Why do I favor a “design based approach” in my methodological work?

The essence of the design-based approach is that one establishes optimality principles in terms of research design parameters, while making minimal assumptions about the distributional properties of the variables in the analysis. The motivation for a design-based perspective is three-fold.

First, I do a lot of field research. Most field research projects seek to obtain data on a variety of outcome variables. Each of these outcome variables might differ in its distributional properties. In such cases, one wants optimal design principles that are robust to such variety. The design- based approach achieves precisely this robustness goal. This is the line of thinking one associates with Leslie Kish, William Cochran, and the literature on “official statistics.”

Second, the design-based approach aims to minimize errors of inference (for example, inaccurate confidence intervals) that arise when one uses methods that rely on distributional assumptions that are inaccurate. The design based approach achieves such error minimization by defining inferential properties primarily in terms of the design parameters that are directly controlled, and therefore known, by the researcher. This is the line of thinking that one associates with David Freedman.

Third, the design-based approach minimizes reliance on data parameters that are only revealed after the data are collected. This allows for the pre-specification and ex ante agreement among scholars on the inferential leverage that a design offers. For example, it allows for ex ante specification and agreement on what hypotheses can be tested and with what power. A design document and pre-analysis plan can guard against ex post manipulations and “results fishing,” arguably allowing for more credible accumulation of scientific knowledge. This is the line of thinking that one associates with current proponents of pre-analysis plans like Edward Miguel and Macartan Humphreys.


Motivations for service provision

The Development Impact Blog (link) has an outstanding post by Ken Leonard discussing the differences between prosocial and intrinsic motivations for public service workers:

When we hear of a fireman who works for money, we immediately think about the wage, its relationship to performance and the way incentives are organized within the system. If you hope to be rescued by someone who works only for the money, you want to know how and under what circumstances he earns more. The term intrinsic motivation, however, often leads to policy paralysis: if they love to do their job, then let them continue to do their job. Once we recognize, however, that public sector workers might be motivated by the gratitude or admiration of others (not the act of doing their job), we might be more likely to ask about wages, incentives and organizations—the same questions we would automatically ask about money. For example, does seeking the gratitude of patients or students increase or decrease useful effort? Can organizations increase exposure to positive incentives and decrease exposure to negative incentives?

(Link to post.).

So intrinsic: “I like doing this work.” Prosocial (or, perhaps better termed, Other-regarding): “I like what this work does for others” or “I like how others view my doing this work.”

If you find such a discussion of intrinsic/extrinsic, other/self-regarding motivations interesting, you should really read Jon Elster: link.

This also reminds me of a conversation I had with Leonard Wantchekon last year:

“I am hoping to organize a conference on organization theory—you know, as a way to gain insights on why state institutions sometimes work and sometimes don’t,” he said.

“Sounds great!” I replied.

“Yeah, and you know what?” he continued. “If the key result of your model or field experiment is ‘higher wages lead to better performance’, you’re not invited!”

Persistent effects of historical shocks

A vibrant research program in political economy today studies the persistent effects of historical “shocks,” such as colonial era institutional interventions like forced labor or missionary education. Many of these studies are great, showing careful attention to both historical detail and nuances of causal identification. A great example is a paper that Felipe Valencia Caicedo presented in our department seminar this week of the persistent effects of colonial era missionary education in the Guarani regions of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay [link]. (The bibliography to that paper lists many other really good examples.) That said, I am often left wanting more in terms of an explanation for such persistence. Such papers sometimes reference cultural transmission models [link], but in these cases, the papers often leave unclear why culture is not transmitted “horizontally,” for example through mimicry of success. Why doesn’t this happen? Evolutionary models of persistence typically reference “increasing returns” (and the mirror image, “traps”) [link]. In that spirit, what is the role of processes of agglomeration or more political in spirit, the accumulation of resources that can be used to defend privilege?


DRC project manager

The Institute for Development Studies Study of Total Fiscal Burden in Democratic Republic of the Congo is recruiting a project manager to be based in Kinshasa starting immediately and through Fall 2015 for a DFID-sponsored study on the political economy of taxation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Tasks will include managing logistical affairs for a large-scale, quantitative data collection effort, including sample surveys and other data collection. The position is paid and provides access to necessary logistical resources to conduct the work in Kinshasa.

Qualifications: native or professional-proficiency French speaker; master’s degree or compensating experience in economic development or related areas; management and budget tracking experience.

If interested, please submit a CV to the following email address: idsdrc@gmail.com