A Social Scientist on Patrol

Riding as an observer in a patrol car in the central district of a large American city at midnight on a Saturday evening, one sees different patterns of human interaction than in a suburb on a weekday afternoon when school is letting out. In both cases, one observes the production of a public good –local safety–by an official of a local government. Others who are involved in each situation differ in regard to age, sobriety, why they are there, and what they are trying to accomplish. And this context affects the strategies of the police officer one is observing. (Ostrom, 2010) As cited in Boettke, et. al. 2013

The Journal of Institutional Economics has published an Elinor Ostrom memorial issue to celebrate the life and work of the Nobel Laureate who brought social science passed the Tragedy of the Commons. Access to the issue (in Ostrom lingo normally a “toll good”) is free until the end of January, 2014.

The article that most stood out to me was Riding in cars with boys: Elinor Ostrom’s adventures with the police by Peter Boettke and Liya Palagashvili at George Mason University, and Jayme Lemke at Brown. The title itself captures the very on the ground nature of Ostrom’s work. She wasn’t afraid to get out there and get into the messy context laden and conflicting explanation-rife real world about which it is so hard to say anything in a systematic manner.

Never mind the dangers of riding around in a patrol car in urban areas unfamiliar even to the officers you are with, the dangers for a scholarly career are much more perilous. If you come up with some cute new regression analysis of some old data set, your peers are going to certainly recognize your cleverness and you’ll move comfortably up the rungs. But when you’re out there in the field, it takes a lot of confidence in your own judgement and abilities, and those of the people you’re studying, to believe that you’ll ever say anything of scholarly note.

And she succeeded time and again, and by showing that those people and groups that theory said would fail did not in practice, she disturbed or overturned the scholarly consensus time and time again. Her fieldwork, followed by more rigorous statistical work succeeded in showing that large police departments were often less efficient than small ones. Most famously, she showed in many cases the Tragedy of the Commons was a good story, but a limited one that did not take into account the creativity and sanctioning abilities of people organizing themselves. Maine fisherman could protect their fishery against themselves, by themselves. Water suppliers in Southern California could find a balance for withdrawals from the aquifer through a series of lawsuits against each other. And traditional irrigation systems could outperform centralized World Bank projects, because even though the mud and stick structures were primitive in comparison to modern engineering and materials, they were integrated into existing social structures.

Ostrom showed that while scholarship is hard work it isn’t all about plugging and chugging the models and data you’ll find on campus or at the conferences. It also requires courage, creativity, open mindedness, and respect for people outside the ivory tower and diverse methods. She has left us an extensive body of work which is rich in directions to be pursued and advice on how to pursue them, Boettke et.al. cite her as follows:

‘Understanding how individuals solve particular problems in field settings’, ‘requires a strategy of moving back and forth from the world of theory to the world of action. Without theory, one can never understand the general underlying mechanisms that operate in many guises in different situations’. ‘If not harnessed to solving empirical puzzles, theoretical work can spin off under its own momentum, reflecting little of the empirical world’.

Riding in cars with boys: Elinor Ostrom’s adventures with the police
Journal of Institutional Economics / Volume 9 / Issue 04 / December 2013, pp 407 – 425
DOI: 10.1017/S1744137413000118, Published online: 01 May 2013

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