The unit of analysis

Bill Easterly put a quote on his non-blog yesterday from a Jane Jacobs book, Cities and the Wealth of Nations, (now almost 30 years old) on the unit of analysis in development questions. It makes a case for considering other units of analysis than the nation.

Nations are political and military entities… But it doesn’t necessarily follow from this that they are also the basic, salient entities of economic life or that they are particularly useful for probing the mysteries of economic structure, the reasons for rise and decline of wealth.

As a labor economist, I’m kind of surprised that it’s still an issue, but it seems necessary to reiterate even 30 years after Jacobs brought it up in her book. Though Easterly and Jacobs were talking about wealth and economics in particular, I think the insight is relevant for all kinds of decision making, and especially important when we’re talking about social norms (yes, I’m on a social norms kick–it doesn’t help that a friend told me last night that all my research was boring except for the social norms stuff. I’m here all night, folks).

At the risk of sounding like an echo, I was a bit taken aback last week how many of the people at the conference wanted to talk about scaling up to national level, how to effect change at a national level, and how to measure national-level social norms (some confusion around the term, here), even while admitting how watered down programs get at that level and how difficult it is to generalize across countries. Research suggests that reform and program implementation at that level are not very compatible with leveraging social norms for behavioral change due to lack of identification with the relevant social group (the nation).

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