Sunday, October 10, 2010

Collective action among scientists

Recently I got involved in various activities who all have in common to improve collective action among scientists, especially social scientists who work on collective action. This might be a bit awkward, but social scientists are trained to work on individual or small group projects and are not used to share their data, protocols and other research findings such that others can verify the results and build upon the findings of earlier investigators. As a consequence there is a lack of systematic accumulation of knowledge in many areas in the social sciences.
At a keynote address I gave at the World Conference on Social Simulation I addressed the problem that scholars did not document their work well, do not share the source code of their models and as a consequence it is often impossible to verify the results and build upon earlier work. As if the researchers say that you first need to the pain they experienced before you are allowed to extend their research. Within our projects related to http://www.openabm.org/ we develop cyberinfrastructure (such as a model archive) and incentives (such as a annual competition). We hope that this will stimulate some more collective action and sharing of research. The feedback was mixed. In general the audience was in favor of improved collective action, but not everybody perceive there is a problem and like to do their own thing as they did in the past without being bothered by others.
A similar initiative is in preparation for scholars who use experiments in research and teaching on collective action and the commons. Instead of developing our own software in each research group, a group of about 15 research teams like to collaborate on sharing software and protocols and contribute to common development of cyberinfrastructure for the broader community.
On the one hand (social) science is not a place-based activity anymore and on the other hand we increasingly use more comprehensive tools that cannot be developed and maintained by single research groups alone. Therefore we need to experiment with research networks that enable groups to share research findings and collaborate on common infrastructure.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Anasazi on the run

In the latest edition of Ecology and Society I published a paper on an agent-based model that aims to understand the resilience of ancient societies in the American South-west. Many of those societies have dissappeared before Europeans colonized America, and the question is why? One of the most popular hypothesis is that a drought caused the abandonement of build settlements. However, this does not explain why other societies persisted during the same period.
During the last 5 years we had a project at ASU where archaeologists, working together with scholars of other disciplines, try to unravel this puzzle. The upcoming special issue in Ecology and Society is a report from that project.
The paper I published is a very stylized model based on my condensation of the discussions I had with archaeologists on the motivations of people to produce food, share, store, exchange, stay or not in their settlement, etc. As a result we have a simple population model for which we can explore the consequences of disturbances. Although the environment is artificial we used rainfall data of the ancient southwest as input time series. The model results suggest that climate variability leads to abandonment of small settlements but increase the long term resilience of the larger area. People are kicked out of settlements by climate shocks, and prevent the soils to erode severely. The soils can recover after abandonment and be occupied later. As such climate variability is not the sole explanation for the abandonement of the large areas in the American southwest. Future work may extent the institutional arrangements to maintain resources. We now had included sharing, exchange, and storage of families, but we did not include group decision making and strategic behavior.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Content of communication not a predictor of cooperation

Earlier this month a new paper appeared of myself in Ecology and Society. The paper discussed earlier experiments than the recent Science paper and focused on the content analysis of communication. Thousands of lines of chat were classified in 20 different categories and in the statistical analysis we did not found a relation between the decisions and the type of communication. However, we found a significant effect between the amount and distribution of chat messages. There was more cooperation in groups with more messages and a more equal distribution of messages.
Of course a critique can be that we should have used different ways to classify the content of the messages to derive a relation between content and actions. But we also see groups who are very precise in agreeing where to harvest and how, but that this strategy is not a very good strategy. At least groups that do not communicate much, or are dominated by one or two persons seem to lack the social fabric to increase cooperation.
Besides the insights on communication, we find that the type of informal rules developed by the groups fitted the ecological dynamics of the resource. The slower growing resource leads to more rules on when and how to harvest, while the faster growing resource has only rules how to harvest. If we include spatial heterogeneity more time is spend on the specifics on where to harvest.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Working Together

Earlier this month the book that I wrote with Amy Poteete and Elinor Ostrom got published with Princeton University Press. We started this book project around 2004 when Lin Ostrom suggested to bring together the various writings on methods she did with me and Amy separately into a book that discuss the practical challenges in working with multiple methods. Amy was a postdoc at Indiana University where she coordinated the IFRI program, which mainly deals with field research. The book is build upon earlier publications but completely rewritten to make it one coherent monograph on a multi-methods approach.
We discuss the practical and institutional challenges in using multiple methods in practice such as field work, experiments and agent-based modeling, especially in relation to collective action and the commons. In Chapter 9 of the book we discuss a comprehensive theoretical framework of the current understanding of collective action and the commons.
In multi, inter and transdisciplinary programs in relation to natural resource management there is a challenge what kind of methods students need to learn. The book do not provide a traditional introduction to each method, but focuses on the pros and cons of the different methods so it may facilitate collaborations across methods. The book is already planned to be used in various graduate courses.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Science paper


In the Science edition of April 30, a paper of mine appeared on my work on experiments of social-ecological systems. We introduce our experimental environment (see a screenshot in the Figure) that includes relevant ecological spatial and temporal complexity that allows us to test observations from field studies in controlled settings. In contrast to traditional economic experiments participants need to make many decisions during each four minute period while the environment is changing real-time.
Although the experiments are done with undergraduate students, it enables us to test the consequences of a more comprehensive experimental environment. We do not aim to provide a solution to governance of social-ecological systems in general as some criticasters may imply. We show that in our more comprehensive environment costly santioning has no possitive effect at all. However, cheap talk has a strong possitive and long lasting effective, although we are not sure the precise reason for this.
We hope that this study will stimulate a tighter connection between field work and experiments, as well as a focus on understanding the role of communication.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Equity versus Efficiency

From experimental research and case studies we are doing at CSID during the last few years we find that there are interesting interactions between equity and efficiency. Many small scale irrigation systems function very well in the face of disturbances. They are able to adapt using the social capital within the communities. The same happens when we do irrigation experiments in a virtual environment with student subjects.
However, to meet the food demands of the increasing population with an increasing western meat oriented diet, we need to increase production. This may require a different type of organization of larger scale production that has less social-capital embedded and may become less adaptive to cope with change. Furthermore, in a globalizing world with global environmental changes, social-ecological systems will experience more variability and challenges that require a high social adaptive capacity that conflicts the increase in larger scale coordination.
Using the metaphor from an airplane, we have used commercial airplanes sofar to meet our duties. This require highly skilled pilots which were supported with a robust design of the airplanes. The requirements for the future require a higher performance, but neccesarily a less robust design of the airplane and an even more skilled pilot to fly the high performing airplane.
How do we organize a higher performing food production that is able to adapt to the increasing variability and disturbances? This seems to be one of the key questions for the coming decades.