This post, and the future post that will soon be published here on Progress in Political Economy, are about how we, as individuals or as specific groups of co-authors, are those whose names are on the articles, chapters, reports and books that are part and parcel of academic work. Yet, while we are the articulators of these published artefacts, we are forever enmeshed in relationships, in all aspects of our lives, that continually (re)shape, (re)produce, and (re)envision how we practise our craft. In what follows in this and the next post, I discuss how it was possible for me to write two new articles that, in many ways, are the culmination of years of my own reflection and exploration; but, simultaneously, could not have been produced without the wider relationships with which my biographical-intellectual trajectory is inevitably bound up.
Before I do so, I wish to acknowledge: the long-lasting and pivotal importance of the Critical Political Economy Research Network for the friendships and inspiration it continues to offer; especially regarding this post/article, Victoria Basham’s assertive yet persuasive encouragement over a beer in 2018 that I write something on pedagogy, knowledge production, and so on; and the soundtrack of amazing music by Gold and Ultha playing constantly in the background when writing both articles. Our sources of inspiration do not have to be academic!
The two articles are published here and here, and can be understood as companion pieces. One of them is about a module I have been teaching for more than a decade, and the ways in which students forced me to reconsider some of the assumptions, terminologies and ways of seeing the world associated with a field of study – comparing capitalisms – that was essential for my intellectual formation and development in the 2000s. The other relates to a specific aspect of these evolutions in my (self)understandings, namely what it means to compare; most notably, the idea that comparison is an intrinsically political research practice, and how a critical political economy approach can make the most of this idea. In articulating this argument, I am heavily indebted to three scholars in particular, and seek to show this visibly in the article.
The second article will be discussed in my next PPE post. Here, I consider the first. Since 2009, I have been teaching a module on comparing capitalisms, mainly at postgraduate level. Entitled ‘Varieties of Capitalism’ from 2009-14 and ‘Comparing Capitalisms in the Global Political Economy’ since then, I have been the sole convenor and tutor on the module since 2012 (the article accordingly considers the post-2012 period). This has been delivered in Politics departments that nevertheless often attract students on either different degree programmes (for instance, in the wider School of Social Sciences) or who studied a different subject at undergraduate level. On no occasion has the module been compulsory, meaning that one could infer that students enrolling on the course have been more likely to have an interest in at least some of what the module covers. Furthermore, there were no pre-requisites: students did not need to have taken a prior course in order to enrol for mine.
The module has been delivered at two Higher Education institutions in the UK: for a brief period, in 2012-13, it was a final year undergraduate course, but due to this university’s considerably smaller provision at taught-postgraduate level (at least, in the social sciences), the aims and scope were similar to what has been the case at my other institution (where I have worked for the rest of the time). Assessment has primarily been a written essay, with the secondary assessment being either a review of texts (2012-13; 2017-21) or presentation (2013-16). Presentations were compulsory for a time, and I was pleased to be able to remove them from the module when the opportunity arose.
The article considers the evolution of the module across three periods in the 2012-20 period (i.e. from when I was the only member of staff on the module). The below table, taken from the article and adapted for this post, represents how I structured the module in the final period, which I term ‘The politics of comparing capitalisms in a global setting (2018-)’.
Structure of module (2019)
|Week 1||Capitalist diversity in times of global crisis and change|
|Week 2||The role of institutions in research on capitalist diversity|
|Week 3||New directions in research on capitalist diversity|
|Week 4||Globalising research on capitalist diversity, and the politics of comparison|
|Week 5||Workshop: key concepts and themes in the study of capitalist diversity|
|Week 6||Europe: neoliberalising of the model(s)|
|Week 7||South America: extractivism and dependency|
|Week 8||East Asia: labour relations and state power|
|Week 9||Africa: agrarian transformations and questions of development|
My article opens by noting that ‘state of the art’ papers on developments in the discipline or field normally (and unintentionally) neglect where the evolutions might come from. While some of this will stem from already-established researchers absorbing new publications and responding to them (which is covered in my next post), a key element is surely the ongoing entry into Higher Education by new generations of students, some of whom also enter the academy as new generations of scholars. Students thus possess the potential to have a collective influence on the evolution of disciplines and fields: for example, through participating in the modules they take, and by embarking on an academic career.
The article discusses the second means of influence towards its end, but focuses on the first in the main. As such, it argues that we need to take seriously Antonio Gramsci’s observation that while teachers have the function of ‘educator’, we are engaged in educational relationships in all aspects of life. In consequence, there is a constant, ongoing tension between the sedimentations of knowledge that have accumulated across our own biographies compared to those of our students – especially the more specialised forms of knowledge embodied in our (long-standing) practical activities as educators and as active participants in academic debate. These sometimes visceral encounters between educators and students inevitably have the potential to produce discomfort. Yet, the benefits of embracing such discomfort could be significant, taking risks with our senses of self that exposure to dissonance produces.
That is not to say that I have somehow been wholly successful in this; nor that it is something that other academics do not engage with. Rather, it is to point towards the value of an expansive understanding of the term pedagogy – a word all too often reduced to teaching or, worse, teaching techniques, technicalising the very understanding of the term that, for instance, Paolo Freire explicitly critiqued. While teaching is always part of any discussion of pedagogy, an expansive understanding enables us to connect education to broader ‘(re)productions of knowledge’ themes. It is not just about teaching per se but also how people arrive at new ways of understanding the world in a more general sense.
This leads in the article to a conjunctural understanding of the term ‘generations’. Inspired by Stuart Hall’s comments in conversation with Doreen Massey (out of many Hall publications I could have quoted from), I argue that the term is inevitably politically and socially charged. Think about what has happened in the 2009-20 period, giving just a few examples: the Eurozone crises and rise of anti-austerity movements; the Arab uprisings and, in many cases, their subsequent brutal repression and related emergence of Islamic State; a resurgence of feminist activism and associated masculinist/misogynist backlashes; the present and future scenario of climate catastrophe; the COVID-19 pandemic; waves of anti-racism protests (e.g. after the killing of George Floyd). How would this speak to ‘new generations’ of students compared to those that came before them?
Across the 2010s, it has become increasingly likely that our students have been socialised into an approach to ‘politics’ in rather dissimilar ways to those teaching them – my own conjunctural socialisation being the post-Cold War period of ‘globalisation’, for instance. Their own generational experience of capitalism is more likely to be dominated by themes such as political, economic and social crises and conflicts, inequality, personal indebtedness and precarity, and in some cases activism. These lived experiences are important, because, as Sarah Marie Hall argues (p.186), ‘[c]rises are absorbed and woven into everyday practices and relationships, often approached with an inventory of personal comparators, life experiences and memories which resonate strongly.’
As noted above, my article considers three periods in the 2010s, across which my students increasingly forced me not just to confront the limitations of the ways in which I was teaching them about comparing capitalisms, but also my whole way of thinking about the topic. The module has evolved significantly: it has become increasingly critical of capitalism and more global in scope, and consequently is explicitly cross-disciplinary and foregrounds the political nature of all forms of research (by students as well as academics). Through this process, both my teaching and my research have changed through being educated by my students on a topic which I was apparently the ‘expert’ about, and I have come to question more fundamentally what it means to compare capitalisms. More to the point, my students, informed by their own generational experiences of capitalism, increasingly forced me to confront the possibility that the problems in the literatures on comparing capitalisms were more endemic and insurmountable than I thought.
I conclude that this means the enterprise of comparing capitalisms is likely to fracture into different lines of enquiry. This should be viewed positively: the ‘state of the art’ can now move to these new generational beats and articulate a more confident, autonomous position which is less interested – for myself, less interested than even a few years ago – in immanent engagement with the more dominant perspectives in the field. The latter approach, I came to realise, makes it too likely that more critical researchers will become accustomed simply to respond to arguments of others rather than strike out towards alternative terrains. In other words, while my thinking may have developed across the 2010s in the direction indicated in my next post, it could not have happened without my students’ inputs and engagements. This means that a key aspect of the evolution of critical research agendas occurs in and through educational exchanges in the seminar room.
My next post will discuss how these exchanges helped push me further in my own writings on comparing capitalisms, and especially on the question of what it means to compare.