Tool 1: Pragmatic Pluralism

Key insights and ideas for thirteen core topics in economics, organised by selecting the most relevant theoretical approaches per topic and contrasting them with each other.

This chapter provides a map through the complex jungle of economic theories. There are many different theoretical approaches, and each aspect of the economy has been analysed by a number of different ones. However, it is neither feasible nor productive for students to engage with every possible angle for every topic. Hence, this chapter, together with Building Block 8: Economic Theories, sets out an alternative approach: pragmatic pluralism. That is, make a selection of the most relevant theoretical approaches for the topic that is taught.

While the building block chapter set out the general approach, in this chapter we instead focus on the content, applying the pragmatic pluralism approach to thirteen core topics in economics.

To reiterate, the core logic of this approach to teaching economic theory is that whilst pluralism is an essential aspect of academia, we also need to be pragmatic to successfully apply it in practice. Rather than pursuing the extreme of either only focusing on one approach, or including every possible strand of thought for every topic, we propose a pragmatic middle ground: teaching a select number of approaches for each topic. In this way, it is possible to introduce students to the variety and diversity of economic thinking, whilst still having enough time and space to properly discuss each of the insights in detail with them.


“Reasonable people may have different theories of the way the economy works − different pictures in their heads of what connects one thing with another in the economic system.”

Robert Solow (1983, p. 67)

Theory is the beating heart of all social sciences, including economics. It allows one to understand the components, processes and causal mechanisms characterising various social phenomena in a more structured and systematic manner. However, every topic can be understood from various theoretical perspectives, which can both complement and contradict each other.

Most contemporary economics programmes focus almost exclusively on neoclassical theory. In opposition, some other programmes choose to focus entirely on another perspective. We believe, in contrast to both, that there is no single ‘correct’ or ‘best’ way to understand the economy as a whole. It is too large and complex to be captured by a single point of view.

Hence, we propose a fundamentally pluralist approach to teaching theory. It is essential to teach students a variety of approaches to give them a rich and broad understanding of the topic, the debate around it and learn to think critically and not to take things as absolute truths. Approaches should be judged on their merits, topic by topic: thinking critically and reflectively to decide which theoretical points of departure help us best to understand this particular corner of the economic system.

Including this pluralist discussion is crucial for the development of students’ vital critical thinking skills, through the investigation of links and contradictions between the insights learnt. For a pluralist economics education to be truly valuable, students must graduate not just with strong knowledge of a range of perspectives and methods, but also with a critical understanding of the limitations and blind spots of those tools. Without this, they will struggle to select the most relevant approaches to the task at hand, and to judge how much confidence to have in the conclusions that they reach. Active discussion also has the additional benefit of making sure that students are genuinely understanding the content taught to them, rather than just temporarily memorising it for an exam.

Pragmatic pluralism in practice

So how does this approach work when applied to a topic?

Each topic is subject to debate between alternative views. To make students familiar with these competing theories, for every topic the two main opposing perspectives are selected. However, not all differing ideas and theories are necessarily in conflict with each other. There are also approaches which can supplement one, or both, of the main opposing perspectives, contributing to a richer understanding of the topic. Therefore, each topic also contains one main complementary perspective. On top of these three main theoretical approaches, there are many other useful ideas that students could benefit from by learning about. For this reason, we provide a short summary of other useful insights and ideas that could be included for each topic. In addition, we suggest a few particularly useful teaching materials. In the online version, we provide longer lists of suggestions.

The topics presented below could be, and often already are, taught in individual courses. They can also be combined, especially when there is significant overlap as is the case for the topics of Finance and Money for example, although this does of course shorten the teaching time that can be devoted to each topic and its insights. As to determining the relative teaching time to the various perspectives, the following rule of thumb could be useful: devote the first half of the course to the two main opposing approaches, the third quarter to the complementary perspective and the last quarter to the other useful insights. As with every rule of thumb, the specific case and context should be considered and we advise teachers to determine the relative teaching time devoted to each insight taking the local situation into account.

Cautionary notes

Before we go into the specific ideas and insights, we want to provide a short recap of the cautionary notes, which are described in full in Building Block 8: Economic Theories.

Firstly, the following overview should be viewed as only one possible example of a pragmatic pluralist approach to teaching economic theory. An overview such as this one should never be set in stone, as the discipline itself is also constantly evolving. While some approaches, such as complexity economics, currently have relatively few insights listed in the overview, this might change over the coming years as more scholars will further develop this approach and apply it to different topics.

Secondly, the overview could easily be expanded to allow for more detail and nuance or a wider range of perspectives or topics. The examples have been written to suit the time constraints of an individual course. The framework could be adapted for a relatively brief programme, such as an economics major in a liberal arts programme, by selecting fewer perspectives for each topic and including fewer topics and possibly combining them into courses. Equally, if the available teaching time is greater, for example with a theory-oriented four-year undergraduate economics programme, more topics, insights and a greater range of perspectives could be included.

Thirdly, our economics education and own reading have shaped the topics and perspectives that are presented below. This is greatly influenced by living and studying in the Netherlands, and Europe more broadly, and the strong bias in the discipline as a whole towards economic thinking from the Global North. We strongly believe that economics curricula need to be decolonised and with this book we try to contribute to this. To help us do so, we have asked students and professors from all over the world, as well as organisations active on this issue, such as Diversifying and Decolonising Economics, for advice. Nevertheless, it is important to say that this is not an area that we personally have particularly strong knowledge of and feel that more could, and should, be done in this regard. We therefore welcome all suggestions on how the content in this chapter, and the rest of the book, could be enriched and improved by including other topics, perspectives and insights.

Finally, this technique of putting approaches as well as topics in separate boxes is only a heuristic for identifying the most important ideas and insights to teach. Many of these approaches and topics are strongly interlinked and can be difficult, or even impossible, to truly separate from each other. As a result, individual thinkers and their ideas can be difficult to put into a single box. For instance, Joseph Schumpeter built on classical, historical, Marxian, Austrian and neoclassical ideas, and is often seen as a key inspiration for evolutionary economics, which is therefore also sometimes called Schumpeterian economics. It is important that students learn about these links and become familiar with how both the ideas and the topics are connected.

With these cautionary notes in mind, we hope this overview can be of some help in putting the pragmatic pluralist approach in practice and adapting economic theory courses.

Core theoretical approaches on 13 topics

Below we have put the thirteen economic topics (along the top) and sixteen theoretical perspectives (down the side) in a table to give an overview of how our pragmatic pluralist approach works.

It would be possible to fill in every box (representing a combination between a topic and an approach) to create what could be described as ‘indiscriminate’ pluralism. We think that for research purposes, such an approach could be very useful as it could generate new insights by utilising approaches previously not applied to a topic. However, for education we would not advise such an approach, as it would be impossible to teach every possible perspective on a given topic in a meaningful way, given the limited teaching time available.

Instead, we advise teachers to focus on the main insights into their chosen topic. In other words, when teaching an economics course, they should focus on the combinations of the topic and perspectives that are most important. For every topic, we have noted to the two main opposing perspectives with ■, the main complementary perspective with □, and the perspectives that can provide smaller but still valuable additional insights with +. In this way, many boxes stay empty. This does not mean that the perspective has nothing to say on the topic. However, economics education requires us to make choices as to what to teach and what not. In this overview, below we have presented an attempt at making such choices, asking which insights help us understand the world the most. Sometimes there are cases in which perspectives share a certain insight. This is discussed in the explanations of the insights, but for brevity each insight is attributed to a single perspective in the table.