By studying the particular, we learn something about the general

Academics who study development are very fond of saying that institutions matter, or this or that policy change should happen.

Most of us, of course, don’t have a clue what an actual institution looks like, or how it is built, or even how a policy is actually changed.

That doesn’t really surprise or bother me. Few of us are in this business because we actually want to be on the front lines of social change. We prefer to be the idea guys. But where are the idea guys for institution building or policy reform?

What amazes me is that almost no one actually studies this. You can ask, “So who exactly is working on the political economy of reform?” (as someone recently did) and I would have no answer.

Well, not exactly. My answer was: Jennifer Widner. Princeton political science. And last week I got a promotional email for her new idea bank, Innovations for Successful Societies:

Often the most innovative ideas are internally generated, framed by people who have deep knowledge of local conditions. ISS helps chronicle these ideas and the process of institutional change by enabling reformers to tell their unique stories. The interviews become part of an oral history archive and participants become part of a knowledge network. Case studies based on these conversations promote learning and become the basis for both practitioner-focused cross-cutting analysis and scholarly writing.

Most people, if they know Jennifer’s work, know her biography of Francis Nyalali, an uncommonly interesting Supreme Court judge in Tanzania.

If you are like me, your first reaction is (forgive me, Jennifer): “Francis Whosit?”, “Why would I want to read that?”, and “You can get tenure at Princeton politics by writing a biography?”

Which brings me to one of my favorite book passages ever:

Social science writing has an unfortunate tendency to assume away the quandaries, hand-wringing, indecision, and mistakes of real-world decision-making. Biography is humble in a way social science models often are not. It takes into account when someone was undecided, lacked information, did not care, suffered coercion, forgot, or later thought he or she had made a mistake. In so doing it defines more accurately the scope for human creativity. It helps illuminate how general insights apply.

So why Nyalali? If you want to understand how you build the rule of law, it helps to look at some of the builders.

The funny thing is, I think we all apply this insight intuitively when we think about policy and change in our own home. Americans couldn’t conceive of undertaking systemic change without understanding the experiences of FDR or Johnson or Reagan, the history of partisanship, or the intricacies of Iowan politics. We have a deeply sophisticated political economy of change model in our brains, that we are constantly updating, and from it we make decisions about which policy or party to support, and which direction to take the country.

Then we go back to the country we work on, and we promptly turn that part of our brain off. That’s (partly) a good thing, since the model that works for the US would be pretty much useless in Namibia or India. But we don’t necessarily create a new and sophisticated model for “not home”.

What you get is major thinkers in development economics recommending that we focus mostly on changes on the margin, and less about changes in the system. Why? Well, lots of reasons, but partly because we don’t really know how to change the system, and we’ll never know if we made the right choice or not. It’s murky, not scientific.

We are back to development as the Anti-Politics Machine (which is another favorite book of mine).

I say: Hey, I am all about the margin. Most of my projects are about reducing poverty or violence on the margin. You can get a really satisfyingly certain answer when you look at the margin. But I am kind of happy that some people are looking at the system. And just like I think I can form a better opinion of this or that US policy by knowing my politics and my history and my institutions, I think we can probably learn an awful lot about development by doing the same elsewhere.

Countries like India and Uganda and China rotated 180 degrees from disaster to growth partly because they changed systems. It doesn’t seem so crazy to me that we could improve our general knowledge and technology of political reform with a little more data.

The ISS, as far as I can tell, is the attempt to generate a lot more data points. I am only sad that I am so busy running marginal regressions that I have no time to read the biographies and cases. I look forward to the book.

3 thoughts on “By studying the particular, we learn something about the general

  1. Here’s the problem – can you ever really compensate for that lifetime of unconscious learning about your own politics and history and institutions? Unless you basically pick a new country and totally focus on that one, and probably live there?

    An argument for focusing on the most technical, least political and context-sensitive problems? An argument for why health aid has been more successful than other sectors?