Why does one textile mill achieve extraordinary outcomes, while its neighbors struggle to achieve mediocre outcomes, knowing everything about each other, for decades? What leads one group within a large company to choose highly vibrant agreements, while another chooses low vibrancy agreements? What methods allow us to understand what is happening in these situations with some rigor?
“The controlled and replicated laboratory experiment, in which the experimenter directly manipulates variables, is often considered the hallmark of the scientific method…Without question, this approach is uniquely powerful in establishing chains of cause and effect…But the cruel reality is that manipulative experiments are impossible in many fields…That impossibility holds for any science concerned with the past…[or when] manipulative experiments that are possible in the present would often be condemned as immoral and illegal…A technique that frequently proves fruitful in these historical disciplines is the so-called natural experiment or the comparative method. This approach consists of comparing–preferably quantitatively and aided by statistical analyses–different systems that are similar in many respects but that differ with respect to the factors whose influence one wishes to study” (1-2). We can classify natural experiments as “involving differences in either perturbations or in initial conditions” (257). The idea is to look for a massive perturbation that “can be examined because the perturbation operated in a geographically irregular patchwork over a large region” (10). Or where groups starting with the same initial conditions manifested different social-political forms. For example, an island where people had lived as one community for many years was suddenly split by two colonial powers, each imposing different social-political regimes.
This book provides “theoretically robust and empirically rich” (41) case studies where researchers struggle with multiple methods to triangulate the data they find describing these natural experiments, enabling them to compare economic, political, cultural, and social outcomes for different groups. This builds on methods I shared, in an earlier blogpost, from behavioral economics, where researchers are looking for ways to test theories in “the real world,” not in the vacuum of the laboratory.
This approach is proving to be very useful for our Global Initiative to Map Ecosynomic Deviance and Impact Resilience (MEDIR). How do we know what led one group to choose highly vibrant agreements, while a similar group chose low vibrancy agreements? We are looking for these natural experiments, where nature gave us the same initial conditions and a perturbation that led to different results. We are also looking to multiple methods for rigorously measuring what is happening in these natural experiments. I found this book to be very helpful in laying bare the thinking for an approach that is both “theoretically robust and empirically rich” (41). Highly recommended.