Sept. 9, 2022

What We Are Learning This Week with Instructor Chris Roberts!

Investigating foundational political economy assumptions.
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September 12, 2022 in POLI 579 Political Economy of Development  

Instructor Chris Roberts is exploring foundational political economy assumptions and debates from the 18th and 19th Centuries, including a deeper look at Adam Smith as early development economist. 


Can you tell us a little more about this topic? 

Adam Smith is well known as a classical political economy thinker who challenged the zero-sum, mercantilist economic assumptions still dominant in the 18th Century. (Think concepts such as the “invisible hand” and the mutual benefits of free exchange.) But what isn’t well known is how radically his principles also challenged prevailing views about imperialism and divergent economic outcomes between societies: unlike most contemporaries including David Hume, Smith did not believe innate differences between groups explained different levels of what we might call development. If voluntary choice and consent comprised Smith’s basis for economic prosperity, it isn’t a surprise that he fiercely criticized European conquest and colonization of non-Europeans. 

Roberts Headshot

What else do you cover in your course? 

While we begin our look at foundational political economy thinking, reaching back to the writings of Ibn Khaldun in the 1300s, this course is mostly about how different ideas and practices shaped the “age of development” which emerged after the Second World War and decolonization. Students each do extensive research into a major development theorist or practitioner and present their findings and analysis to the class. Then, they embark on their research project where they apply political economy assumptions, engage current debates and practices, and ultimately evaluate the intended and unintended outcomes of a contemporary development project, practice, or trend.

What do you find most challenging in teaching this course? 

This seminar attracts senior undergraduates with various thematic and regional interests who have taken a variety of political science and other courses. That presents a pedagogical challenge as students bring a diverse range of knowledge and experience to this course, so we can’t assume everyone starts with the same foundations in relevant theory and history. But we also look for ways to leverage that diversity to enhance learning opportunities in class. That includes my experience in development and business in Africa over three decades, as I attempt to make what sometimes seem to be purely theoretical debates practically and ethically relevant. 

Finally, what other courses would you recommend for students interested this topic? 

A combination of comparative (POLI 279, 359, 379), regional politics, development studies, economics, and international relations courses provide a sound foundation. Additional courses such as Advanced Studies in Global Political Economy (POLI 586) and Selected Topics in International Law and Organizations (POLI 581.2: Private Power/Global Governance) are highly relevant for students interested in global political economy and development issues. 


Our Thanks to Prof. Chris Roberts for sharing your course with us

Follow Prof. Roberts on Twitter @cwjroberts