© Sanchayan Nath 2014


Navigating the twists and turns of the mysterious corridors of the various schools of thoughts in the social sciences is a humongous task for any aspiring public policy scholar.  Social scientists may still be struggling to accurately theorize social reality, but they are very good at arguing their own inexact version of reality.


Source – 1

You read an introductory piece on rational choice theory and what it has to say about society makes sense to you. You read public choice theory and bingo! This theory makes sense too. You then encounter social choice theory, new institutional economics and you agree with them. You then encounter old institutionalism, constructivist institutionalism and myriad other theories of human behavior. You agree with all of them!

In agreeing with all of these theories, you get horribly confused – how are these theories different from each other?

Confusion leads to clarity!

The best approach to clarity in such circumstances is to assume that each of these theories describe particular aspects of reality – they are all right in certain cases and they may be horribly wrong in certain cases.

Clarity comes from figuring out the different slots of reality into which each fits and to then figure out the overlaps in these slots.

In a previous post, I had written about how, it is important for public policy scholars to look beyond the market-hierarchy dichotomy.

In another post, I had tried to explain how the different social science disciplines differ from each other.

In this post, I seek to explain how the Bloomington School of thought differs from various other social science theories which have influenced it over the years.

It is very difficult to generalize about reality – no universal theorems have been developed and all efforts in this direction have turned out to be simplistic.

The Bloomington School assumes the same about reality – it assumes that reality is complex and therefore it seeks to develop a complex theory of reality by drawing inspiration from these myriad other theories which have been successful in depicting certain narrowly defined aspects of reality.

I find the Introduction (pp. 1 – 22), by Michael McGinnis in the book titled “Polycentric games and institutions: Readings from the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis” edited by him in 2000, quite useful in this regard.

It is a good introduction to beginning to understand the nuances of the Bloomington School of thought.

I collate below an assortment of quotes from this chapter (modified slightly) –

Institutional analysis (IA) began as a variant of the public choice school of political economy but eventually evolved into their unique mode of research different from the public choice and social choice schools.

The differences are primarily due to IAs reliance on inductive empirical research rather than on the development of formal models per se. Another difference is in its desire to look beyond rational choice models to describe human behavior.

IA is the extension of analytical tools of methodological individualism to non-market and non-hierarchical institutions – focusing on those institutions which New Institutional Economics and Rational Choice Institutionalism overlook.

Scholars associated with the Workshop have shown the existence and common effectiveness of an alternate scheme, in which self-organized user groups manage the appropriate resource.

A basic tenet of public policy should be that those groups who are able to manage CPRs effectively should be allowed and encouraged to do so.

Public laws and policies shape the transaction costs facing elements of civil society. Rent seeking behavior of public officials detracts from the overall welfare of society.

The tradition of welfare economics presumes that some “benevolent social planner” is both willing and able to implement policies that are in the best interest of society as a whole.

In the public choice tradition, elected and appointed officials are presumed to be motivated by their own selfish interests, whether or not they are interested in maximizing social welfare.

The Workshop tradition lays out an alternative vision of democratic public administration within the context of Polycentricity.

Public choice theory brings to political economy a relentless focus on the importance of efficiency in public policy.

Workshop-affiliated scholars typically take a more indirect approach, to define economic efficiency more narrowly and to supplement analyses with explicit consideration of other collective goals.

The ability of self-governing groups to resolve their own practical problems as they themselves define the problems, is the central theme that unifies all of the many research programs undertaken by Workshop scholars.

Olson argues that selective incentives are the key inducements for individual participation in collective action.

In contrast, many Workshop scholars focus on user groups whose very livelihood is dependent on the success or failure of their efforts to manage a salient resource.

Polycentricity is a fundamental prerequisite for individual liberty and the ability of groups to govern their own affairs.

This connection between Polycentricity and self-governance lie at the core of the theoretical and empirical research programs pursued by Workshop-affiliated scholars.

Market, states and  community groups should be seen as complementary institutions. Each has its proper role to play in polycentric governance.

The public policy program at SPEA seeks to inculcate in its students the ideal that theory and empirical research go hand in hand – theory should ground empirical research – empirical research should lead to the development of more ‘real’ theory.

Navigating the twists and turns of converting confusion to clarity is what takes up a lot of our time as we travel through the middle years of this program!


Source of Image 1  – http://data3.whicdn.com/images/96383348/large.jpg, accessed on the 5th of February, 2014