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In support of whistleblowers

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By Stuart Birks

The dominance of mainstream economics is not simply a perpetuation of past thinking. It is in fact a narrowing of the accepted body of thought in economics. The shortening of courses, so as to fit within semesters, and the standardisation of material through the dominance of the limited number of textbooks has resulted in the limits in the elimination of many of the qualifications and alternative points that could be included in courses. The changed nature of assessment with an increased focus on multiple choice questions has also resulted in a change in the nature of economic thinking, presenting the discipline as if it can be represented in terms of a collection of true false questions.

Dissatisfaction about this has been expressed by students and also by many senior academic staff who have seen how the discipline has changed. Many midcareer academics are also uneasy about this development, but have concerns about their own job security and career progression. The development of a detached management structure where academic quality is assessed through research assessment exercise has imposed significant constraints with strong pressure to conform to the dominant norms within a discipline. Those who are most successful in this process are then placed in a position to judge the quality of their peers work. This further reinforces the emphasis on a narrow set of conventions.

So what is the position of an academic who decides to take a stand against this? To take one perspective, Fairclough has defined a dominant ideological-discursive formation where a perspective and its associated language have come to be seen as the truth or the real description of the world. Hence, “naturalization gives to particular ideological representations the status of common sense, and thereby makes them opaque, i.e. no longer visible as ideologies” (Fairclough, 1995, p. 42).

In this situation, any attempt to present an alternative description is seen as being biased and ideologically based, as compared to being honest and value free. Chomsky, in a documentary (Achbar & Wintonick, 1992) also talked of the need to give detailed explanation and justification of alternative perspectives, whereas those following the conventions do not face is difficulty. When the requirement is to get the approval of anonymous peer reviewers who have a vested interest in the continuation of the accepted conventions, the barriers to publication of alternative approaches are particularly severe. The problems are exacerbated when we consider the suggestion by Caldwell (1986) that it can be misleading to criticise one methodology by the criteria of another.

Under these circumstances, midcareer academics may well feel obliged to follow the crowd, even if their own beliefs are different. Many of the criticisms of mainstream economics and the dominant techniques being used are well known. Consequently, much of the research being done may be known to be of questionable value, even to those undertaking the research. Those who attempt to publicise this issue are then essentially whistle blowers and can expect a hostile response. It is hardly surprising that the most outspoken are either students who have not yet made a heavy career commitment to economics, or aging academics who have less at stake than those with many working years ahead of them.

Unfortunately, the longer our current career academics spend in the present environment, the less experience they will have of alternative perspectives and methodologies. If economics is to be broadly based and pluralist in future, it is important to address the barriers now. Whistle blowers are vulnerable when they act in isolation. They need our support and encouragement.

Achbar, M., & Wintonick, P. (Writers). (1992). Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media.

Caldwell, B. J. (1986). Towards a broader conception of criticism. History of Political Economy, 18(4), 675-681.

Fairclough, N. (1995). Critical discourse analysis: the critical study of language. London: Longman.

From: p.11 of World Economics Association Newsletter 4(6), December 2014


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