Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy
28 November 2021

The practical and contemporary relevance of Albert O. Hirschman’s intellectual legacy

Key learnings from our dedicated seminar series

Albert O. Hirschman’s intellectual legacy has profoundly shaped the scholarship in the social sciences as well as the work of development practitioners and policy-makers. The events and seminars organised by the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy from 9 to 11 November 2021 explored its practical and contemporary relevance.

In the first seminar that was moderated by AHCD Co-Director Gopalan Balachandran, invited guests Luca Meldolesi and Nicoletta Stame reviewed some of the key concepts developed by Albert Hirschman and Eugenio Colorni as their intellectual journeys crossed national borders and disciplinary boundaries. The life and intellectual histories that they explored began in Berlin in 1932, when Eugenio Colorni met Otto Albert Hirschmann and his sister Ursula. Eugenio Colorni (1909–1944) was born in Milan. A philosopher and political activist, he led the ‘Centro Interno Socialista’ in Trieste. He was arrested in 1938 and after a period of detention in Varese, was sentenced to a five-year confinement at Ventotene. With his wife Ursula Hirschmann, he supported the elaboration of Altiero Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi’s manifesto on the United States of Europe, to which he later wrote an introduction. After he joined the Resistance in Rome, Colorni was killed in May 1944, just before the liberation of the city. His life and work has greatly influenced Albert O. Hirschman’s. 

Otto Albert Hirschman (1915–2012) was born in Berlin. Involved in several anti-Nazi and anti-fascist activities in France, Spain and Italy, he took refuge across the Alps after the enactment of racial laws and the arrest of Eugenio Colorni. Changing his name to Albert O. Hirschman, he enlisted in the American armed forces and returned to Italy with the Allies. After the war, he worked on the Marshall Plan as an economist with the Federal Reserve, researching the Italian and French economies and some inter-European payment schemes. He was one of the most distinguished experts on Latin America and the problems of economic and political development. Unsurprisingly for someone who constantly mediated the nuances between leaving, fighting, and accepting, Hirschman was preoccupied by two fundamental questions: Why do people engage or disengage in public welfare? And how do people bring about social or political change?

Luca Meldolesi and Nicoletta Stame, co-directors of the A Colorni Hirschman Institute in Rome, reflected throughout the three seminars on the ways in which Hirschman and Colorni may inspire fresh approaches to research on democratic practices today. Meldolesi, an economist, historian of economic thought and expert in development economics, started worked with Albert Hirschman in the U.S. in the late 1980s, editing four books by him in Italian (two anthologies and two collections of essays) and publishing a monograph, Discovering the Possible, that was translated into English and Spanish. Back to Italy, he aimed to apply those ideas there, in particular in central and southern regions, where people and institutions had specific, and diverging experiences of “development”.

This theme was discussed in the second event organised by the Centre on 10 November and that was moderated by AHCD Co-Director Graziella Moraes Silva. Entitled “Albert O. Hirschman’s “possibilism” in action: Experiments in Italy and beyond”, it explored the practical and contemporary relevance of the ‘possiblist’ methodology. Francesco Cicione, an Italian entrepreneur working in the field of innovation in Calabria, explained how his effort to understand the local social context is an integral part of his entrepreneurial endeavour. The platform for innovation that he has launched in southern Italy accompanies start-ups and innovative PMIs, spinoffs and big players in the set up and implementation of digital transformation processes, industry 4.0 and open innovation. With Luca Meldolesi and Nicoletta Stame he explained how Hirschman’s ideas are put in practice today in Italy’s Mezzogiorno, and how they inspired innovative projects launched by entrepreneurs, civil servants and non profit organisations.

The third seminar of this series was entitled “From economics to politics and beyond”. Its objective was to “trespass themes”, as AHCD Executive Director Christine Lutringer, who moderated the event, highlighted in her introduction. Spanning across the theme of election campaigns and project evaluation, the two speakers, Mario Luis Grangeia and Nicoletta Stame, built on Albert Hirschman’s work to analyse specific effects of political and expert discourses on economic policies. AHCD Visiting Fellow Mario Luis Grangeia, whose current project focuses official images of social policy in Brazil and South Africa, used the framework developed by Albert Hirschman in The Rhetoric of Reaction to examine contemporary dynamics in Brazil. Mario Luis Grangeia, who is also a communication adviser in the Brazilian Federal Prosecution, made a cogent analysis of the rhetoric used in the 2018 election and in the 2020–21 crisis based on the three key analytical categories proposed by Hirschman: “perversity”, whereby actions for political, social, or economic improvements are accused of causing the opposite of what is expected, “futility” whereby attempts to social change would have no effect and “jeopardy” whereby political and social cost of the proposed reforms is considerably high and jeopardizes previous achievements.

Following Albert O. Hirschman, development economist Judith Tendler (1938-2016) worked out unconventional ways of looking at reality. In her presentation, Nicoletta Stame delved into Judith Tendler’s contribution to ongoing evaluation debates, and specifically on independence and ethical issues, theories of change, and evaluation designs and methods. Nicoletta Stame herself has dedicated a large part of her research activity to the theories and methods of evaluation. Conducting research on local development, family businesses, political participation, welfare policies, she has been interacting with academics, experts and state administrators. In the discussion, she explained how, in all these activities, she has endeavoured to promote the skills of administrators and beneficiaries of public policies. She concluded by an appraisal of the challenges faced by evaluators and possible responses.


WATCH the videos of the events:


Listen also to our RAHCD podcast episode on Discovering the Possible: The surprising world of Albert Hirschman.