Saturday, June 22, 2013

A Reminder that Academia Can Be a Mean and Nasty Profession

I got a good reminder yesterday just how mean and nasty academics can be in the brief question period following my presentation at ISNIE. I was asked to make a presentation about how researchers in the Ostrom Workshop are carrying on Lin's legacy after her death. Among the various projects I might have discussed are the current study, under grant from the NSF CNH program, to study and compare institutions and institutional-change under climate change among snowmelt-dependent agricultural communities in Kenya, Colorado and New Mexico. Instead, I chose to present work I am currently doing, along with a couple fellow Workshoppers, on a  more ambitious project to improve Lin's two major analytical frameworks: the Institutional Analysis and Development Framework and the Social-Ecological Systems Framework. I knew it would be a challenge to present that rather complex work in a relatively short 20-minutes to an audience that presumably only knew about Lin's field studies, as described in Governing the Commons. But I underestimated the extent of the challenge.

After my presentation, in the brief question period, a very prominent European economist, best known for his "happiness" research, castigated me for focusing my presentation ongoing efforts in the Workshop to revise Lin Ostrom's frameworks, rather than on her field work. In his view, Lin's singular contribution to economics (and social sciences more broadly) was her focus on local communities; her efforts to construct cross-disciplinary analytical frameworks he characterized as a mere sideline or diversion, which he implied was neither useful nor important. His accusations were warmly applauded by many in the audience of 200-300 conference participants.

It's been a long time since a presentation of mine was so strongly attacked and thoroughly misrepresented. But the "happiness" economist's diatribe did present me with an opportunity to explain that Lin's local field research and efforts at constructing analytical frameworks were not at all separate projects, but part of the same enterprise. Her goal was not simply to understand local collective-action problems and solutions in isolation - that would hardly differentiate her from thousands of anthropologists - but to understand diverse local problems and solutions with an eye towards identifying commonalities (and differences) across cases, so as to be able to specify conditions under which existing institutional structures are likely to be robust or fragile (e.g., Lin's "design principles" from Governing the Commons). Such endeavors require more than collections of information from discrete localities; they require analytical devices that facilitate comparison, for purposes of meta-analysis, and ultimately prediction.

Moreover, Lin strongly believed that a full understanding of local, regional, or global problems (and solutions) could not be gained from any single disciplinary approach, whether political science, economics, anthropology, geography, or any other social science. She embraced a multidisciplinary approach with a capacious tool box of methodologies ranging from thickly descriptive field studies and lab experiments to meta-analyses, agent-based models, and large-n quantitative studies, In order for such a multidisciplinary effort to succeed, however, Lin early on recognize the need to develop a common terminology reflecting agreed-upon understandings of concepts and variables so that scholars from various disciplines could, in the first place, communicate effectively with one another, and in the second place carry out their field work, lab experiments, etc., in such a way that their results could be useful for scholars in other disciplines. This was a lesson impressed on her during the writing of Governing the Commons, when she found that so many of the cases she had collected were useless for the meta-analyses she was conducting because of severe terminological and analytical differences.

Thus, the chief goal and primary importance of her Institutional Analysis and Development and Social-Ecological Systems Frameworks, however successful or not those frameworks turn out to be in practice, is to provide a common analytical system within which researchers (in the field, lab, or library) can operate.
The frameworks are designed to be compatible with a wide array of operating assumptions, theories, and models, facilitating testing across theories and models.

The same goal animates ongoing efforts by Workshoppers (including myself) to further develop and refine Lin's frameworks. Those efforts may or may not prove successful - the ultimate test will be whether we can provide a framework that is both useful and actually used by social scientists from various disciplines. But no one who really understands and values Lin's work would claim that the efforts are either unimportant or not in keeping with Lin's legacy. Meanwhile, of course, Workshoppers are still amassing a great data in local communities (relying on Lin's analytical frameworks to ensure that it is useful for meta-analyses). The Workshop will always be a place where careful empirical work is combined with multiple theories and methods under common analytical frameworks.

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