Democratizing Economics: the Heterodox Approach of Two NSSR Graduate Students

Like many students in the Economics Department at The New School for Social Research, Ebba Boye and Ingrid Kvangraven want to widen the lens through which we examine economies. Their approach to economic issues inside and outside the classroom not only offers a critique of our most established theories but also fosters alternative ways of thinking about economics, politics, and education.

“The field of economics used to be much broader than what it is now,” said Boye. She attributes its narrowing to the hardening of neoclassical economic theory into rigid doctrine. It can often seem as though this doctrine has become, “the singular way of understanding how the economy works.” In this context, the practice of economics becomes a question of learning and applying a single set of laws, rather than exploring alternative pictures of the economy.

“You don’t have the idea that academia is about learning about different theories in order to compare them and critique them,” Boye said.

The neoclassical approach to economics—sometimes referred to simply as mainstream economics—would likely sound familiar to anyone who has taken an introductory undergraduate course in the subject, as it still dominates the landscape of the discipline. It builds on assumptions that free market competition leads to the most efficient allocation of resources. To address economic problems such as unemployment, orthodox economists typically ask what imperfections might be preventing markets from achieving what they call a Pareto efficient equilibrium, and how these imperfections can be removed or remedied.

By contrast, heterodox economists—and heterodox economics departments at institutions like The New School for Social Research— ask whether perfect markets and general equilibrium might not be the best starting points for real-world analysis, and instead propose other theoretical frameworks. Whereas many of the neoclassical models aspire to the articulation of trans-historical and universal laws, many heterodox economists try instead to integrate historical and context-specific analysis into their picture of how economies work.

“For somebody who wants to study economics to try to better understand how the world works, the traditional economics education can be very disappointing,” Boye said, adding, “a lot of it feels very far away from the economic reality we live in.” After taking her undergraduate degree in Oslo, Norway, Boye decided to pursue further graduate work at The New School for Social Research, precisely because she wanted to close the gap between economic theory and the realities she observed in world economies.

Kvangraven expressed similar sentiments.

“I didn’t even realize there were different ways of doing economics,” she said, thinking back to her experience of taking economics classes during her undergraduate degree at the University of Oslo. It wasn’t until she studied for her Master’s at the London School of Economics that she first encountered heterodox perspectives, such as institutional, Marxian, and post-Keynesian economics. “One of my professors at LSE actually talked about The New School in his lecture […] I wanted to go into economics but into the different varieties of economics, and The New School was the only place I’d heard of that did this.”

As a doctoral student in the Economics Department, Kvangraven now works on structural explanations of underdevelopment in Africa, drawing from the work of Professor Anwar Shaikh. She explained, “I use a Classical-Keynesian theory of trade, apply it to the African context, and try to explain why exchange rates don’t automatically move to balance trade—which is an idea in neoclassical economics.” Kvangraven also conducts research on “dependency theory” in which “scholars argue that developing countries can’t develop in the same way as developed countries did because of structural barriers.” Her work recently brought her to the United Nations, where she and Assistant Professor of Economics Paulo Dos Santos discussed their research with the UN’s Capital Development Fund.

Boye, who recently received a master’s degree from the department, similarly focused her research on the ways that international economies interact. “I have taken a lot of finance classes [at the NSSR], trying to understand how international systems work,” she said. She has been especially interested in what seem like unsustainable levels of household debt in Scandinavia, and has used a sectoral balances approach to look at connections between government surpluses, current account balances and private sector deficits. “For my thesis I used a theory about sectoral balances and applied it to Norway. In the US this method of analysis became relevant in the late 1990s as it helped us understand why President Bill Clinton´s effort to reduce the public sector deficit resulted in a huge increase in the amount of private household debt.” In response to this observation, Boye is curious to know, “What pushes growth? Is it the government, the private sector, or foreign trade? How does a change in one of these affect the others?”

In addition to their research, Boye and Kvangraven have found new outlets for promoting and discussing the trajectory of heterodox economics.

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis—which challenged many orthodox economic models and rattled confidence in the expertise of neoclassical economists—Kvangraven discovered a new appetite for diverse perspectives on issues like economics education, development, and finance. She explored these, not only in her research, but also throughout her tenure at the student-run New School Economic Review.

When several of Kvangraven’s posts on New School Economic Review went viral, she decided to launch an online platform called Developing Economics dedicated exclusively to discussing development issues from a more critical and interdisciplinary perspective. “I started realizing that the topics that I was choosing were underrepresented in the blogosphere,” Kvangraven said.

Based on its success, Kvangraven feels confident that Developing Economics has struck a chord with readers who are hungry for alternatives to mainstream economics. The site has fostered discussion among students, younger academics and policymakers, as well as with their senior counterparts. Even when senior professors reply critically, Kvangraven said, “They think it’s a serious enough critique to warrant engagement.”

Kvangraven, who is preparing for the academic job market, noted that the most popular articles are the ones that isolate and criticize a given tenet of mainstream economic thought. Her wish, however, is to see Developing Economics develop in a more constructive direction, becoming a space where concrete alternatives to the status quo can be theorized and debated.

Meanwhile, Boye has focused her energies on a project called Rethinking Economics, a London-based networking and educational group founded in 2012-13. The initiative uses the internet to help likeminded economists connect and learn about each other’s work. As a student, Boye helped to found a Norwegian chapter and will return to Norway this summer to help facilitate its growth.

Rethinking Economics Norway champions changes to university economics curricula that will ensure students have access to a wider variety of theoretical perspectives much earlier in their academic journey. Boye’s economics columns regularly appear in Norwegian press, representing one part of her effort to raise public awareness of alternative ways of thinking about economic issues.

Rethinking Economics pushes academics to ease their reliance on jargon, which can often push people out of the field and unreasonably mystify the economy. “Democratization is a big part of the mandate,” says Boye. The organization organizes conferences, lectures, and debates that are open to the public and focus on issues of common economic concern—and just as importantly, it aims to increase the visibility of diverse perspectives on economics. As Boye put it, “The goal is that every economics student in Norway will learn that these other fields exist and know a little bit about them.”

 

Echoing the Past: NSSR PhD Student Elisa Monti Searches for Indices of Trauma in Voice

The cliché goes: our eyes are windows to our soul. At The New School for Social Research, new work by experimental psychology doctoral student Elisa Monti explores whether our voice might contain echoes of our past.

Having started out as a performer and student of musical theatre, Monti developed an interest in variations that she noticed in the singing voices of her peers. Detecting subtle (and not-so-subtle) changes in their voice when performing in varied social contexts, she grew curious about the potential psychological causes of what seemed to be involuntary changes. She began charting a distinctive research agenda that integrates, in a novel way, typically disparate strands of psychological research. Her work informs her undergraduate teaching at The New School’s Eugene Lang College, as well as a documentary project on the relationship between trauma and voice.

Monti was drawn to the New School’s Social Psychology lab, where she pursues research under the supervision of Professor Emanuele Castano. To approach questions about voice, Monti explains, she first studied attachment dynamics. Within the field of psychology, theories of attachment provide accounts for how the behavioral patterns that structure childhood relationships and connections continue to affect individuals as they mature into adulthood. Monti drew a parallel between variations in voice and the social dynamics of past experiences, particularly those related to childhood. Her ambition was to measure whether such experiences could shape the kinds of vocal variations that she had previously recognized.

The experiments produced surprising results. When it comes to vocal variations, Monti’s work suggests that the present circumstances in which a singer performs are shot through with memories from the singer’s past.

Monti’s research became oriented toward the question of whether past traumas make their presence felt, not just psychologically, but also physically. To pursue this question, Monti also became affiliated with a the Trauma and Affective Psychophysiology Lab in the NSSR Psychology Department, led by Assistant Professor Wendy D’Andrea. From this new perspective, guided by research on the ways that psychological trauma can indeed manifest physically, Monti began to explore the manifold ways our voices are altered, often in barely noticeable ways, by unconscious dynamics.

In addition to writing a traditional peer-reviewed academic paper, Monti also sought new mediums to pursue and publicize her research. It was this need that to led her to produce You’ll Say Nothing, a documentary film that explores the entanglements of trauma and voice in an audiovisual format.

The documentary features short vignettes in which patients and clinicians describe cases of people losing control over their voice in different ways after experiencing trauma. In the beginning of the film, Professor D’Andrea reminds viewers that, “the voice expresses things we don’t even mean to express.” Monti’s documentary proceeds to unpack into this assertion, demonstrating that the content of what is expressed can emerge from the long-term, unexpected effects of trauma.

As Brian Gill, an Associate Professor of Music at the University of Indiana explains in the film, “Mind and voice are very connected; it’s impossible to deny that reality.” As a teacher of voice, Gill suggests that he has to be aware that, “on some level, as I’m focused on the technical needs of a student […] I have to see where they’re locked up. Why they are unable to unlock their voice, so to speak. In that setting, it’s inevitable that you’re going to uncover some issues that they’ve had in their life. Some more minor than others, and others incredibly devastating.” Beyond the specific setting of music instruction, clinicians in the field argue that it may be possible to detect traces of previous traumas not only in singing voices, but also in regular speech.

Monti hopes You’ll Say Nothing will generate enough interest to motivate the creation of a second documentary on the same subject. “If somebody sees a project that can reach them like this and thinks ’you know what, I’m actually really interested in this subject,’ then it will be easier to pull them into the actual research.” In the end, Monti’s goal is to reach both a scientific audience and a more general viewership, bringing attention to the connections between trauma and voice. She aims to create enough interest to make it clear that further research into this issue will provide vital insight into our voices and ourselves.

 

“Far Away from Where?”: an NSSR PhD Student Curates an Exhibition on Memory, Loss, and Migration

The idea for Far Away from Where? – a timely exhibition featuring twelve artists that meditate on homelands, trauma, memory, and refuge – grew out of an anecdote. As told by the show’s curator and New School for Social Research sociology doctoral student Malgorzata Bakalarz, the story goes like this:

Two emigrants are discussing their plans to find a new home. The first tells the second that he will migrate to Uruguay, to which his surprised companion replies, “Oh, that’s far away!”

The first responds: “Far away from where?”

For Bakalarz,  who was a Doctoral Fellow at The New School’s Graduate Institute for Design, Ethnography, and Social Thought, the question is instructive for several reasons. She explains that in the case of some migrants, whose hometowns and homelands may be destroyed or drastically altered by conflict, the question suggests the impossibility of ever returning to the places one remembers. The politics, memories, and histories woven into the built environment are torn down, destroyed, rebuilt, and — to the extent possible — reinvented. In another sense, the question suggests that one can never quite escape the psychological and emotional imprint of one’s home. The emigrant asking “Far away where?” might be implying the impossibility of getting too far from the traditions, customs, and memories (traumatic and otherwise) of a homeland.

The diverse works in the exhibit — which include pieces by artists drawn from faculty and students at The New School — present these and other potential meanings, which emerge from reflections on the experience of leaving, returning to, and longing for one’s homeland. Far Away from Whereis also part of a more complex intervention called Wounded Places in a Volatile World that joins the exhibit with a symposium and intensive course that Bakalarz teaches in Warsaw during Spring Break, designed for graduate students at Parsons.

Tymek Borowski’s “Data Visualization”

The result is a multi-part program that brings together artists, designers, and researchers for dialogue about memory, migration, and trauma.

In the exhibition, Tymek Borowski’s Data Visualization superimposes a dark column of cloud on the skyline of present-day Warsaw. It represents 18 million cubic meters of rubble from the destruction of Warsaw during World War II. The mountain of debris looms over the contemporary city’s skyline like a monstrous shadow, a literalization of how traumatic memory can haunt the present. By comparison, Elżbieta Janicka and Wojtek Wilczyk’s Other City features photographs of ordinary-seeming Warsaw cityscapes. Their pictures take on richer, more complex meaning when put in relationship to historical descriptions of the scene. It’s only thanks to these descriptions that we learn that these are images of Warsaw’s destroyed Jewish Ghetto. This knowledge reveals the “other city” hiding outside of our immediate perception. Simona Prives’s intricate palimpsestic video Helter Skelter differently represents the way ordinary lives in cities build upon and erase one another, suggesting that even in the absence of an overtly traumatic event, the urban landscape bears marks of loss and change.

Malgorzata Bakalarz with Hrair Sarkissian’s work

As Bakalarz explains, her curatorial decisions are directly in line with her academic research, which is deeply informed by sensitivity to the dynamics of places and spaces.

Her dissertation analyzes the complexity of reactions to the reclamation of Jewish communal property in Poland. In this work, which she calls “microsociological,” Bakalarz studies three sites in small towns to provide nuance to the picture of reception and application of the new democratic order in Poland during the country’s transition to democracy. In this, she is attempting to shed light on the meaning of public spaces in the context of local identities.

Bakalarz added that the works in the exhibit, when taken together, suggest that true knowledge of a site’s history may always prove evasive, either because memories are always partial or because the truth of loss is too large to get one’s head around.

The latter perspective seems clear in the case of work Syrian artist Hrair Sarkissian’s, whose In Between presents monumental and stirring photographs of the artist’s return trip to his homeland of Armenia. The natural features in his pictures dwarf evidence of human intervention in the landscape. They are enormous, snow-covered, and undoubtedly beautiful, but also melancholy. By comparison, Jayce Salloum’s video works This is Not Beirut and Occupied Territories  present stories of a “home encountering” after 29 years in exile. In a particularly moving moment, a man holds up a piece of rubble that he took from Lebanon — a single shard of memory.

“All of these wounds are bigger than us,” Bakalarz said. “And wounded places are always closer than we think. The best we can do is to try to understand them and figure out how to position ourselves with respect to them.”

Far Away from Where? is open through March 5 at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center (66 Fifth Avenue). An artist talk by Hrair Sarkissian (via Skype) and reception took place on March 2. The exhibition was made possible by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, the Armenian General Benevolent Union, and ArteEast.

Lara Golesorkhi addresses discrimination against Muslim women in employment

The Muslim veil is not only a garment demonstrating religious faith, but also a highly politicized symbol, as seen by the proliferation of policies that regulate its visibility. In Germany, for example, the “veil has been perceived as a tool for gender segregation … and most notably a marker of cultural dissociation,” writes Lara Golesorkhi, a doctoral student in Politics at The New School for Social Research, in her recent piece published on the Heinrich Boell Foundation’s website.

This summer, Golesorkhi was one of ten winners in an international competition, co-sponsored by the United Nations’ Academic Impact initiative and the UnHate Foundation, part of the Benetton Group, for her proposal addressing Muslim women’s employment rights in Germany. Winners were chosen based on proposals that aimed to end various forms of intolerance, and each will receive 20,000 euros for the implementation of projects over the coming months.

WoW Full Logo
Logo Design: Eliana Perez

In addition to raising awareness of the challenges that Muslim women face in securing jobs in Germany’s employment sectors, Golesorkhi’s proposal is “to promote tolerance, equality, and respect, in the workplace, and to increase the number of Muslim women in the German labor market.” The project, linked here, has several components: a program to prepare Muslim women for the German job market; a launch of two initiatives, the iPledge Campaign and the WithorWithout (WoW) Campaign; and a fellowship program to recruit leaders for the project.

The Initiative
Golesorkhi’s proposed initiative stems from her goal for Muslim women to become “the face of the solution we’re seeking.” The aim is to give Muslim women the opportunity to gain work experience, and to develop leadership and communications skills. The program’s “Job Ready” program will provide formal preparation for the German job market through a series of professional development workshops and trainings.
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