Teaching Economics in Area Studies Programmes

Author: Christopher Flockton


Economics has long been a component in interdisciplinary or combined programmes. At one-half or less of a degree the subject should be relatively non-mathematical, but for specialists it should retain its introductory and intermediate theory, its economic history and applied economic components. It lends itself well to applied study, such as German economy, French economic history, European economic integration. Foreign language sources and target language teaching, where appropriate, offer considerable gains of focus, directly relevant a wealth of web-based sources, but care must be taken with linguistic levels and register.

Table of contents

1. Economics as a component discipline

Economics has long been a component of Area Studies programmes at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, either as a core or contextual element. It formed an important part of the innovative degree programmes introduced in some 'new' universities in the mid-1960s (notably first at Sussex, Warwick and York, to be followed somewhat later by 'technological' universities such as Surrey). It has held this position, although the rising attractiveness of business studies for those with a language and humanities background has somewhat eclipsed economics in student subject choice. The subject has become increasingly perceived as 'hard' and mathematical, so it must adapt, notably by offering more non-numerical material, to maintain its position in the palette of programme combinations offered.

The contribution which economics modules can make to an Area Studies programme is to an extent self-evident, since an economic viewpoint on important social issues is a key component in any social-scientific analysis. This is as true whether one adopts an economic history perspective or, alternatively, a systematic economic analysis of contemporary issues in the West, in Europe or in a given nation state. Less obvious, though, are other academic benefits from adopting the economic frame of analysis. The learner will develop insights into the approach, mode of argument and substantiation used in the subject, will come to understand the different theoretical apparatuses of investigation, and gain a relatively good mastery of some of the specialist sub-areas of the subject: these may be international economics, macro- and micro-economic investigation of public policy, political economy, or the approach of applied economics (LTSN Subject Centre for Economics, Royal Economic Society). [link to web refs below please] The frontier areas of economics with management studies also offer fruitful areas of study when applied for example to the EU, its Single Market or to a nation state's economy. These observations apply whether one refers to undergraduate or postgraduate programmes of study.

2. A Varying Economics element in undergraduate programmes

Of particular concern in the design of an Area Studies programme which includes some economics is the issue of how much, and which sub-areas of the discipline? Looking back over the decades, it is clear that such programmes have had varying components of economics. The minimum might be an economic history module addressing the modern or contemporary periods in Europe or in a single country such as France, a political economy survey or even an international economic system module taught probably with more of a politics or international relations orientation. More ambitious economic study could take the form of several modules in each of the three undergraduate levels of study as an optional applied social science element within an Area Studies or broad Modern Languages programme. However, some institutions have long offered Economics as a named subject in a combined degree title, for example in various proportions with European Studies or a modern language (UCAS).

The inclusion of Economics as more than merely optional study raises a number of key strategic questions of programme design. Apart from the matter of what fraction of the degree should be devoted to it, there are issues of which sub-areas to cover, whether the study should be largely non-arithmetical, how much of it should be applied, and how much and which elements should be taught in a target foreign language (if combined with language study). As noted, the fraction devoted to Economics is often governed by programme regulations. In a half-degree, the economics components could perhaps cover much of the non-statistical, non-econometric elements of a full economics degree, offering the introductory and intermediate micro- and macroeconomic modules, together with standard economic history, political economy and applied economic modules and some managerial economics. A reduced array of options at level three (focusing, for example, on EU integration or the French/German economy) would then complete a quite rigorous and well-balanced, less mathematical one-half degree.

Where a smaller fraction is devoted to Economics, this would inevitably involve a non-mathematical approach, and have doubtless less intermediate economic theory and a reduced option choice at level three. However, this more modest Economics component can nevertheless be well justified academically if it offers economic insights, develops some command of the economic apparatus of analysis and gives a sound sense of the varying theoretical perspectives on contemporary issues. Within an Area Studies frame, of course, some of the key issues concern Applied Economic Studies (approaches to, for example, EU economic integration, German unification, post-war France) and the question of whether some significant element should be taught in the relevant foreign language (Gaffney 2003 and Smith 2002).

3. Applied economic study in an Area Studies programme

More specific issues in the design of programmes including Economics concern the choice of subject areas for analysis, how much economic theory to bring to bear, and how much economic method in analysis and explanation. In recent decades, Area Studies programmes have commonly featured modules such as 'International Political Economy', 'International Economic System', 'World Economic System' and 'Globalisation', 'EU Economic Integration', 'Nineteenth Century Industrialisation in Europe', 'Contemporary European Economic History', 'The French/German/Spanish Economy'. These are often taught to non-economists, such as those studying some political science or language as part of a broader Modern Languages or European Studies degree. Here, the issue of the extent to which an underlying knowledge of economic theory and method is required, is relatively unproblematic, since the purpose is largely to illuminate economic issues for non-specialists. A common-sense mode of argument, together with strong narrative and descriptive elements, as used in economic history for non-specialists, may be accepted as appropriate. Chronological narratives interweaving key themes in a non-theoretical way would be appropriate. Likewise, the informational requirements may be non-numeric with little developed formal treatment.

However, students of a programme with a higher proportion of formal economics in the degree, and particularly those with economics listed in the degree title, will require a more formal approach to the subject. Such modules should be seen as applied economic, illuminating macro- and micro- theory at elementary and intermediate levels, and more specialist theoretical areas: explicit treatment of economic paradigms, illumination of international economics, political economy debates, growth theory, labour economics, economics of regulation, would doubtless be expected of such modules for those with greater economics specialism. Likewise, the mode of argument and substantiation and a more formal use of data, official documents and research reports, would be expected (LTSN Subject Centre for Economics). Were the modules to be available to specialist and non-specialist students alike, this could present significant pedagogic difficulties, which might best be surmounted by the use of a general lecture treatment based on a more narrative account and intuitive reasoning, while the seminars would be conducted separately for the specialist and non-specialist groups. Here, for example, an explicitly theoretical approach, formal argument and rigorous analysis of data could be conducted for specialists. For the non-specialist, the handling of themes, exposition of detailed argument and empirical support, together with the variety of appropriate sources, might be considered key requirements for non-specialist learning (IREE, various).

4. Tuition in the target language

The debate over the gains and demerits of teaching in the target language for students combining language with a broader area studies approach has continued over the years, although the balance of argument may have shifted now towards stressing the disadvantages: this may be due in part to the weakening command of formal language by students and by the wider ability range found in a student cohort. The gains of imparting knowledge and structured argument in the target language comprise the more obvious ones of immersion in the language, command of the mode of argument and the relevant register of the language, exposure to a wide range of foreign source materials, a greater sense of language diversity and variation in academic discourse. From a more practical standpoint, there are considerable gains in that the available literature on the theme under investigation is far greater and the tutor can both target the reading much more closely in terms of the debate and the volume of reading required. In addition, target language sources convey much more directly and accurately the approach and viewpoint of the society concerned. In terms of focus and directed reading, there are very substantial gains, particularly because English language sources may fail to capture significant differences in ideology, cultural values and preferences, in institutions and government structures, their powers and operation, and generally they can lack the specificity required to expedite the analysis rapidly.

Opponents of tuition in the target language for applied modules point to the fact that the target language may hinder understanding more than it facilitates it. Here the language may veil the argument, since weaker students may misunderstand, while average students may focus on comprehension of the language rather than comprehension of the argument. A formal disquisition in English might be conducted more easily, more concisely and with the appropriate emphasis which the target language might miss. Theoretical or philosophical argument, which is abstract and relatively free of case material might, one could assert, be taught in English. In contrast, material with a strong narrative and empirical content, and especially material with an institutional and policy content might be conveyed profitably in the relevant target language (see also Gaffney 2003 elsewhere in this Guide for a related discussion).

5. Other pedagogical issues

Stress has already been laid on the question of the varying requirements according to the degree to which a student is a specialist or non-specialist in economics. This not only governs the degree of formal, theoretical argument required and the type and treatment of the empirical material and data. Recourse to web-based material and official sources will vary, but English and foreign language economic source material on the web is plentiful and offers great scope for students: there is the excitement of discovery and opportunity for deeper investigation of public data sources. While the specialist would be expected to show greater mastery of official primary sources, the non-specialist might focus more on secondary sources and journalistic materials for contemporary themes. Such material in economics is plentiful both in print and electronically in native and target languages, and can feed well into seminar presentation, particularly if the specialist and non-specialist are taught in separate seminar groups. Overall, economics materials are plentiful and of varying but often good quality in many languages and offer a very fertile ground for cross-disciplinary study (LTSN, WWRE, Eurointernet).


Smith, M. (2003). The State of European Studies in UK Higher Education Institutions. London: Standing Conference of Heads of European Studies.

Related links

Eurointernet Frames. Information Resources Related to European Integration on the Internet. Available at: http://www.eiopa.or.at/euroint

Gaffney, J. (2003). Teaching Social Sciences in Area Studies Programmes. Available at: Good Practice Guide, LTSN Subject Centre for LLAS.

International Review of Economics Education (IREE). Available at http://www.economics.ltsn.ac.uk

LTSN Subject Centre for Economics. Available at: http://www.economics.ltsn.ac.uk

Marshall, K. (2001). Report on Survey of Less Specialist Languages Learning in UK Universities (1998-99). In General Introduction to Modern Languages in Today's UK Universities, Appendix 2. Available at: Good Practice Guide, LTSN Subject Centre for LLAS.

Royal Economic Society. Available at: http://www.res.org.uk

UCAS. Available at: http://search.ucas.co.uk

University Association for Contemporary European Studies (UACES). Available at: http://www.uaces.org

Worldwide Web Resources in Economics (WWRE). Available at: http://www.helsinki.fi/WebEc

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