Development economics PhD Procreate Research Uncategorized Vignettes Visualising ESL

Making research relevant: Meet Ann, Pol, and Lil

One of the biggest challenges for anyone working on conceptual issues is making their research relevant to everyone else. After all, the first question any researcher should be asking themselves is “who cares”? This is not the passive-aggressive, somewhat depressing question that it could be, but rather a positive nudge to any researcher to bear in mind why you’re doing the research, and who is going to benefit from it.

My research is primarily conceptual, but has three main audiences: academics engaged in sociolegal research, policy makers working in international development, and a lay audience seeking more innovative responses to the financial crisis. Using designerly approaches to make the research tangible and visible, this post puts a face to each of these groups. Let’s meet each in turn.

Introducing Academic Ann…

Academic Ann

Ann works at a university as a law lecturer. She is researching the importance of the legal system for any country wanting to attract foreign investment. She is planning a trip to Sri Lanka – her target country for research – and is going to talk to government ministers, business people and investors, and local communities around investment zones. But how should she frame her research? How can she hold the interests and views of such a wide range of people in one frame at the same time?

Introducing Policy Polly

Polly has been working at an international development institution for several years now. Her job requires her to use existing research to make policy recommendations for foreign governments, international agencies and charities. She wanted to work in development to reduce poverty, but has become disappointed by the lack of tangible impact her work has, and has been wondering whether there is an alternative approach to understand the causes and ways of addressing poverty.

Introducing Lay Lillian

Lay Lillian

Lillian is not an academic. Nor does she work in development or policy. In fact, she is a retired dinner lady and pillar of her local community. She doesn’t know much about “the law” or “the economy”, but she cares about her community, and knows that something isn’t working properly. The economy crashed in 2008, and a decade of austerity was rolled out. She was told that there was “no more money” and that budgets across the country needed to be cut. But while her community saw centres close and support disappear, she noticed that the rich continued to get richer. So, she began reading about the crisis, and noticed that there were a lot of people arguing that we need to “do” economics and law differently. Lillian is an interested bystander, and wants to know more.

Why the characters? Personae can be a useful tool for exploring research concepts. We can see the relevance of concepts and frames for our own lives. They can make the conceptual visible and tangible.

Each of these will be developed in future posts, and will each bump up against the limitations of the ways we currently do, talk, and think about legal and economic phenomena. Each of them will then try an ESL lens using embeddedness and then moving beyond embeddedness. Through their eyes, we can explore the benefits and drawbacks of reframing in different contexts and for different audiences.

In the meantime, these characters are by me, using ProCreate on an iPad. They are rough first drafts, and the characters will be developed along with their stories. Copyright 2020.

economics Free market Gig economy Infrastructure Research Uncategorized

Complexity and Community are crucial for rethinking economics

What could society look like if we do economics better?

Do mine eyes deceive me? I came across this post by Evan Davies on the BBC website, where he blogs about the changes taking place in economics. For those fond of the TL;DR, he says that economics has been, and still is, in need of a radical overhaul, given that most economists did not foresee the 2008 financial crisis, and that economics has not addressed its flaws in the decade since. Davies sets out the “two Cs” that make “neoliberal” or orthodox economics models risky (to put it mildly), and these are Complexity and Community. The short version is that people are Complex souls who live in Communities. Well, duh! Some of us have a been banging on about this for a while now.

Davies is clear not to make a straw man of mainstream economics though. And this is an important point. Microeconomics – the small-scale interactions between actors – has been remarkably successful in boiling down our collective lives into theories, formulae, and models that guide economists towards understanding how we act (and then nudging us in the right direction to make better decisions). But macroeconomics – the larger scale stuff that includes GDP, interest rates, international trade and investment and so on – tends to draw on the microeconomic theories and scale them up. But as we all know from experience, the more people you include, the more complicated it becomes to plan anything. And that’s before you start on complex interaction patterns across communities and societies.

Why have things started to change now? As I wrote in a previous post, change occurs gradually. Many successful careers have been built on the status quo of neoliberal or neoclassical, orthodox economics. The core of the academic economics community has developed, advocates, practices and teaches this approach. So revolutions, as in most areas of life, tend to be the exception. When we start to question the entire shape and direction of a discipline, there are myriad interests at play that all need to be reoriented. The mainstream journals, senior economists, and general momentum is geared towards neoclassical theory, and its implementation as neoliberal economic policy. In short, we are steering an oil tanker rather than a Mini Cooper.

Secondly, neoliberal economics is plugged into and reflected in the political mores of the day, and neoliberalism in politics remains in the ascendancy. A theory of economics that retreats from and questions this is bound to raise eyebrows. Perhaps then, eleven years might be a relatively short timespan for the reorientation, or evolution, of a discipline.

So what changes are actually happening now? The past decade has seen a wave of literature questioning the type of society we want to live in, both locally and globally, and the type of economics that might realise this.

But there are more recent projects turning explicitly to the way we do economics and its role in society that are much more exciting. The NIESR has a project underway Rethinking Macroeconomics, which is ESRC funded. The IFS is launching a project looking at inequality in the UK and targeting questions like the kind of society we want (a particularly timely question in the light of the most recent UN Report citing poverty as endemic in the UK). And then there are the centres rethinking traits of orthodox economic theory like the Paul Woolley Centre at LSE, the full title of which is “The Paul Woolley Centre for the Study of Capital Market Dysfunctionality”. The Centre essentially asks what happens if the frictionless markets featured in economic models suffer from, well, friction.

But what alternatives are there? If you’re familiar with some of my previous posts, you’ll know I’m a fan of socio-economic and econo-socio-legal approaches that take economics back into the social sciences. There are myriad alternatives though within these disciplines, including relational work, actor-network theory, community lens, network analysis, systems analysis, and many more. Zooming out somewhat, historical, geographical, psychological and anthropological approaches can also contribute to an understanding of economics as it really is performed in the real world.

But, why should we care? To make a bold, and controversial statement, economics is usually one cause of most social issues facing us today. What do I mean? The rise of populist politics caters to the anger and frustration of the “have nots” in society (economics). Austerity as a response to the financial crisis enacts neoliberal economic theories (economics). The lack of living wages and the rise of insecurity, the precariat, and the gig economy has resulted from technology and a reluctance of government to intervene based on neoliberal economic theories about the free market (economics). Climate change and global warming continue unabated because of the economic consequences of actions to tackle environmental issues head on (once again, economics).

In short, if we want to get society right, we need to get economics right. And that means a retreat from the belief that there is one “right” way of “doing economics”. It means recognising (or re-recognising) that economics is about how people act and interact. And that we do not always act rationally, or even in our best interests. Until economics models and formulae reflect this, we are left with a hollowed-out version of economics that cannot reflect the full complexity of real life. And this is something we all pay the price for. A broader, richer understanding might help us spot the next financial crisis looming on the horizon.