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Thursday, March 26, 2015

The issue of authenticity in Indian economics

Aatish Taseer wrote in the New York Times:

In my own world — the world of English writing and publishing in India — the language has wrought neuroses of its own. India, over the past three decades, has produced many excellent writers in English, such as Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh and Arundhati Roy. The problem is that none of these writers can credit India alone for their success; they all came to India via the West, via its publishing deals and prizes.

...

This meant that it was not really possible for writers like myself to pursue a serious career in an Indian language. We were forced instead to make a roundabout journey back to India. We could write about our country, but we always had to keep an eye out for what worked in the West. It is a shameful experience; it produces feelings of irrelevance and inauthenticity. V. S. Naipaul called it “the riddle of the two civilizations.” He felt it stood in the way of “identity and strength and intellectual growth.”

I feel similarly about Economics in India.

Economics in India ought to be about looking at our backyard, understanding what is going on, and getting involved in fixing things. But, to paraphrase Taseer: We can write about our country, but we always have to keep an eye out for what worked in the West. It is a shameful experience; it produces feelings of irrelevance and inauthenticity.

There is no problem of authenticity in (say) physics. A physics paper is a physics paper and it does not matter who you are and where you are. But as Werner Heisenberg said, every electron is the same but every love is different. There was a time, in Economics, when the datasets were few and far between. Economists then analysed imaginary worlds through theoretical models. At that time, the questions that academic economists talked about, the world over, were similar. Now, things have changed. There are thousands of datasets all over the world. Economics today is about diving into these datasets, and the reality that surrounds them, and figuring out what's going on. And each of these datasets is a world of its own. The intellectual imperialism of Economics, where a person in one corner of the world could pretend to know about all parts of the world, has subsided.

In the peer review process, research is judged on two counts: "Is the question interesting?" and "Is the answer persuasive?". On both questions, authenticity is a key problem.

What is an interesting and important question in the Western discourse is very different from what is an interesting and important question here in India. Economists in India, who work on India, have to struggle to distort their work, to package it in a way that it fits the interests of editors and referees outside India.

On the issue of persuasiveness, all too often, editors and referees outside India do not know enough (about institutional arrangements and data) to judge the quality of a research design. This creates incentives to do shabby work and get by.

In this world, a paper on India in the American Economic Review is generally not useful for those of us who want to understand India.

The use of international journal publications in the academic HR process creates severe incentives for economists in India to ignore India and figure out how to succeed when judged in the eyes of editors and referees who do not know India. We should organise ourselves to do research in physics very differently from the way in which we do other fields. 

On this theme, see a previous blog post. There is an interesting discussion on Quora about blogs vs. academic journals which is a bit related.

5 comments:

  1. Richly ironic coming from the man who's every recommendation in financial market policy has been justified in the guise of "global best practise".

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  2. This is quite a useful post and needs a lot of introspection. It is amazing to see how west biased we are despite their research not really being useful to themselves. Most papers are just clever abstractions and disconnected from reality.

    We need to have our own grading system for academics which does not rely on publishing record in american journals. Either we develop our own journals and give them enough of a reputation or have other ways to judge academics like teaching, understanding of Indian economy and so on. I mean earlier one still looked at some Indian journals but they all have become marginalised. Only EPW remains as the lone shining star.Moreover, one keeps wondering the purpose of research which does not address any problem. India has so many problems and most research should be geared towards addressing our problems.

    One obvious reason for this disconnect in India is near absence of interaction between India's top economists and universities. Most hardly teach or interact with students. We have also stopped picking advisers/policymakers from Indian universities long back. All that matters is a so called global track record which is mostly American and highly biased.

    So unless we incentivise Indian research in the right way, we are not really going anywhere.

    It will also be interesting to get blogger's comments on the first comment. It is quite ironical in many ways..

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  3. The post reminds of an essay exploring the reaction / state of Chicago Economics in the wake of crisis in New Yorker by John Cassidy. In the essay, Dick Thaler , of Chicago Booth and a pioneer of Behavioral Economics narrated that people started migrating to Behavioral eco assuming it is 'math lite' and easier as compared to traditional econ but in fact behavioral econ , if anything, is far more complicated. I think this search for looking for an alternative narrative for developing country economics is somewhat like a search for a 'math lite' econ program. For all you know, there may be space for such a program but that has to be built with the conscious knowledge of what traditional economics hold in store for a country like ours and cannot be built independently. Hence knowledge of traditional macro, is as much of a prerequisite in the alternative narrative, as it is for a 'traditional ' macro program and to the extent publication of papers in peer reviewed journals abroad are relevant. Incidentally, like the first commenter, I cannot but note the 180 degree in the author's position on the topic. I distinctly remember , efforts by some members of NIPFP (author of the post included) to 'educate' the then Governor , D Subbarao with such catchy op-eds like ' Monetary economics is hard'. Just wonder what the proximate cause of the change is !
    Indranil

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  4. This would be easy if the indian society was more objective (in judging its English writers and its Economists). When there is nepotism, contacts, connections, I like this paper because it is written by my advisor's student and because this person can get me on that committee.....then objectivity flows out the window. What Ajay is describing is the situation.....and I think the reason for this situation is the lack of trust of the fairness of the system....a distrust of the system on the part of indians. So if you have proved yourself in the west gives you a certificate from a non-interested party who I can trust....so I might like you more. Every day I meet "big shot" indians who nobody knows what they are famous for....but at least when someone has earned their wings in the west, we at least know that they are good....it is a failure of the system and indians know it...
    Ravi

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  5. POOLLA R.K. MURTI
    This is a thought-provoking contribution that would provoke diverse view points.
    1. I wish to observe that Authenticity in Economics is impossible to realise even within a Country. Unlike in Physics, the Data of Economics is so much time and spatial dependent. What one can strive for is for some ‘practicable’ Authenticity strictly limited to the Geographic location of the Data and the Time period of the Data.
    2. “There are thousands of datasets all over the world. Economics today is about diving into these datasets, and the reality that surrounds them, and figuring out what's going on. And each of these datasets is a world of its own” My opinion is that the indiscriminate use of the Datasets for the next Publication in a reputed foreign Journal is the death knell of Authenticity in Indian Economics.
    3. I beg to differ from “Anonymous” that the Subject under discussion be looked at in an objective manner and to me there is nothing “ironic” about the intentions of the learned author of the blog. I would only wish that Professor Ajay Shah respond to the Comments as often as he can.

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