Saturday, December 14, 2013

Structure, the institutional turn and randomization: the quest for agency gone awry

A long time ago I started thinking through the prisms of philosophical texts and ideas. I found truth and access in the thinking of economic and social structuralists throughout the ages. Many social problems appeared explicable by studying the underlying causes for the structures inherited and adapted by man. And through one's own will, we could interact with and define these structures.

As I moved into the professional world, I learned from Amartya Sen's understanding of poverty and human development. The focus on human agency as the expansion of the freedom to make choices about whatever one may wish to choose is a striking and obvious truth once stated. I fear this fundamental wisdom gets continuously lost in how we understand the processes of development.

In today's vogue, "structure" could be called "institutions". Focus on institutions and rules of the game has reemerged as if the key to solving development problems. It's unfortunate that the protagonists of the institutional turn would likely scoff at the comparison to structuralist thinking.

And in its own right, the turn to randomized evaluations is important and one in which I place a great deal of faith. Forming counterfactuals to observe our impacts in the world is only logical and intuitive.

The theory of human agency, yet, remains vague, and human will appears lacking in the ultimate attempts to understand structure. Two schools of thought seem important to helping to bridge this divide.

One is the work around lessons learned drawn from reform leaders. Explicitly acknowledging the politics of change and interrogating what actions - made by women and men - lead to social change, we can hold some hope for overcoming human poverty and war. Princeton University's Innovations for Successful Societies has made impressive strides into this effort.

The other school of thought is embodied in Duncan Green's "active citizenship" formulation. To take one of the strongest examples of this, we can identify the positive advances in women's rights wrought by women's civil society movements -- movements led by breathing, bleeding humans and fueled by their desires and choices.

In the vogue of institutions and randomized evaluations uncovering and recovering the underlying structural logic of the world, let's not forget the voices of individuals and the lessons of history. Moreover, these debates are well-worn across the ages, so let's make the connections.