Economics 65 years

SOAS is celebrating 65 years of leading teaching and research in Political Economy, Development Economics and Heterodox Economics at the conference Economics and Political Economy for a Fairer World, 20-21 September 2019.

Current and former members of staff of the Department of Economics, Hannah Bargawi, Massoud Karshenas, Costas Lapavitsas, Elisa van Waeyenberge and Terry Byres reflect upon how the Department has developed over the past 65 years and look forward to inspiring the next generation of economists in the future.

What is the history of Economics at SOAS?

“Economics at SOAS essentially began with Professor Edith Penrose in 1962, and she remained Head until 1969. It was a small grouping that focused primarily on Development Economics and demanded strong area specialisation from its staff. It remained small for most of the 1980s and its Heads for much of that period were first Professor Kenneth Walker and then Professor Christopher Howe. The character of the Department did not change substantially and Economics operated jointly with Politics.

“The transformation of the Department began in the late 1980s, when Professor Terry Byres became Head. In close collaboration with the then-Director of SOAS, Michael MacWilliam, he turned the Department of Economics into an internationally known centre for Development Economics and Political Economy, offering critical perspectives in economic theory and policy. The next three decades built on Terry Byres’ efforts and cemented the Department’s international standing. During that period the Department of Development Studies at SOAS was also launched by staff from within the Department of Economics, so its reach extends well beyond the department itself.”

Who were some of the original members of the Department and what was the original Department like?

“Other than Edith Penrose, Christopher Howe and Terry Byres, well-known members of the Department in its early days include Bill Warren, Biplab Dasgupta, Caroline Dinwiddy and Nigel Crook. When the expansion of the Department began in the late 1980s, Terry Byres secured several further appointments. In chronological order: John Sender, Massoud Karshenas, Anne Booth, Graham Dyer, Costas Lapavitsas, Laurence Harris, Ben Fine, John Weeks, Mushtaq Khan and others joined its ranks. The Department went from strength to strength, consolidating its regional and political economy expertise, offering unique contributions across both theoretical and policy-related spheres. Its members took important roles at core junctures in specific countries’ political-economic history, including by offering advice to the first democratically elected South African government, becoming involved as a Parliamentary representative in Greece, and serving on various national and international commissions across a range of economic and social issues. Economists in the Department were also responsible for the founding and editing of two important journals: the Journal of Development Studies (in 1964) and the Journal of Peasant Studies (in 1973).”

What have been some of the developments in teaching Economics since those early days?

“From the outset the Economics department has prided itself on equipping its students with a solid understanding of standard (orthodox) theories and concepts in Economics. We still refer back to Caroline Dinwiddy’s textbook to teach mathematical methods for Economists, for example. Beyond this, however, what makes SOAS Economics unique is that these theories and ideas are critically deconstructed analytically and their empirical relevance evaluated for specific countries across the regions of the Middle East, Asia and Africa. The imperative of decolonising our curriculum has therefore been an integral part of the Department’s teaching and research. In recent years we have also pioneered new ways of teaching and assessing our students in Economics and launched a Festival of Learning for first year students.”

What are the current key areas of research in the Department?

“Research within the Economics department has always combined thematic interests with regional expertise. As such, colleagues in the Department have deep-rooted knowledge of the economies of Asia, Africa and the Middle East. This combines with a wide variety of areas of expertise, including on labour markets and inequality, gender and intra-household dynamics, climate change and sustainable finance, macroeconomic theory and policy, the role of finance in society, governance, corruption and industrialisation processes. The legacy and future of these areas of research will be showcased at our 20-21 September 2019 celebration.”

And what lies ahead for the next 65 years?  What will be the most important concerns for Economics research and teaching in the future?

“When the Economics department at SOAS emerged, it was the first department in the country to specialise in the economics of developing countries, by combining critical political economy and international perspectives. This is a legacy we aim to continue by training the next generations of economists from across the globe. We are also excited to continue our programme of reforming the way in which we teach economics and look forward to engaging our students and alumni in our vision for the department going forward. Our celebration later this month is just the beginning!”

Economics 65 years

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