Did Avner Greif Misread the Geniza Documents?

27 April 2008 at 11:57 pm 4 comments

| Peter Klein |

That’s the claim of this startling paper by Jeremy Edwards and Sheilagh Ogilvie, “Contract Enforcement, Institutions and Social Capital: The Maghribi Traders Reappraised.” Avner Greif’s influential papers (1989, 1993) and book argue, based on documentary evidence from the Cairo Genizathat the medeival Maghribi traders developed an elaborate, informal network of trading relationships without central coordination or state enforcement. Close social ties, repeated interaction, and careful record-keeping allowed the Maghribi to overcome the prisoner’s dilemma — a perfect example of order without law

Edwards and Ogilvie, returning to the primary sources, dispute this account. They claim that (1) the Maghribi relied primarily on the Jewish and Muslim state legal systems, not private enforcement, for settling disputes; (2) the Maghribi traded heavily with non-Maghribi; and (3) communications channels were too slow and unreliable to support the social-sanction mechanism proposed by Greif. In short, while reputation effects could be important for individual traders, there is no evidence of the broad Maghribi coalition described by Greif.

I don’t know the primary sources well enough to have an opinion on the merits of this critique, but it strikes me as a very serious critique indeed. Of course, we Hayekians have known about “spontaneous order” long before Greif set pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), so losing this example wouldn’t be a devastating loss for the theory of decentralized social institutions, any more than losing the Fisher-GM example would wipe out the asset-specificity theory of vertical integration. But it’s important to get the details right.

Entry filed under: Institutions, New Institutional Economics.

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