Is “economics” society’s operating system?

Is economics now society’s default, or de facto, operating system? And what does this mean? I heard this mentioned in passing on the radio the other day in another context. But it struck me as a really useful and interesting analogy to the role of economics in society, and the values and goals that we subconsciously prioritise.

An operating system is system-wide software that manages computer hardware and software resources, and which provides common services for computer programmes. It operates as a base on which all other functions rely for resources and access – it sets the rules of the game. Similarly, we can see economics, in particular neoclassical economics, as performing a similar function within society, although widely unrecognised and largely subconsciously. It does this, as I suggest below, through setting the rules of the game as well as providing the vocabulary and grammar that we use to talk about the game.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s piece in the Times Higher Ed this morning, on the impact of competition and marketization in higher education, perfectly summed up some of the issues of economics-as-operating-system, but in the specific context of higher education.

Fitzpatrick writes that while friendly competition can be helpful, “when the competitiveness that fuels excellence and prestige becomes based in the logic of the market, universities lose sight of their true purpose”. In a detailed and thoughtful piece, she argues that excellence in academia and higher education has embodied the norms of the market, and competition between academics, between faculties, between institutions and between fields of research has become the main means of determining achievement, excellence, and promotion. The metrics that are used to determine success – publication in the right place, impact, and so on – are based on orthodox, or neoclassical economics and the assumptions, biases and norms contained therein.

Fitzpatrick asks what we could achieve instead if we moved from competition to collaboration within faculties and within higher education more generally. What could we achieve by articulating our goals and values and determining excellence in relation to the achievement of those goals and values rather than against one another?

Fitzpatrick’s argument relates to higher education, which is in a state of flux at the moment given the questions surrounding its funding and the role of higher education in society more broadly. The answer is, of course, not quite so simple, as to challenge or step outside of the mainstream competitive framework inherently makes oneself “uncompetitive”. Funding and prestige are therefore potentially sacrificed – a leap into the unknown that so far, only the University of Ghent has been prepared to take.

In other words, the system perpetuates and reproduces itself, while being almost impossible to step outside of. However, within the sphere of higher education, there is some level of awareness of the metrics, competition, and implications of this on career progression, wellbeing and industry more broadly, even if there is no clear or simple solution.

But the article raises broader issues that relate to my research, and the comment about economics – particularly neoclassical economics – functioning as a de facto operating system throughout society. The difference here is the general lack of awareness about the way that neoclassical economics shapes the way that society functions. Even within economics as a field of study and research, there is a generalised monoculture.

We can point to economics notions like competition and a belief in the free market, ways of measuring (GDP, for example), profit maximization, and so on, as having pervaded social consciousness and public discourse to such an extent that they guide and influence policy making even tacitly. By effectively fixing the rules of the game, and even the way we talk about the game before playing it by supplying the vocabulary and grammar, economics functions as a social operating system. And the sooner we are more aware of the impact of this, the sooner we can begin to challenge its effects.

World Development Reports (and another blog post)

(Originally posted 5th October 2016 on my previous site):

These are annual Reports published by the World Bank into development triumphs and lessons. Each World Development Report (WDR) usually has a focus, and the 2017 WDR’s title is “Law and Governance”. Being just a little excited about this, I wrote a blog post that was published on the SLSA website, exploring the extent to which the World Bank was likely to open itself up to different approaches. You can read it here.

Overall, I’m not holding my breath for a radical realignment of World Bank policy, and even though the rewards could be immeasurable, I’m certainly not holding out for Economic Sociology of Law-based approaches to feature. But even just considering the role of law and governance in enabling (or hindering) development is a step forward. The World Bank is beginning to recognize that there is more to life than just economic equations.

There has also been a move towards experimentalism in development, which builds on behavioural economics and other slight expansions in policy over the past few years. While this is to be welcomed, there is a long way to go.

My original research plan (oh, how things have changed)!

I’m in the process of moving everything over from my old site to this shiny new one, and wanted to bring some of the content with me. This (included below in this post) is one of the original pages I wrote for the old site, back in 2012 or so, when I was just starting out with the PhD. Reading back on it now is a little bit like looking back over a long journey and realizing just how far you’ve come. The final draft that I’m about to submit is so different to what I originally wrote!

Of course, this is all completely normal and just part of the process of doing a PhD. But there are a couple of other things that have leaped out at me too, rereading over the abstract. There’s so much “jargon”! There are entire sentences below that make me wince. It’s not that I don’t understand the terms – I’m completely comfortable relating to and with the ideas. But really, my supervisor and I are the only two people in the building who understand what I’m talking about, then what is the point?

This has become quite a significant part of the drafting process as time has gone on, and I have another blog post lined up about this. But in the meantime, the only way research is going to have impact in the real world is if people in the real world can understand what you’re saying. And for this to happen, the research has to be accessible and in plain English (as well as interesting, engaging, and relevant, of course).

In the meantime, here is what I was embarking on some seven years ago…


Recent World Bank policy documents are notable for hinting at a retreat from doctrinaire reliance on “investment climate” discourse frameworks. Although the concept of an “ideal paradigm” still informs much of the World Bank’s lending and consulting praxis, there has been a reappraisal of the empirical certainties underlying many assumptions. While a quantitative, leximetric approach to law and governance continues to define World Bank ideology, assertions of causation between these and economic development are increasingly being questioned.

By taking a socio-legal approach to an investigation of the interaction between law and the economy, this research offers a new approach. Taking law as a socially constructed phenomenon existing as perceived by the actors in their interactions both with each other (economically-oriented actions and interactions) (see the work of Roger Cotterrell) and with the local laws (operating on a range of scales from the micro, macro, meta and meso levels (see the work of Sabine Frerichs and Amanda Perry-Kessaris), this approach questions both current terminology as being overly laced with economic theory, and the frameworks that deny the normative bias of much of the current discourse. The research responds to calls for careful empirical socio-legal studies by Cotterrell and Swedberg, amongst others, by conducting grounded-theory informed ethnography in Sri Lanka, interviewing foreign investors about their interactions with the legal system prior to, and during the investment process. The framing of law in a socio-legal paradigm thus facilitates the use of the results not only to engage with questions of correlation between the legal environment in Sri Lanka and the actions of foreign investors, but also with causation; understanding clearly the motivations and perceptions of the investors themselves.

The results will enable clarification of the interaction between law and the economy in Sri Lanka, as well as the use, abuse and avoidance characteristic of the interaction between foreign investors and local laws. It is then possible to ask whether legal and governmental reform lending conditionalities recommended by the World Bank and other International Financial Organizations (IFOs) were a factor in the attraction of foreign investment to the country, and to what extent this might have been the case. The results will allow for an appraisal of current IFO policies, as well as the extent to which Sri Lanka should tailor its legal system to the requirements of foreign investors, potentially at the expense of other actors in the domestic legal and economic systems. Moreover, a careful selection of interviewees should allow a comparison between attitudes and approaches towards the importance of formal law and legal systems in an investment situation, both along nationality and institutional sectoral axes. This should thereby facilitate closer appraisal of the legal reform process with respect to more accurate tailoring of the reforms depending on the desired outcome. This should also work to minimise unintended, and undesirable, side effects of reforms on local businesses and entrepreneurs, while facilitating investment according to policy objectives.