Report on the North Conference
| Peter Klein |
Responsibilities abroad kept me from attending the recent Douglass North celebration, but the University of Missouri was well represented by a group of energetic and enthusiastic PhD students, who sent me the following report:
The conference on Legacy and Work of Douglass North was an outstanding meeting with discussions on the past, present, and future of the New Institutional Economics. Top scholars discussed the contribution and influence of North (and the New Institutional Economics) in a diverse range of fields, covering everything from the impact of the initial contributions to the outlook for continued research.
It’s hard to summarize the insights and contributions from six paper sessions, Elinor Ostrom’s keynote, and the roundtable on North and the Rise of the New Institutional Economics. One takeaway was the depth and breadth of North’s contributions – many speakers were North coauthors working on a wide variety of topics, from many different perspectives (economics, political science, history, cognition, etc.). North’s influence is huge across the social sciences.
One burning issue: what’s the next step for New Institutional Economics? Besides bridging or integrating Northean institutional analysis with Williamsonian organizational economics, many speakers emphasized the need to be more rigorous, to examine more details, to go farther than the “big picture” studies that are so prominent in the field. There are too many grand, sweeping claims, and not enough mundane, middle-of-the-road analysis. (John Nye, for example, expressed concern that some Northean ideas are very difficult to operationalize, a particular problem since younger scholars are confronted with very high standards for formalization, empirical technique, etc.)
What methods are most appropriate for studying these details? Several papers displayed new and interesting methods, techniques, approaches, etc. for applying Northean concepts to real-life phenomena and small-scale problems of much lesser scope. The context of empirical analysis is very important. Ostrom’s embrace of multiple methods — case studies, meta-analysis, comparative studies, game theory, experimental economics, etc. – provides one model. Ostrom’s success should serve as a model for many researchers in the New Institutional Economics. Unfortunately, there weren’t a lot of details; Sebastián Galliani’s session, which featured mostly younger scholars, focused on empirical methods but this wasn’t a major theme of the rest of the program. The best discussion on method was Ostrom’s keynote, which discussed the benefits of using existing case studies to produce a sort of empirical meta-analysis to support one’s case. Indeed, the perceived need to create an original dataset may push graduate students to pursue novelty over substance and usefulness; old data can be a great source for empirical analysis! [Editor’s note: I’m reminded of a conversation with Ronald Coase in which he worried that empirical contract researchers focus too much on getting new data, most of which is of course proprietary, while ignoring the treasure trove of archival data, e.g., procurement contracts from 100 years ago, much of which firms are happy to share.]