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Diversity in economics

Summary:
From Peter Radford In this case geographical diversity. Dani Rodrik has brought to our attention a rather serious problem within the economics profession: it is still dominated by people living and working in the West.  As a consequence it has a decided bias towards issues that are of significant interest to the West. This is, of course, not news to any of you not living in the West.  Nor is it news to anyone outside the profession paying attention to the product of the journals and various other outlets.  The ideas that get the most attention and the work that gets most lauded is still channeled through a very narrow lens.  The result is a considerable — massive? — underrepresentation of viewpoints and experiences that inhibit the ability of the discipline to engage broadly with the

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from Peter Radford

In this case geographical diversity.

Dani Rodrik has brought to our attention a rather serious problem within the economics profession: it is still dominated by people living and working in the West.  As a consequence it has a decided bias towards issues that are of significant interest to the West.

This is, of course, not news to any of you not living in the West.  Nor is it news to anyone outside the profession paying attention to the product of the journals and various other outlets.  The ideas that get the most attention and the work that gets most lauded is still channeled through a very narrow lens.  The result is a considerable — massive? — underrepresentation of viewpoints and experiences that inhibit the ability of the discipline to engage broadly with the world.

I cannot dispute Rodrik’s conclusion:

“Economics is currently going through a period of soul searching with respect to its gender and racial imbalances. Many new initiatives are underway in North America and Western Europe to address these problems. But geographic diversity remains largely absent from the discussion. Economics will not be a truly global discipline until we have addressed this deficit as well.”

He is absolutely correct.  More power to him for bringing this to the fore.

The problem is that Rodrik lives and works within that very narrow space he suggests cramps the discipline.  Well done him.  But there is a sense of something missing from his short article.  He is now president of the International Economic Association which was founded under the auspices of UNESCO in 1950 to help offset the issue he is concerned about.  The past list of presidents suggest an effort to diversify somewhat and, clearly, the organization is well funded.  It’s just that after seventy years of operation Rodrik still finds the need to talk about geographic diversity.

Does that imply a failure?  Or is it that the profession’s inertia is so intense that no matter how much effort goes into diversifying we still end up with the circumstances he is decrying?  Economics clearly moves at a glacial pace.

There is one other issue I have with his article.

He fails to mention other efforts to overcome the problem.  Notably, and closest to my heart, is the World Economic Association on one of whose outlets you are reading this short note.  The WEA was founded in 2011 specifically with geographic diversity one of its missions.  On its website you can find details about its origins, and on this page a list of its founding members listed by geography.  The list is extensive.  The WEA has been, from its origins, dedicated to resolving the precise issue that Rodrik discusses.  The WEA is not alone in trying to overcome the biases in economics, but a mention of its, and those similar, efforts would have added something to Rodrik’s note.  By leaving them out he failed to give his audience some critical information.

Perhaps more irking for me is that Rodrik is also a member of the WEA’s executive committee!

We have a very long way to go, but at least one organization both recognizes and attempts to resolve the lack of diversity within economics.  And while the IEA benefits from official sources of funding and backing, the WEA is entirely a grassroots organization.  Its agenda is set by those who contribute, so it is highly representative of the issues that economists the world over face as they research and publish.  This organic sensitivity is the WEA’s most notable feature.  You, the readers, discussants, and participants, are what sets it apart and are helping to fill the void Rodrik so sensibly draws out attention to.

So while the lack of geographic — and other diversity — remains a hurdle to the development of a truly global economics profession, here at least at the WEA, is an effort to make a suitable correction.

And thank you for supporting the effort!

Peter Radford
Peter Radford is publisher of The Radford Free Press, worked as an analyst for banks over fifteen years and has degrees from the London School of Economics and Harvard Business School.

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