Why economics matters to ICTD

Last fall, I did something that, in retrospect, feels like it was height of masochism: I enrolled in a standard, first-term grad level microeconomics course. My colleagues in the iSchool program probably thought I was crazy. Heck, I thought I was crazy. You might imagine that, looking back, I would say that I’m glad I took it. I will say that, but not for the reasons you might think.

But perhaps I should introduce myself. I’m a second-year PhD student interested in studying ICT and development. Although I studied econ as an undergrad, multiple decades ago (eek!), it really wasn’t my intent to study it at the grad level. But I now find myself gravitating back in that direction in my work

Why pedagogy matters

So, let’s return to this entry-level econ course. Frankly, pedagogy in econ seems to be stuck in about 1950. The idea of students co-creating a learning environment would be laughed at. Come in, the instructor writes some stuff on the board, you take notes, later on you take an exam. Questions are rare. Feedback as to whether anyone is learning anything is non-existent. (The TA, not the instructor, gave me the understanding I needed to pass that course.) Colleagues at other institutions tell me that it’s really a specific phenomenon to any one place. Some econ professors are better teachers than others, but in general the standard seems quite low.

This is a real shame, because sometimes the discipline of economics feels more like a fortress than a silo. Another reason for this — actually closely related — is a historical emphasis on a certain kind of mathematics, generating airtight proofs of theoretical propositions, but historically marginalizing empirical findings. I tend to think of this as characterizing a new science trying to prove itself, indeed trying to prove all of social science, in the gung-ho positivistic mid-1800s.Alas, econ seems to still live in that world where credibility is established by being mathy and theoretical.

It’s fine to value this sort of analysis, but it tends to shut out valuable contributions from those who don’t think as abstractly. That’s also too bad, because there’s is a lot of really valuable cross-disciplinary work that could benefit from incorporating economic models; this work could not only be improved, but could also give back to economics by enhancing those models. But it doesn’t happen.

Why economics matters

So what? At its root, economics is the study of how humans respond (usually rationally) to incentives. ICTD frankly makes no sense without a consideration of incentives. Will some new policy intervention have the desired effect, or won’t it? Will technology improve people’s lives, or will it hurt them? These aren’t easy questions, but they’re impossible questions if we have no basis to predict how individuals will respond to changes in their capabilities. (And really, isn’t the promise of ICT supposed to be about broadening capabilities? Or if you prefer the contrarian view, to argue ICT on balance has a negative effect, don’t you still need to address changing capabilities?)

To be sure, economics also involves a particular toolkit, oriented around models tested through quantitative analysis. It’s not always the best toolkit for this job of predicting behavior, and it might never be the only relevant toolkit. Anthropology, sociology, political science, psychology — all of these have an immense role to play in ICTD, and we need interdisciplinary ICTD scholars who can speak the different languages of their own respective disciplines and of the interdisciplinary field of ICTD. (The same need is no doubt there for fluency in more interdisciplinary fields like communications, international studies, education, women’s studies, and indigenous studies.)

I don’t really know all that much about econ, relative to, you know, actual economists. Frankly, I err on the side of being too brash in my criticisms of it. In giving my outsider’s impressions of the field, I’ve probably made assertions that are highly debatable. If any economists are reading, I’d like to have that debate.

The good news is, I do see a lot of change in the field from my undergrad days. Development econ seems to be much more about generating smaller theoretical models that help us understand empirically observable reality, rather than fitting everything into canonical theories come hell or high water. This quarter, our iSchool has started cosponsoring (with the econ department and the public policy school) a series of seminars on development econ that’s attracted interdisciplinary involvement. So I’m really optimistic that different fields are starting to talk to each other.

Was I a masochist to press on with my micro class? Probably. Will I use those specific theories discussed, or be called upon to derive proofs? Maybe, maybe not. But you can’t enter the conversation if you don’t speak the language. ICTD needs more folks learning the language.


About Philip J. Reed

Second year PhD student, University of Washington Information School

Posted on June 5, 2014, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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