The WINIR Greenwich Conference
| Dick Langlois |
I write on the flight back from the inaugural conference of the World Interdisciplinary Network for Institutional Research (WINIR), which met on the Prime Meridian these last few days. The conference was a great success, not only for its wonderful location in the Old Royal Naval College astride the Cutty Sark but also for the overall quality of the organization and the presentations.
As I have mentioned before, WINIR was created to encourage institutional research from a wide range of perspectives and disciplines. The annual conference institutionalizes this (you might say) by having keynote speakers from five different disciplines. The political scientist was Kathleen Thelen from MIT, one of my fellow editors on the Journal of Institutional Economics; the legal scholar was Katharina Pistor from Columbia; and the sociologist was Geoffrey Ingham from Cambridge, who made some interesting observations about Chinese institutions in the context of the “great divergence” debate in economic history. Serious and well-known scholars all. The economist was Timur Kuran, who updated us on his fascinating work on the economics of the pre-nineteenth-century Islamic waqf. But the most interesting – or at any rate most surprising – keynote was the philosopher Barry Smith from Buffalo, whom some of you may have heard of for his early work on the philosophy of Austrian economics. Smith’s talk was about “ontology,” which in my ignorance I had expected to be an hour of head-breaking essentialism. It turns out that “ontology” now means the practice of classification – giving things the right names and putting them in the right boxes. As much computer science as philosophy, it seemed to me. The main applications are in databases and sciences more generally, including things like Department of Defense databases and Human Genome data. Smith is a world-leading practitioner of this kind of ontology, having founded something called the National Center for Ontological Research. (I must confess that the first thing that popped into my mind when I heard this title was the High-Energy Magic Building at Terry Pratchett’s Unseen University.) Basically, ontology appears to be about modularization and standardization, something quite fitting to talk about in the shadow of the Royal Greenwich Observatory. I discovered that Smith was unaware of the modularity literature, so I plan to send him some references.
Many of the parallel sessions were also of high quality. I could attend only a fraction of them (what with sneaking out to visit the longitude exhibit at the National Maritime Museum). But let me plug a couple of papers by my friends. Giampaolo Garzarelli and Lyndal Keeton modeled “internal exit” in pre-colonial Southern Africa, the fissioning off of subtribal groups to found new polities. (I was impressed with the quality of that entire session.) As I was chairing a competing session later, I missed Roger Koppl and Caryn Devin talking about their paper “Against Design,” written with Stuart Kauffman and Teppo Felin. A version of that collaboration will appear in JOIE as a target article with solicited comments.
I had planned to keep my own paper under wraps, thinking it was safe on the conference website. But Peter informed me that, as is its wont, Google has announced the paper to the world; so I had better say something about it. The paper is an early report on a project I’m calling “The Corporation and the Twentieth Century.” It’s an attempt to revisit the Visible Hand-Vanishing Hand story to fill in two related gaps. One is the lack of serious consideration of political institutions in both Chandler’s work and my own. The other is a missing account of how in detail the corporation was affected by the anomalous and often tragic period between 1914 and 1973, what Deirdre McCloskey calls “the Great European Civil War.” I have some ideas, but I’m far from having the answer. What I do know is that it will take more than one paper to figure it out.
Although it was founded less than a year ago, WINIR now boasts more than 500 members, making it quite possibly the fastest-growing association in the history of the social sciences. (Why aren’t you a member?) Some 187 people attended in Greenwich. Next year’s conference will take place on roughly the same dates in Rio. And in 2016 WINIR will come to New England. WINIR also holds smaller “symposia,” starting with one on the governance of the corporation, in Lugano in April. (I guess I had better attend that one – for the corporation, you understand, not for the location.) I will report on that in due course.
Addendum 17 September 2014: WINIR has now fixed the “Google leak” that allowed direct access to the conference papers without going through the WINIR website. You will now need to be a member to access the papers I mention above, including mine. Another reason to join!