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Book Review: Handbook of Alternative Theories of Economic Development (Nerdy)


Reinert, Erik, Jayati Ghosh and Rainer Kattel (eds.). Handbook of Alternative Theories of Economic Development. Northampton, MA., Elgar. 812  xxxvi pp. 75 (paperback)


If you are a development sociologist, development economist, a macro sociologist or anyone who studies development or the Global South, you want this book.


If you are a non-academic, the book will be 812 pages of turgid pain. The book goes all out on scholarly discourse and technical vocabulary. It has to. It is swimming against the tide, trying to get mainstream economic policy makers and academics to take a useful forgotten body of scholarship seriously. So, the prose “has to wear its suit and tie” and appear as academic as possible.

But the primary mission of this collection is important. The authors are trying to bring to the attention of the academic world a gigantic body of alternative scholarship in economic growth that has been neglected by a large percentage of development social scientists. In both academic and policy settings, traditional neoclassical economics rules. In standard development economics, economic growth comes from increases in capital stock, increases in labor supply, increases in productivity, and improving rule of law and the quality of societal institutions. Foreign investment is good, trade is good and the role of government, while non-zero, should be limited.   

Well, what does a concentration on the neoclassical tradition leave out? It leaves out German and North American institutionalism, early Italian models of national advantage, Chinese development thinking, Ottoman and contemporary Turkish alternative models, African nationalist theory, Latin American structuralism, Indian theories of national drain and state planning, Marxist theory, evolutionary economics, feminist economics, French regulation theory, theory of the developmentalist state, Nordic development theory, neo-Schumpeterianism, theories of late development, effective demand models, innovation systems approaches, the literature on the agrarian question as well as more commonly read iconoclasts such as Freeman, Hirschman and Kalecki. I may have omitted a couple of traditions in this list. As if that was not enough, the editors invited a number of writers to make their own alternative economic contributions towards understanding empirical questions such as de-industrialization. As the reader can see, the amount of material covered is massive.   

One can see the obvious need for such a handbook.  

One can also see the occupational hazards in writing it. With each subject being worth an entire graduate seminar in its own right, it is impossible even in an 800 page tome to do justice to much of the material. In general, the book is divided into thirds, with the first third being broad overviews, the second being deeper coverage of a smaller body of materials and the third being treatment of thematic problems. The essays in the second two-thirds tend to be better than the ones in the first third. The authors in most cases are wonderful. However, it is vain to hope one can cover all of Chinese development thought in thirteen pages or all of Indian development thought in sixteen pages. The early essays are best thought of as essential annotated bibliographies. You now know who to read. Go out and read those authors.  

Some of the essays in this collection are really wonderful, even in that tight first third. Jayati Ghosh made me fall in love with Michal Kalecki. I went out and bought five of Kalecki’s books after putting down her essay. Robert Boyer’s essay on French regulation theory’s implications for development is dense and profound – exactly what you would expect from the founder of French regulation theory and one of the most stimulating independent minds in economics today. Issa Shivji, a leading figure in African economics himself, provides a penetrating analysis of the failure of early African statist development – both covering the theoretical foundations of the movements and what went wrong both in the theorizing and the implementation. Ali Kadri will disabuse you of any notion that European institutions have any structural advantages over those existing in Islamic countries.    

Obviously in a collection this large, not every author is a wonderful pedagogue or a wonderful theorist. Equally obviously, not every alternative to contemporary neoclassicism is necessarily an improvement. Just as one example of several, none of the authors writing on early European materials was able to convince me that any of the Germans or Italians writing before Friedrich List were particularly worth reincarnating. In some cases, the alt-economists rightfully deserve to come off poorly. In other cases, the alt-economists appear weaker than they should because the collection authors writing on their behalf simply don’t have the space to defend the alt-ideas convincingly.    

However, you, the reader, will undoubtedly have different opinions than I do. What matters here is that the Handbook of Alternative Theories of Economic Development now gives you one-stop shopping for finding an enormous number of alternative heterodox models of development that you might be looking for in your own work. In some cases, the reader will give you enough material about your author to go right to work. In most other cases, you will have to use their bibliography, go to your library or bookstore and get the relevant materials to read yourself.    

But there are few other places in academia where you would have had this much non-neoclassical structurally-oriented development social science put in one volume at your fingertips. The book pretty much blows away most large format “Handbooks of Development Studies” or “Handbooks of Development Economics”.   

The obvious companion piece for this is the University of California Press’s Handbook of Development Sociology which covers the literature in development sociology rather than alt-development economics or development studies per se. Put those two books together and you have the essential fundamental preparation for any graduate student who wants to do structurally based research on development. You also have the fundamental remedial reading list for all of older scholars who were mis-educated in our youths and now need to find out what we should have known at the beginning of our careers.    

Scholarly readers of this website: Get your copy of Reinert et. al. today.   

Everybody else: Dry reading to be sure. If you want to do this, think about taking a copy out of the library. You never know if you will be emotionally drawn to one of the many fantastic writers whose works are described within.

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