Studying an uncertain future: Researching political economy in a time of COVID-19, crisis and climate change

A new generation of political economists, drawn from SPERI’s Doctoral Researchers Network reflect on what their work tells us about where the world may be going in the next ten years

This is an uncertain time to be a student of political economy. The discipline feels urgently relevant, able to draw upon explanations provided by different social sciences to uncover the historic, structural and cultural forces at work in shaping the world economy, national politics and everyday life. Yet at the same time, to grapple with the deep and structural problems that the world faces and look them full in the face, can also feel overwhelming. In studying political economy, the apparent cyclical nature of global crises becomes lodged in the mind – the economic crash of 1929 and the subsequent global depression and war, the rebuilding of the global economy through the Bretton Woods institutions, to the oil price shocks of the 1970s, major currency crises in the 1980s and 1990s in first developing and later developed countries, and finally the financial shock of 2007 and the following Eurozone crisis. It seems almost inevitable that we must add the current moment, the pandemic of 2020, to that list. And all this in the context of a climate emergency that we feel the world grinding towards with grim inevitability, driven by the same economic system we work to understand and change.

What gives us hope is a sense that this is truly a moment where political economy can come to the fore and provide a toolkit through which we are able to understand and grapple with these problems in the round. We can draw together the perspectives of many different disciplines in understanding the ways that our social and economic lives are shaped by different forms of power. Our Doctoral Researchers Network provides a space for scholars across the University of Sheffield to share their research and perspectives on capitalism and how it shapes the social, economic and political challenges facing contemporary society. Our network allows us to collaborate and work together; sharing our perspectives and resources and helping us to navigate the challenges of conducting research at this difficult and turbulent time. 

This blog series has asked doctoral researchers across our Network to reflect on what their current studies and research can tell us about the upcoming decade and the possible implications for society. These contributions draw upon diverse research interests, but all share at their heart a conviction that the challenges that we face and the choices we have to make are deeply shaped by politics that are always and everywhere contested and in flux. The posts written in this series reflect our uncertainty at this moment of profound change, where either the structures and systems that govern our lives will be exposed to the possibility of transformation, or the relations of power and domination that have set us on this path will continue to drive us forward into a deeper crisis. What separates these two visions of our future is a question of our political commitment to change and our ability to overturn long held expectations and assumptions around the economy and who it is for.

The series begins by looking at the challenge of climate change, which must shape all our thinking about how the economy should be managed and organised in the decade to come. Jenny Patient looks at how the science of climate change, or of Covid-19, while it remains dislocated from society’s normative concerns, is inadequate to deal with these wicked problems. Instead, the emergence of these environmental and health crises which we are vulnerable to, and implicated within, challenges concepts of modernity that have informed our view of the economy for too long.

The current coronavirus pandemic has also shed light on long-held assumptions that must be changed if the economy is going to operate on a more just basis. Remi Edwards looks at how the labour of care workers has begun to be revalued in the wake of the crisis, but asks why some forms of labour remain less visible and less valuable, and what can be done about it.

James Jackson looks at a key aspect of the changing economy in the years to come, that of the food system. In discussing the rise of veganism, he argues that a broad rethinking of how we relate to food and diet may be necessary if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. 

Manuel Heckel explores what his research tells us about the commercialisation of water services in sub-Saharan Africa, how the race to provide a basic human right to everyone by 2030 pushes financial actors into sectors they historically shied away from, and how a lack of political coordination  may introduce new unevenness. 

Edward Pemberton looks at how discourse of efficiency dominates how we discuss and understand economics and how that may have to change as the fragility of the global system of production and distribution gets revealed in the face of crisis. But moving away from efficiency above all else will mean that countries like the UK will the return of difficult political conflict over who gets what.

Georgette Fernandez Laris looks at the everyday financial health of households in the UK after COVID-19. Whilst a turn away from credit and greater thrift might be desirable on the individual level, its yet unclear whether the wider economic system can do without this central pillar of its macro-economic strategy. How these two can be balanced depends on recasting how economic decisions are made and in whose interests.

The blogs in this series showcase the diversity of puzzles and problems that PhD researchers across the university are studying. Whilst the conclusions revealed by studying global capitalism at a time like this are not always easy or reassuring, the sense of this being a time of hope and possibility for renewal remains.