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Josh Patel

Research Overview

I am a first year PhD researcher at the University of Warwick. My research is supervised by Claudia Stein and Giorgio Riello, and kindly funded through History Departmental funding.

My thesis is provisionally titled: 'The intertwining of knowledge and the economy: the development of 'Human Capital Theory' in British Higher Education 1958-1997’.

How did what it means to be ‘human’ become ‘scientific’, and why? Part of the answer lies in the expansion of economics and the role of logic and maths in knowledge. Today, one prominent model of 'humanness' informed by this expansion is 'human capital theory'. Human capital theory is primarily identified as originating in the work of two Nobel prize-winning American economists, Theodore Schultz (1902-1998) and Gary Becker (1930-2014), and Polish-American economist Jacob Mincer (1922-2006), at the Chicago School of Economics. In 'human capital theory' an individual's acquired and inherited abilities and skills are quantified, through wages, as 'capital', which can be invested in, and invested with, in order to further generate capital. For firms, 'Human capital theory' promises continuous economic growth by investing in quality of labour. Individuals become a sort of ‘entrepreneur of the self’. In higher education, for example, a student will forgo earnings and even pay for training in the present if they believe that the skills they learn will be valued more by employers and lead to higher earnings in the future.

'Human capital theory' today has a pervasive infulence over what it means to be human. Humans are, in this model, assumed to be universally rational but possessing unequal capacities. But while human capital theory is primarily identified as coming to prominance in the 1980s with the global political turn to the right, the underlying assumptions of 'human capital theory' were present in discourses, such as in higher education reform, at least twenty years before in the 1960s in 'left-wing' and progressive welfare economics. These assumptions predate their econometric and epistemically confident articulation by Becker in his 1963 monograph, Human Capital.

My project aims to investigate it means to in the British context think using the paradigmatic assumptions of 'human capital theory', with focus particuarly on higher education. The theory was an attractive across the liberal political spectrum, first as a mechanism by which the state could invest in its citizenry in the expansion of higher education in the late 1950s. After the 1970s, human capital theory was used to replace failing Keynesian welfarism and focus on the returns of education to individuals. Lionel Robbins' (1898-1984) government commissioned 'Report on Higher Education' (1963) was an articulation of many of the assumptions of 'human capital theory' in programme of British higher education expansion and democratisation, which over the next 50 years developed to a programme aiming to produce a managerial, then entrepreneurial ‘creative class’ of people to perpetuate economic growth.

To explore this, the project aims understand the social and political context of 'human capital theory' in 1940s in which it was adopted and emerged, its underlying assumptions, and the social and political consequences that persist in current forms of thinking in governmentality, management, and self-governmentality.

I aim to approach the question as an exercise in 'historical epistemology' - unpacking the grounds upon which 'human capital theory' achieves validlity as knowledge. The consequences of 'human capital theory', and the ways of thinking it is a part of, impacts areas as diverse as the current state of higher education in the UK to the the promotion of 'active lifestyles'. My project aims to provide new inights into 'economic imperialism' and its relationship with other forms of knowledge particuarly in the sciences and their social context, and interdisciplinary debates around the epistemic superiority of formalism.

Previous Research

My previous research has been historiographical and primarily concerned with what has been described as a ‘biological turn’ in history writing since the early 2000s. This research explored the attraction for many historians of the insights of biology, evolutionary psychology, and neurobiology, in addition to, or in place of, traditional written sources, and the consequences of such a move for history writing. I have argued that the ‘biological turn’ unreflexively reciprocates the privileged epistemological position of science in popular and wider culture, contrary to the understanding of science in contemporary history of science. More fundamentally however, the attraction of the sciences, both in the ‘biological turn’ and in contemporary orthodox ‘sociocultural’ history writing, lies in acknowledged and unacknowledged understandings and definitions of ‘truth’ embedded in history writing. These understandings can be traced back to early-twentieth century American pragmatism, which have been deployed in response to what is seen by some sociocultural historians as the threatening ‘relativism’ of the linguistic turn and poststructuralism since the 1990s.

Research interests

My general area of research interest focus on twentieth and twenty-first century British thought, and includes more specifically:

  • History of ideas/intellectual history/‘Historical epistemology’, (particuarly concerning 'human nature' and the 'self').
  • History of science and history of popular science, (particuarly sociobiology and evolutionary psychology).
  • History of economic thought, its relationship with other thought, and sociopolitical context, since 1945.
  • Historiography of global history and environmental history.
  • Pragmatism, Neopragmatism, and its history.
    Academic Background
    • 2017-2021: History PhD, University of Warwick..
      - Awarded full departmental studentship.
    • 2016-2017: MA Global and Comparative History (Distinction), University of Warwick.
      - Awarded 2016-17 Best MA Dissertation Prize.
      - Dissertation title: ‘Telling the ‘Truth’ about the ‘Biological Turn’? Sociocultural history and pragmatism.’ Supervised by Claudia Stein.
      - Awarded full departmental scholarship.
    • 2013-2016: BA History (First), University of Warwick.
      - Dissertation title: ‘The ‘Biological Turn’: politics and agency.’
      Publications and confrences
      • March 2017: ‘The ‘Biological Turn’ in History Writing’, Exchanges: The Warwick Research Journal, 4:2 (2017) pp. 280-297.
        - Some very early thoughts on the ‘biological turn’. Contains material initially submitted as part of my undergraduate dissertation.
        - In the same issue of Exchanges, credited as 'editorial assistant' in Michael Trevor Bycroft, 'Ideals and Practices of Rationality – An Interview with Lorraine Daston' Exchanges: The Warwick Research Journal, 4:2 (2017), pp. 173-188.
      • May 2017: The ‘biological turn’ in history writing: what is man? And how do these assumptions drive history
        Department of History Postgraduate Conference, University of Warwick.
      May 2018

      Josh Patel