Economics and social sciences have a problem of geographical diversity

In a recent column for Project community, the renowned economist Dani Rodrik, wrote:

“The economy is currently going through a period of soul searching for its gender and racial imbalances. Many new initiatives are underway in North America and Western Europe to address these issues. But the geographic diversity is largely ignored in the discussion. Economics will only be a truly global discipline once we have addressed this deficit … “

Rodrik’s comment here: particularly on the “underrepresentation of voices in economics from developing countries” deserves deeper reflection and introspection, not only in the context of economic economists, but also for other social sciences.

It is true to recognize how important it was for scientists like Joseph Stiglitz to work in developing countries like Kenya, where he was “struck by various oddities in the local economy”.

Stiglitz’s pioneering theories on “asymmetrical information”, for which he later received a Nobel Prize, had a decisive influence on his ideas on the “economy of information”.

Similarly, Albert O Hirschman’s experiences in Nigeria provided useful insights to enhance his work in Exit, vote and loyalty. Thomas Piketty has something similar to add about his work and residency experience in India – and his ideas for studying (and understanding) the multifaceted nature of “inequality.”

The lived experience of having worked or spent time in a developing country is certainly important. Travel, exposure and collaborative engagement are key to the complex process of “ideation”, the generation of knowledge and its subsequent dissemination. The underlying spatial power politics – its asymmetrical focus on the people living in the global north – also influences / shapes the politics of “knowledge dissemination”.

I say this because I have taught and researched in economics for ten years, exploring its interdisciplinary boundaries and applications, with three regular guest roles and positions at universities in Canada, Cambodia and South Africa, my personal experience has taught some of them to us the instrumental value of “building networks” as a way of bridging the existing gap for scientists from developing countries to present their work while addressing the distortions in spatial politics of knowledge dissemination.

‘Network effects’

The “value” of such academic “network effects” goes beyond recognition of stronger representation (or deafness), as their vitality extends to many other areas that shape a scientist’s academic profile and qualifications: receiving academic grants, mail – PhD positions, opportunities for scholarship funding.

For a social scientist who works in a developing country without the advantages of such “networks” or established contacts with scientists in North America-Europe-Australia, there is a chance that an original work – regardless of its degree of novelty – will be published in a journal (in a Discipline much celebrated) is more than difficult.

Worse, as I said recently, the degree of hegemonic homogeneity that prevails in the prescriptive use of a certain methodical design for “journal submissions” by editorial teams (and their reviewers – also from the global north) is deeply rooted in economy-centered journals. In a current scenario, I have discussed how difficult it has become for other experimental designs or well-founded “ethnographically based” research studies to be accepted for review – and publication – in econ journals.

Rodrik adds:

“The leading business magazines are mostly populated by authors from a handful of rich countries. The gatekeepers of the profession come similarly from academic and research institutions in the same countries. The lack of votes in the rest of the world is not just an injustice; it impoverishes discipline. “

Source: Greenspon and Rodrik (2021)

In a recent article, Jacob Greenspon and Dani Rodrik attempted to analyze the location-based pattern of authorship in leading business journals. They base their analysis on the Fontana et al (2019) database, which was created using information from the ISI, the Web of Science, and the JSTOR Digital Library.

Uneven geographic distribution

The database contains 3.22.279 articles, 2.15.203 unique authors and more than ten thousand journals in the period 1985-2016. The focus of Fontana et al. lies in the geographical spread of borderline knowledge. They provide summary statistics on the geographic distribution of authorship for only the seven best journals. And as they examine trends in the number of forward citations, their analysis focuses on articles published only through 2012.

They also do not contain disaggregated country or regional information outside of the United States, Europe, and the rest of the world. Greenspon and Rodrik can use their extensive data set to generate additional interesting results with a more accurate geographic and journal classification and longer (newer) time coverage.

Source: Greenspon and Rodrik (2021)

The results shown in the figure above indicate glaring imbalances in the geographic distribution of authorship. Perhaps unsurprisingly, authors from developing countries are severely underrepresented. But what is perhaps more surprising is that their underrepresentation in business magazines is disproportionate to the weight of their country or region in the world economy.

The proportion of authors from developing countries in the top 10 journals is significantly lower than the proportion of their respective regions in global GDP – a discrepancy that is most pronounced for East Asia and South Asia.

While authors based in China have steadily increased their participation in top journals, their representation is still well below the country’s share of the global economy, by an order of magnitude (1.5% versus 16%).

In the meantime, Western and Northern European authors have achieved considerable growth despite the dwindling relative economic power of Europe. Hence, there is only a weak correlation between changes in economic resources and access to top journals.

Financial constraints need not necessarily be the main factor preventing geographic diversity. The experiences from Northern and Western Europe are encouraging, but it also seems to be the case that it will be difficult to penetrate networks and hierarchies.

‘Ranking Obsession’

In addition, private universities in the context of India in an increasingly competitive and commodified education market are now desperately striving for better / higher “institutional rankings”, in which the expectation of having “research publications in Scopus-like indexed journals” rises sharply ” Become standard.

Institutions like to create incentives (or award terms of office to faculties) solely on the basis of the publication dates in these “indexed” rooms, which are governed by the rules of the game by those in the global north.

Universities with more publications, quotes from “impact-factor” -based journals certainly have better chances in these rankings (see for example QS World University Rankings or THE World University Rankings Metrics), which also have other assessment metrics, but the performance in the categories “Research”, “international reputation”, “grants” have priority in determining the “credibility” of an institution and its scientists.

All of this requires a compulsive “network building” with scientists and institutions of the global north as an instrument for survival and prosperity (not only for individual scientists, but also for institutions in developing countries).

The collateral damage of this compulsive “obsession with ranking” and “metric fixation” – at least in the Indian university landscape – can be observed in the fact that the other essential functions in the life of an academic are neglected: time and energy in the direction of “teaching”, “pedagogy”, “Curriculum development”, “mentoring” and the pursuit of real collaborations – driven by a mutual appreciation for a greater public good.

Disproportionate access

Yes, some “benchmarking” or moving towards a (quantified) vision in order to achieve excellence, developing robust research capacities is crucial for the growth development of an educational institution (even more so for those in countries where nationally / state funded Funds are limited).

Nevertheless, the personal and professional struggle of scientists – who live / reside in developing countries – to publish in a certain category of journals, to be present at a certain group of workshops, to assign a certain category of “institutions” that are part of a Attempting to quantify and industrialize a formulaic approach to “academic success” deserves broader discussion and political focus. Such an approach, which results from the asymmetrical spatial power politics, is counterproductive for an organic promotion of creative, original work in / about the social sciences and in the process of their knowledge transfer.

It is comforting to see that scientists with “privileged access” such as Dani Rodrik, Greenspon et al. Acknowledge and speak out some of these complex issues – and do something about them on platforms like the International Economics Association, where scholars from outside North America and Europe are particularly encouraged to present their work together.

Still, much more needs to be done to address the economic and social science problems of geographical diversity that are rooted in science’s “spatial power politics”.

Deepanshu Mohan is Associate Professor and Director, Center for New Economics Studies, Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, OP Jindal Global University.


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