Invited Responses to
Steven Klees' Presidential Address, CIES 2008
Steve Klees on the ‘Art of Paradigm Puncturing’
Susan. L. Robertson
Centre for Globalisation, Education and Societies
University of Bristol
This year Steve Klees’ 2008 CIES Presidential Address offered us
a refreshingly insightful set of reflections on the field in
which he has been a leading academic since stumbling into it
following training as an economist in the early 1980s.
In characteristic “Klees’ style” (a quick review of the corpus
of his work shows Klees has never shied away from asking these
questions – cf. Klees and Wells, 1983; Klees, 1991), Klees uses
the occasion to show just how important the art of “paradigm
puncturing” is if comparative and international education is to
make any headway on understanding the nature of our contemporary
social worlds, and the responses we might make around issues of
poverty, marginalisation, and exploitation.
A crucial step in Klees’ argument is that all knowledge
claims—this includes the theories that support our
paradigmatically shaped views of the world—should be seriously
contested. And yet, as Klees so skilfully shows us, despite the
evident poverty of neoclassical economic theory in being able to
explain economic activity in societies, this paradigm has
dominated and shaped the field of education and development
since the 1960s.
However, while Klees notes there have been more recent shifts in
the neoclassical economics project (p. 13-14), he does not fully
develop this observation. Yet it is evident as I look closely at
the education and development policy terrain, neoclassical
economics has continued to extend its reach, this time by
inventively swapping the neoclassical economists’ ideological
alibi, of a “perfect market,” with the idea of “market
imperfections.” And it is here that I take a lesson from Klees
on the art of paradigm puncturing, to show what is taking place,
why it matters, and reflect on what we might do about it.
Before we prematurely congratulate ourselves with the thought
that this bunch of hitherto dogmatic neoclassical theorists have
at last informed themselves with perspectives from the social
sciences, it is useful to look more closely at what this latest
move involves. For instance, Ben Fine argues that “…what is
innovative within the new microeconomics of informational
asymmetry is its ability to examine social structure,
institutions and customs, albeit on the continuing form taken
by taken by methodological individualism” [my
emphasis] (2002: 2059). In other words, non-economic or
non-market behaviour is now understood as the individual
optimizing behaviour response to market imperfections.
However, this new economics, like the old, excises social and
historical roots and content, whilst old categories, such as
utility, production and inputs, continue to turn the wheel of
the paradigm’s ontology, of how and why we act in the world, and
from this, how the world (should) work(s). This is surely the
stuff of paradigm maintenance. Poverty in this development
narrative is the result of individual actions, not the
consequences of social structures. Marginalization is the lack
of access to information, not a consequence of imposing an alien
knowledge about development which in turn acts as a thinly
veiled excuse for the expansion of global capitalism.
"Poverty in this development narrative is the result of
individual actions, not the consequences of social structures.
Marginalization is the lack of access to information, not a
consequence of imposing an alien knowledge about development..."
Yet, for Fine, something more is at stake than simply paradigm
maintenance, for “…the new approach, in adding market
imperfections in the form of informational asymmetries, on this
basis alone, also extends the scope of the analysis more or less
indefinitely across the social sciences” (ibid). This new phase
in the shifting relationship between the hegemony of
neoclassical economics and the other social sciences, if the
appropriation of the concept of “social capital” is anything to
go by (Fine, 2001; 2002), is more likely to be characterised by
paradigm amplification and extension than anything else.
Looking around, we can see the creep of the new economic
imperialism into current hegemonic discourses on the
knowledge-based economy (World Bank, 2003). Knowledge is now the
engine for the global economy, while education is both the new
market and the means to produce the talented, creative,
innovating cogs in the wheels of global capitalism. No creative
artistic person here - questioning, inventing, making. Rather,
it is the creativity, artistry and inventiveness of this army of
imagined homo-economicus individuals, assigned the role of
eternal foot-soldiers in the rolling out a new long wave of
accumulation, that is in the frame. Seen in this light, then
surely McLennan (2008: 199) is right to question the pressure on
universities to become useful as the knowledge factories for the
new economy. As he asks: “What happened to that wonderful
feeling of discovery and understanding, the attainment of which
enlarges our sense of self and critical capability?”.
And it is here, too, that we can see the crass theoretical
opportunism of neoclassical economics as it engages in the art
of paradigm renovation. Higher education has now been
rehabilitated as a development sector, following having been
banished from the public investment stage in the 1980s in favour
of funding primary education, when World Bank’s
rates-of-return calculators argued “…public higher education
should be cut back and privatised” (Klees, 2008: 15). Why now?
Because new growth theory, the darling of the reinvented
neoclassical economics, has argued that endogenous factors, such
as science and technology - along with the form and distribution
of knowledge and not just raw human capital, are now crucial to
economic development (Robertson, 2008a).
Now I have no problem in governments making
policy decisions about investing public (or loaned Bank) money into
primary as opposed to higher or for that matter secondary education.
However, like Klees, what I do have a problem with is the theoretical
basis on which agencies like the World Bank, both historically and now,
continue to fight their policy and programme corner whilst insisting
they are ideologically neutral. And for developing countries, this is a
very big corner with a lot of unpleasant fallout. For instance, as
Samoff and Carrol (2004) show with regard to higher education in the
various countries of Africa, arguably the worst hit region by this kind
of decision, now find themselves between a rock and a hard place; either
prey to for-profit entrepreneurs seeking to open up higher education
markets, or be exposed to the loss of graduate talent to the metropoles
around the globe.
Now part of the answer as to why these theories are so powerful is that
they are the disciplinary expression of the dominant form of
contemporary capitalism—the globalisation of western-centred
mercantilism. It is a paradigm embraced by the powerful global
agencies—the World Bank and the Organisation for Economic and
Cooperative Development, and one that is increasingly shaping the
activities of the UN more generally since Kofi Annan took office in 1997
(Robertson, 2008b). And as Robert Wade (1996) has shown, actors like the
World Bank have staunchly resisted challenges to its paradigmatic
views—for instance when these came from the Japanese push to recognise
that the basis of the East Asia miracle was a developmental and not a
However, I would argue that these theories are also left to be powerful
because, unlike Klees, many of us either fail to cross the boundary of
our own piece of intellectual turf to ask questions about of the social
sciences more generally, and the veracity of the theories and models of
the neoclassical economists in particular, or we sit on the fence in
order to protect our own careers and interests. Either way, these
strategies don’t take us very far in challenging and changing the
current state of affairs.
However, let’s say comparative and international researchers, educators,
policymakers and programme coordinators, take Klees’ Presidential call
seriously; they learn to deflate the hegemony of neoclassical economics, and in
turn debate what an alternative economics for education and development might
look like. Perhaps, then, we might find ourselves in a position to examine the
kinds of alternatives made possible by thinking in new ways about the diverse
forms that economies and economies of knowledge production do, and might, take,
including market, non-market and capitalist (cf. Gibson-Graham, 2005).
your insights, Steve.
(2001) Social Capital versus Social Theory: Political Economy and
Social Science at the turn of the Millennium, London: Routledge.
(2002) They F**K you up those social capitalists, Antipode, 34
Gibson-Graham, J-K. (2005) Surplus possibilities: post development and
community economies, Singapore J. of Tropical Geography, 26 (1),
and Wells, S. (1983) Economic evaluation of education: a critical
analysis of the context of applications to educational reform in El
Salvador, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 5 (3), pp.
(1991) The economics of education: Is that all there is? Comparative
Education Review, 35 (4), pp. 721-34.
J. (2008) Reflections on Theory, Method and Practice in Comparative
and International Education, CIES Presidential Address, CIES
Conference: New York, pp 1-28.
G. (2008) Disinterested, disengaged, useless: conservative or
progressive idea of the university? Globalisation, Societies and
Education, 6 (2), pp. 195-200.
S (2008a) Producing the Global Knowledge Economy: the World Bank, the
KAM, Education and Development, in M. Simons, M. Olssen and M. Peters (eds)
Re-reading Education Policies:
Studying the Policy Agenda of the 21st Century,
Rotterdam: Sense Publishers
S. (2008b) The New Global Governance Paradigm in Education:
Public-Private Partnerships and Social Justice, DeBalie Lecture, IS
Academe, University of Amsterdam, Netherlands.
and Carrol, B. (2004) Conditions, Coalitions and Influence: The World
Bank and Higher Education in Africa, A paper prepared for the
Annual Conference of
the Comparative and International Education Society Salt Lake City, 8–12
(1996) Japan, the World Bank, and the Art of Paradigm Maintenance: The
East Asian Miracle in Political Perspective, New Left Review,
Issue 217, May-June, pp. 3-36.
(2003) Lifelong Learning for the Global Knowledge Economy,
Washington: The World Bank Group.