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Sarah L. Babb Award Statement

Sarah L. Babb, Northwestern University, for “The Evolution of Economic Expertise in a Developing Country: Mexican Economics, 1929-1998”

Since the early 1980s, Mexican economic policy has followed the free-market strategy of “neoliberalism” and has been directed by economists equipped with graduate degrees from prestigious U.S. universities. During the preceding four decades, in contrast, Mexican economic policy was based on a state-centered strategy of “developmentalism” and was directed by lawyers, few of whom had any foreign graduate education. Sarah Babb’s dissertation seeks to understand why this change occurred and, in particular, why foreign-trained economists have come to assume such a large role in Mexican economic policy. It also looks at how this trend has transformed Mexican economics from a nationalist or even leftist profession at the beginning of its history (in the 1920s and 1930s), to a highly technical and internationalized discipline today.

There are at least two radically different explanations for these related trends. The first is that the rise of internationalized expertise merely acknowledges the objective competence of foreign-trained economists in formulating economic policy: foreign-trained economists have risen because they are the best qualified to govern. The second is that the internationalization of Mexican economics represents a form of ideological imperialism, that can ultimately be traced to Mexico’s domination by the core: the success of Mexico’s new technocrats is just another manifestation of Mexico’s domination by foreign economic and political interests.

As an alternative to these polemically opposite explanations, Babb looks at how the trajectories of Mexican economics and economic policymaking have been guided by a complex process of legitimation, involving both domestic and international actors. Economic expertise in Mexico has always been shaped by the visions of domestic constituents—who have sometimes disagreed radically about what sort of economic expertise should predominate in Mexico. However, Mexico’s status as a resource-poor developing country has also meant that foreign and international constituents have at critical moments played an important role in shaping the trajectory of Mexican economics. The dependence of the Mexican government on international financing has provided a powerful incentive for it to conform to foreign standards of expertise. Therefore, the most recent and spectacular rise of foreign-trained experts in Mexico can be attributed in large measure to the debt crisis initiated in 1982, and Mexico’s consequent need to cater to the standards of international investors, financiers, and policymakers.

Babb’s dissertation focuses on the role of economists in the Mexican government and on the respective evolutions of Mexico’s two most historically important economic programs: the School of Economics of the public National University (UNAM) and the economics program of the private Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico (ITAM). Drawing on archival data, interviews with Mexican economists and government officials, and a content analysis of undergraduate economics theses at UNAM and ITAM, Babb follows the development of ITAM from its origins as a business-sponsored night school vastly overshadowed by UNAM to its current position as the leading economics program in the country, a bastion of neoliberalism, and a training ground for students destined for foreign graduate degrees and high-level government positions. Although her data are drawn from a single case, Babb’s dissertation encompasses a wide range of theories and ideas, including economic sociology and the sociology of the professions. The result is a fascinating and well-written account that should be of interest to scholars well outside the traditional boundaries of sociology.

Sarah Babb is currently Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.