a heterodox economist might regard the economic problem as one of social provisioning – of needs, not wants. By questioning whether their wants are indeed unlimited, and whether their resources are scarce, students understand better what the orthodox postulate of scarcity means, and how it applies to real-world situations. Some students may reject the scarcity postulate as static and too geared towards selfish satisfaction; for others though it will resonate with their own budget management concerns.

After discussing the purpose of economics, the author finds it useful to consider the methods of economics. As outlined in section 1.1, heterodox approaches contrast with textbook models in their recognition of history. Orthodox models tend to be framed in logical time, which is reversible. This is clearly unrealistic and excludes much apparently significant historical detail. However, students quickly realise that models must exclude. That leads into a contrast between abstraction and idealisation. Abstraction is the ignorance of some factors in order to focus on the essence of a phenomenon. Idealisation is the creation of idealised entities that deviate strongly from reality. Abstraction is necessary in economics because of the complexity of the world. However, arguably, idealisation is more common in orthodox models. Thus, economic man is a device that does not represent any real humans. However, that may not matter in terms of good theories. With some students, it may even be possible to discuss Friedman’s (1953) view of theories as predictive devices.

Point 3 on the sheet is also essential for the contending perspectives approach. It concerns the positive/normative distinction. The orthodox side A presents the positivist view that analysis should be value-free and objective. It is relatively simple to ask students whether they think this is a desirable aim and, if so, whether it is possible. Having the students read the introduction to Chang (2014) on ‘political economy’, or Harvey (2015: ch. 2) on economics as science, or Stretton (1999: ch. 5) on ideology assists that discussion. For Barone (1991) it is a major benefit of contending perspectives that they allow value bases to be made clear and evaluated. In so doing, he argues, contending perspectives stop sneering and encourage healthy conversation and co-operation.

Stretton’s (1999) book also facilitates the consideration of the role schools of thought play in economics. His early discussion of the development of economics is useful because it hints at point 4 in Table 1, on the role of historical context, but also establishes that there are several traditions out there and that they are worthy of consideration. Indeed, Stretton’s approach is to examine briefly the history of economic thought, examine Smith and the classical growth model first, and then to show how the neo-classical economics took on only one part of the classical approach, namely distributional concerns. By reading these extracts from Stretton, students learn:

  1. that there are several perspectives on economics;
  2. about key figures in the heritage of economics;
  3. that current theories are the latest in a long line of theories, some of which they develop, others they reject or change fundamentally

Some of the distinctions in Table 1 may appear rather stark but that is intentional. The stark distinctions serve as a vehicle to bridge them. For example, take point 8. In fact, perhaps few orthodox economists would argue (as strongly as that) in favour of the notion of free market capitalism, and perhaps many heterodox economists would not subscribe to the notion of a completely managed capitalism. In reality, there is more of a continuum of views. However, the two extremes serve as an entry point into a discussion amongst the students of markets and the role of government. This would most likely occur later in the module. It allows the free market view to be put across, examined and then contrasted with the view that all markets are institutional creations and therefore managed (which would also be evaluated). When those notions are presented simply, they become accessible to students. A case study such as the marketisation of health care or education is topical, personally relevant and an effective vehicle for understanding and discussing the two views as presented. Such a discussion could then lead on to more complex considerations and theories–for example, the new institutionalist approach.

Once the initial distinctions have been established, it is possible to move into a discussion of various economic concepts. That is where a discussion of module structure becomes relevant. Further detail on possible module structures can be found in the companion publication “pluralism in the economics curriculum”.

[1] In terms of its content, some points about the sheet should be noted. In general, it presents a workable set of heterodox principles: it is similar to the principles listed in section 1.1. However, Knoedler and Underwood come from the institutionalist tradition and some of their alternative principles will reflect that. Nevertheless, the tables can be tailored to reflect a particular perspective, or to suit the needs of a particular module. For example, number 7 on the heterodox side, ‘valuation is a social process’, is quite vague. It probably reflects the concern expressed in a number of institutionalist texts and modules about instrumental valuation (the notion that value is ascribed only in terms of its consequences). However, it could also be interpreted as reflecting the Marxist labour theory of value and the (social) determination of the surplus. Or it could be explained via the Keynesian beauty contest, in which social-psychological factors determine share prices.

4.3 Summary of the contending perspectives approach

A thoroughgoing contending perspectives module can cover all the required orthodox concepts as well as heterodox concepts. The comparative and critical approach starts on day one and is reinforced through the entire module, in exercises, class discussions and assessment (see below). Although the author has not formally tested whether this approach generated better marks for students, it certainly improved student perceptions of the introductory microeconomics module and seemed to attract more students to opt for economics. These findings are supported by the evidence reported in section 1.3.

The author employed a similar method in modules on intermediate microeconomics, industrial economics, and economics of the environment. In the first case, orthodox and heterodox were contrasted in the same way as in the level 1 module, but considering higher-level material. In the second case, three perspectives were used: neo-classical, Marxist and new institutionalist. In the third case, environmental economics was contrasted with ecological economics. In all three cases, the contrast began almost on day one of the module and was pursued throughout.

4.4 Objections to the contending perspectives approach

There are several objections offered to teaching heterodox economics. Space precludes a full discussion here, but some of these objections are worthy of mention. One is that heterodox economics is pointless and that students should merely learn orthodox economics. Hopefully the arguments in section 1 refute such claims. The other questions commonly raised are:

  • Is it asking too much of students to have them cope with multiple perspectives while taking in complex economic material?
  • Will students find competing perspectives approaches too difficult and unattractive per se?
  • Will including heterodox material reduce the intellectual depth of the economics programme?

The first two questions rest on the belief that criticism and scepticism breed nihilism, and that students will learn nothing if they are taught to criticise. Even those who accept the need to criticise the orthodoxy claim that the basics need to be learned first. The danger of course is that once learned, the basics are impossible to question, and that the aims stated above of open-mindedness and critical thinking can be thwarted if students embrace the basics too vigorously. One strategy is to teach alternative basics from the beginning. A way to get students used to being critical is to immerse them in a programme in which criticism and comparison is endemic.

However, it is a genuine concern that students will be discouraged if they see only fallibility of theories and alternatives and see no hope of reaching answers. Earl (2000) shows that an instructor who tries to push students too quickly will come unstuck and lose them. As Earl notes, the comparative or relativistic way of thinking does not occur overnight: nor can students be dragged to that level. Most start off as what Earl calls ‘dualistic’, i.e. right and wrong, thinkers: one theory must be the whole Truth, or it is useless. A tutor should be able to demonstrate their expertise by delivering the Truth to students. It is difficult for students to move from dualistic to relativistic thinking. Even when students are at higher levels of thinking in their everyday life, for instance when discussing football, music or other aspects of popular culture, they can revert to lower levels in academic life, leading them to demand ‘right’ answers and to feel uncomfortable answering anything other than narrow technical questions. Lapidus (2011) echoes these concerns.

As Earl (2000) notes, it is imperative to communicate to the students early on–and to repeat–what you as a lecturer are trying to do. This can also be achieved through the design of assessment. As outlined below, essays of increasing length and significance in terms of marks can ease students into the habit of thinking critically and openly. A stress on the need to make an argument and develop a position can be similarly beneficial. Therefore, when teaching contending perspectives in particular, it is essential that students are treated carefully. Attempts to force students into thinking comparatively, etc. too quickly can lead to them attempting to escape from the process, or taking easy options.

On the question of intellectual depth, the arguments of section 1 should show that teaching contending perspectives may actually increase intellectual standards. The students’ ability to think critically and open-mindedly is a crucial intellectual capacity. As Earl notes too, students’ ethical capacities may also increase, as they learn to show respect for other views yet find ways to criticise them and make tentative commitments to a position (see also Barone, 1991). Barone also notes that when heterodox modules and contending perspectives were introduced into the curriculum at Dickinson College, USA, the ‘neo-classical’ content was strengthened: technical subjects, such as quantitative methods and applied calculus, were made compulsory for economics students.

In short, there appear to be many barriers to teaching a pluralist approach. However, as Earl (2000: 23) notes: ‘Most academic economists do not try to find out whether all these barriers really exist and are insuperable; they simply take them for granted.’ This section has demonstrated that in fact the barriers can be overcome if lecturers are prepared to try. Further, there may be many benefits to students of doing so. 

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