Incorporating "Heterodox" Concepts into an Economics Course

Contact: Andrew Mearman
University of the West of England
Published July 2005

I have used 'heterodox' concepts within what I call a 'parallel perspectives' approach to teaching microeconomics principles and intermediate microeconomics courses. The basic philosophy is to improve the students' engagement by examining points of debate between two perspectives - 'orthodox' and 'heterodox' - on several key issues; to improve their ability to compare competing views; and to enhance their understanding of each view by forcing them to criticise and defend each one.

The principles course begins with a discussion of methodological issues, such as the nature of models and theories, and the role of values and opinions in economics. This discussion provides the justification for considering different perspectives. The views 'orthodox' and 'heterodox' are fairly broad and are defined early on. The orthodox content mirrors that contained in most conventional micro principles courses. 'Heterodox' is defined loosely, so as to incorporate elements of Keynes, Marx and Veblen. Once these foundations have been laid, we move on to key issues, such as demand theory, production and costs, and, much later than in conventional principles courses, markets. In each case, orthodox treatments are considered, as normal, but are then contrasted with a heterodox alternative. Thus, under demand, orthodox principles are contrasted with heterodox concerns about the existence and stability of demand curves, and with Veblen's theory of conspicuous consumption. For each topic, students could be assessed. A very successful strategy for me was to ask students to write a short, assessed essay requiring them to take and justify a position on, say, the determinants of demand, the nature of costs, or the role of government.

I employed a similar strategy at intermediate level. As with most intermediate microeconomics courses, discussion began with indifference curve analysis. However, then the students were invited to examine critically the assumptions and predictions of the orthodox approach. They were then introduced to the heterodox concepts of lexicographic preferences, producer sovereignty and managed demand (from Galbraith). From this basis, they were able to critically examine, from orthodox and heterodox perspectives, a series of advertisements. They found this informative and engaging. The students achieved a deep(er) understanding of preference formation and therefore of preferences. Similarly, we examined the debate about marginalist pricing. Again, students were invited to examine the assumptions of the orthodox view and then criticisms from heterodox authors. This opened up the students to the welter of evidence on pricing, and forced them to weigh it up. Crucially, also, the students were forced to think about the role of assumptions in economics. Some of them took the route of supporting the heterodox critique; but equally, others were better able to understand and defend the orthodox material.

Overall, I found that students were more engaged in the course under this format. Additionally, their skills of comparative thinking, criticism, essay writing and in formulating an argument all improved (according to the students' own feedback). Also, crucially the breadth of their knowledge of economic theory was broadened, yet they still had command of the core orthodox material.

Related pages