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Global Poverty Research Group

Moral political economy and poverty:
Four theoretical schools compared

Wendy Olsen

Global Poverty Research Group

November 2005

SARPN acknowledges the ESRC Global Poverty Research Group as a source of this document:
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In this paper I conduct a review of research about land rental institutions whilst aiming at exploring new ways of conducting moral political economy research. Specific new departures in the paper include an open-systems approach to moral reasoning; a comparison of four schools of thought that are in the background when researching rural south India's socio-economy; and resolving problems related to who should instigate change. The approach used here derives insight from Sayer's (2005) appeal to conduct moral economy studies using empirical data. My approach is also rooted in classic works of moral economy by James C. Scott, John Harriss, Julie Nelson, and others, but this paper is focused quite narrowly on certain lively debates about landrental in India.

Selected research on the rental of land is described in section 2. I have focused on four main schools of thought: neoclassical economics; marxist political economy; feminist treatments; and new institutionalist economics. The treatment of poverty is different in each school's texts because they theorise society differently. The relationship between poverty and sharecropping is dealt with explicitly in one theoretical school (Marxist political economy) which has borne much fruit in India-based empirical research on sharecropping. This paper compares that treatment with the normative orientations of the other three schools.

Then I look closely at a debate between two feminists, both of whom have made structuralist assumptions similar to those usually found in marxist political economy. One author (Bina Agarwal) proposes including women in new forms of access to land on a rental basis. Women should also claim their joint or sole ownership in land that they farm, said Agarwal. The other author (Cecile Jackson) argues that Agarwal's proposal is unreasonably general and does not recognise the difficulties with fomenting change in women's lives. In response Agarwal argues that Jackson is being neoconservative in defending women's authentic present voices. Agarwal argues that knowing women's needs does not depend merely on hearing their explicit claims made in their various voices.

Placing Agarwal's proposal in a moral economy framework helps to clarify this debate. The framework looks at how different researchers utilise their empirical knowledge to frame and shape their normative questions. Some use economic progress as instrumental to human development, while others (e.g. neoliberals) would tend to use human/social development and social capital as a means to economic development. However, both these strategies are useful, and neither economic nor social change is a zero-sum game.

The great advantage of the social researcher doing a meta-review of normative positions in this instance is that we can compare and contrast meta-criteria for improvements and progress. Each main school - neoliberal, structuralist, feminist and institutionalist - offers suggested criteria. Explicit treatment of the normative criteria in the case of sharecropping helps us to engage with Agarwal's specific policy proposals. She then appears as a (theoretical) pluralist who has integrated a series of carefully constructed normative positions with her empirical data.

A moral reasoning strategy needs to be well informed about structures, change, and differentiated agents within its remit; it also needs to consider well-being and harm at different levels of society (e.g. people as well as households); and its ontology needs a rigorous approach to whether conceptualisations that are being used are the best way to represent their referent. Furthermore the author of a moral reasoning strategy is likely to place themselves inside the macro scene (and be reflexive). Recognising that moral reasoning strategies are complex helps me to draw upon the four schools of thought presented in section 2 whilst being critical of the ontological errors of some schools. Both epistemological and normative strengths can be discerned in the resulting pluralist approach.

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