We tend to look to the “great ones” for wisdom about how to face particularly challenging situations. From changing diapers to favorite recipes to schooling systems to health care. We usually don’t know what to do when the world requires us to think afresh about what we want. The world shifts, the old system doesn’t work as well, and we go to the “great ones,” who we usually look for in the “great places,” large mountain peaks in a very small group of places. Global destinations.
What if the wisdom you needed was already in your own back yard? What if you didn’t need to travel great distances to get advice that you then would have to customize to your own context? For example, what worked for an educational system in Europe 100 years ago, or in a political system in Greece 2,400 years ago, or in an agricultural system in Egypt 5,100 years ago, or in an existing banking system in Bangladesh, or in a family down the street, will not work in the exact same way for you, here, with me.
My colleagues and I are finding that people everywhere are figuring out new ways to do things, within a very similar context to our own, every day. They have figured it out. They are local “great ones.” They are everywhere.
UCLA professor Jared Diamond has observed a similar phenomenon across the globe, which he describes in his 2012 book The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? “Traditional societies are far more diverse in many of their cultural practices than are modern industrial societies…Yet psychologists base most of their generalizations about human nature on studies of our own narrow and atypical slice of human diversity…Traditional societies in effect represent thousands of natural experiments in how to construct a human society. They have come up with thousands of solutions to human problems, solutions different from those adopted by our own..socities…Perhaps we could benefit by selectively adopting some of those traditional practices…[While] we should also not go to the opposite extreme of romaniticizing..traditional practices..we can consider ourselves blessed to have discarded…[they] may not only suggest to use some better living practices, but may also help us appreciate some advantages of our own society that we take for granted” (8-9).
There is much to learn from the wisdom all around us, if only we could find it, understand it, and integrate it. That is what the Global Initiative to map the social topography of human agreements is attempting to do: to help you see where the wisdom is in your own community, the local peaks.
Diamond, Jared, and James A. Robinson, ed. Natural Experiments of History. 2010, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
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.