Debating the Chief

The highly anticipated new blog by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson has an interesting new post on extractive institutions in Africa. It’s worth a read. Also worth a read are Kim Yi Dionne‘s reactions.

I don’t know if there are two “sides” to this debate, and if so, which “side” I would take. But there are two things that incline me to take Kim’s critical discussion more seriously than that of A&R. First, her relationship with her field research. The story of “Jim asking some chief in Kono” suggests a strategy in which the scholar treats his interactions with actual people as a source of anecdotes meant to confirm a theory. “Trust me, I talked to an African about it. How many Africans have YOU talked to?” I have no idea if this is an accurate description of Robinson’s approach to field research, but that’s what I infer from the way that it has been presented.

Kim’s discussion implies to me a much closer and more personal relationship with the people in her field sites. The way she presents it, at least, makes me think that she wants really to understand the mechanisms of political authority and accountability where she works. I can’t say for sure that one perspective is better than the other, but I like what I take to be Kim’s approach better.

The second thing that inclines me toward Kim’s approach is her willingness to embed local understanding of power and authority within the language of strategic interactions. I love this:

If we think about the relationship between the headman and the villagers as a strategic interaction, where the villagers have agency to make decisions that can affect outcomes, we can have expectations about how the headman will behave, considering he will take into account the potential strategies villagers could choose from. If his goal — like that of many politicians — is to stay in office, we should expect he will behave in ways that respect the power of ordinary villagers to challenge his rule.

This is exactly how we should try to develop links between field work (perhaps we can call it a form of ethnography) and game theory. Of course, the devil is always in the details, but as an illustration of how we can use the tools that we learn from political science to understand the lives of real people in faraway places, this is great.

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