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ACÉ/CEA 2016 – Visible Hand Project: Building A Pluralistic Network by Clara Dallaire-Fortier

En juin 2016, Clara Dallaire-Fortier participait à la conférence annuelle de l’association canadienne d’économique afin d’y présenter l’initiative Main visible. Cette version légèrement révisée du texte qu’elle y a prononcé nous permet de se rappeler des motivations derrière notre jeune mouvement, du travail accompli et surtout, de ce qui reste à faire.

Last June, Clara Dallaire-Fortier participated to the Canadian Economics Association annuel conference to present the Visible Hand initiative. This slighlty revised version of her speech reminds us the motivations behind our movement, the work that has been achieved so far and, more importantly, what remains to be done.


There is a pressing need to be conscious and aware of the shortcomings of the education of economics in our universities. Neoclassical economics have an unquestionably dominant position in Canadian classrooms. From it, we understand that the natural default setting is neoclassical thinking and this observation forces us to question the frame in which we understand the economy. The dominance of a single paradigm is problematic because it implies the absence of many tools that are essential for the understanding of the complex economic questions and it obfuscates the possibility for informed critical thinking. Although, it is possible to find heterodox economics in departments and within university walls, pluralism remains limited.

I am here to represent the Visible Hand, an initiative that offers a space for exchange, cooperation, and discussion to students and citizens interested in economics. The aim is to dynamize and consolidate the efforts of the Canadian movement for pluralism in economics. The initiative is part of the Rethinking Economics student movement and the International Students Initiative for Pluralism in Economics. The later is an association of more than 100 student groups committed to pluralism in economics in more than 30 countries. Visible Hand also includes economists, sociologists and professors throughout Quebec. I will detail our activities later in this talk.

But, before going further, it is important to define “pluralism” – the operative word of my presentation. This way, we can construct a common terminology for further discussions. I understand that the definitions of pluralism are diverse, as are your experience with it, and I invite you to react throughout, and come talk to me after the presentation.

I use the definition of pluralism that was adopted in the open letter for pluralism by students in 2014 according to which pluralism has 3 components that must be approached as a whole.

  1. Theoretical pluralism is the element of pluralism that directly refers to schools of thought. It implies that a set of different, and often, contradictory theories, must be taught from the introductory to the advanced level. We are concerned here with an alternative approaches to the established paradigm as well with the presentation of the latest findings and research.
  2. Reflexive pluralism involves a reflection on economic as a discipline. Thus, a reflection on its methods and assumptions as well as its contingency. With reflexive pluralism, we advocate for courses like history of economic thoughts and epistemology of economics.
  3. Disciplinary pluralism involves two main aspects: methodological pluralism and pluri-disciplinary approach. We thus would advocate for the teaching of humanities and other social sciences to implement the toolkit of economic students.

The International Students Initiative for Pluralism in Economics (ISIPE), a network by students supporting curriculum change made a survey last year. The survey, led by Arthur Jatteau, presents an analysis of 375 bachelors in economics from 13 countries (including France, Chile, Israel, Brazil, Portugal, Spain, Denmark, Turkey, Argentina, Italy, Germany and Uruguay). The survey underlines that curricula worldwide are focused on the symptomatic mainstream approach. That is a predominance of statistical and mathematical methods as well as microeconomics and macroeconomics in the program. It is important to note that the micro-macro division is very characteristic for the neoclassical tradition, but often transgressed in other approaches. Another important conclusions is that students are not presented with material that allow them to develop their critical thinking, as reflexive subjects such as history of economic thought or economic ethics are quasi non-existent. Reflexive subjects account for only 2.5 % of the average curricula. The survey also presents that the situation is not much better for interdisciplinary courses and economic history. More precisely, ‘Economic facts’, a category that includes economic history, averages 3.9% of the program and only 5.4% are offered in related social sciences disciplines and electives.

In light of this, we need to recognise the impacts of such an educational framework. The current state of economic thinking has consequences that go far beyond the university walls. From my understanding, it is a crisis of the imagination. It shapes the mind of the next generation of policymakers and citizens. The inertia by Canadian economic departments must be understood as a choice that impact on the collective imagery around economics. If this choice is made, we have to open a discussion about its implications. We can ask questions like : Which elements are we thinking about in classrooms? What assumptions are we using? Are they realistic? How do we want to react to future and current economic situations and their interconnectivity? How can we contrast our theories with real economics circumstances? In keeping with these notions, I will present the initiatives undertaken by the Visible Hand.

Since the 2008 economic crisis, the heterodox movement has become more popular worldwide. The heterodox economists appeared to be increasingly present in medias and numerous student groups emerged within university walls. Canada is no exception to this. In May 2015, during the seminar held by the Collectif pour un enseignement pluraliste de l’économie au Québec (Collectif for a plural teaching of economics in Quebec), various questions were raised about the economic teaching in our universities. Despite the growing mobilization of associations and collectives for pluralism, university departments remain characterized by a lack of pluralism as I defined it earlier. Many instances advocating for pluralism coexisted and we decided to create a web platform to join their effort.

Discussing with students, one discovers how important space for pluralism are. Without the knowledge of alternative approaches to economics, many students don’t feel at ease in economics. There is a lot of self-doubt on the part of students and many decide to study other disciplines. Many students who do not adopt the neoclassical paradigm do not continue their studies in economics and thus, the recurrence of mainstream thinking is reinforced in departments and in academic journals. As their creative students exile in other departments, it also feeds on the crisis of imagination I mentioned earlier.

The platform was created to answer needs that were expressed, especially by students. There was a wish by students to express themselves and access information on the different schools of thought. There also was a need for a space to analyse questions in a heterodox or pluralist manner. There was a need for alternative teaching materials. There was a need to discuss and debate questions of pluralism and its applicability. Academics from other social sciences also felt the need to share ideas on the interdisciplinary essence of economics. We can synthesise these by saying that Visible Hand had to provide a common space for reflection, exchange and mobilisation.  This led us to create a website with 3 main sections.

  1. A Toolbox. The Visible Hand wishes to be a center for resources and informative content for anyone desiring to better understand the economy and its issues. Different elements are presented in the Toolbox including a directory of heterodox professors in Canada, some reference websites of the pluralist movement and educational material like syllabus and textbooks.
  2. Publications section builds on opinion pieces and academic papers written by established professors as well as students on topics either related to the teaching of economics or to heterodox perspectives. Texts must undergo the process of the peer review committee.
  3. Event and network section. It allows for mobilisation by leading groups to create events and publicize them through the website and Facebook page.

In the last year, Visible Hand was involved in various activities including:

  • Creation of the web Platform;
  • Research were made by two students on the state of economic teaching in Quebec (April 2015) [similar ones could be conducted in other provinces];
  • Participation to conferences (Repenser l’économie par l’AMEUS (Feb 2016) and Transform Montreal (March 2016) ;
  • Survey of the students involved in the movement (March 2016) ;
  • Participation to General Assembly of ISIPE in Paris (March 2016) ;
  • Organization of Global Action Day event, Screening de Boom Bust Boom in Montreal (May)
  • Post-keynesian summer school (June)
  • Participation to the World Social Forum (August)

Advocating for pluralism in current context has numerous implications and

1) There is a major need to galvanize students. That is on different campuses and through a sustainable structure. A sustainable structure might imply that student associations would be the actors who are stable within the university’s walls. Indeed, given the fact undergraduate students remain only 3 to 4 years on campuses, it could be ideal to inform students at the start of their undergraduate degree.

2) The discussion also has to happen among professors inside and outside departments with heterodox economists in industrial relation, politics, sociology, etc. Also, as professors are the most stable elements within universities, they must take an active role to enable a constructive discussion in the departments. Economics Professors must ask themselves if they prefer uniformity or actually see a value in fostering the diversity of approaches and thoughts within economics. In the later case, they must, too, become advocates of pluralism within their own department. Although students can provide the spark so many institutions need, it is clear that economic professors are the ones who can bring about changes through their own teaching and advocacy within their departments. External actors, including students, professional economists and wider civil society, can only support such movement.

3) Last implication is the access to information. Precluding mobilization, education is essential. Students have to be informed and thus have access to information and have spaces in which they can express themselves. The identification of actual physical space is a challenge in Canada as the distance between cities is usually quite large.

To conclude, pluralism involves theoretical, reflexive and disciplinary pluralism. An accurate understanding of the nature of economics must involve reflexive pluralism as it engages with an understanding of the discipline and of the history of the economics. A critical approach to economic notions must involve theoretical pluralism through a proactive discussion between schools of thoughts. An answer to many upcoming challenges including climate change, a financial crisis, wealth disparity must imply a disciplinary pluralism. In order to build pluralism in Canada, we need to create space and participate to space where we can have these put in place and to discuss and debate on the limits and potentials of pluralism. I encourage you to consult the website, encourage the development of local initiative for pluralism and come talk to me.


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