Interview with Atin Basuchoudhary (Professor at the Virginia Military Institute)

The European Public Choice Society has its annual conference in Braga (Portugal) in the week of the 11th of April. To give you an idea of what is hot and happening in the field of political economy, Joes interviewed attendants of the conference. For this interview, he spoke with Atin Basuchoudhary, who is writing a paper using a method called ‘analytical narrative’ to study patterns of civil conflict.

Joes: “Could you please tell me what ‘analytical narratives’ are?”

Atin: “Sure. The way I see it, analytical narratives are stylized storytelling. What that means is that there is a theoretical framework, a meta-framework if you will, and you tell stories to flesh out the theoretical framework with facts. What that does is two things: It serves as an illustration, if not necessarily a causal relationship, and it also serves as a way to getting people to understand the meta-framework. And that useful is because we, as humans, are primed to think in terms of stories.”

Joes: “So the meta-framework is often game-theoretical, but are there other frameworks you could use?”

Atin: “I am a game-theorist, so I use game theory, but it can be any framework. It is not dependent on game theory. You could also have a standard rational choice model, using budget constraints and indifference curves. And actually, a lot of us, who are teachers, use this methodology almost instinctively when we teach things in classes.”

Joes: “I had never thought about it that way, but I suppose that any examples we give to explain a theory is a short analytical narrative. So are there any things we know because of analytical narratives that we could not have known otherwise?”

Atin: “That is a difficult question to answer. I want to say that analytical narratives help us understand things better. It is not a substitute for hard science, but in the social sciences it may give us nuance that is not available to econometric, experimental or theoretical analysis. So analytical narratives are a great way to identity nuances which the ‘hard’ models may miss out on.”

Joes: “When I dabbled in analytical narratives, it was very tempting for me to want to test a theory using the method, but then also start changing the theory, because you are looking at the actual facts on the ground, and the theory just does not fit. How do you keep induction and deduction apart for yourself?”

Atin: “It is very difficult. And I think nobody can say that they are entirely unbiased. Obviously as a theorist I love the math tools and the little nuances that come out of building the narrative. But what you say is true for many methods, think about p-hacking for example. And really, it is a matter of two prongs that are there: a deep sense of humility and of being aware of your biases and knowing yourself. Now, with that said, one of the advantages of analytical narratives, is that because you are thinking about the story and you are looking at the nuances, it is easier to pick up the divergences from the theory, and start working on those. To me, the goal of an analytical narrative is to come up with a theory that makes sense, and if the story and the facts do not fit the model, throw away the model.”

Joes: “At this conference you are presenting a paper that applies the analytical narrative method, can you tell us about that paper?”

Atin: “We look at how the nature of conflict might change based on whether rents are available or not. This is a public choice conference, so rents are a key issue, so this is a good place to talk about this. We study this in a context of neopatrimonialism, which are cultures which have strong patron-client based social networks, like ancient Rome and Nigeria. And in these scenarios the control of rents is very important of course, because patronage is a source of power.

In our model we have two populations, state actors and rebels. The state actors can be conciliatory, to make a deal with the rebels on rent redistribution, or aggressive, and try to defeat the rebels. The rebels can be warlords or reformists. Warlord rebels want to merely rule in a certain territory to extract rents. Reformists want to take over the government to extract rents.

What we find in the model is that if the share of rents that are directly available to local elites is large (think of oil or diamonds), than warlords will coexist in an equilibrium with a conciliatory state. If the share of the rents that can only be obtained through the state, so they are not directly extractable (think of taxes), than there will be a conflict over who gets to run the state.

As we worked through the model, we were wondering where something like this would actually work. When I was having coffee with one of my colleagues, James Hentz, who has recently passed away, who was an expert in Central and West Africa, he said: well, this is basically exactly what happens in Nigeria. So I wanted to know more of course. And it turns out that conflicts in Nigeria seems to follow the pattern described. So we had the model before we looked at any of the stories.

So looking at the story, you can see that in the north you have this rebellion led by Boko Haram, and in the south there is a coalition of warlords. In the south there is a lot of oil, while in the north the only way to get revenues is through capturing the offices of state. In the south you can directly access the oil, people tap into it all the time. So if our model is true, then in the south there should be an equilibrium between the warlords and the government, in which there is a deal between those two. Meanwhile in the north, you would expect utter confusion, with continuous conflict. And this is exactly what we see. So this really fits the theory, and this gives a little bit more confidence that the theory is useful. Of course this is all subject to more research and more formal science. But talking to other Africanists, I learnt that these patterns are repeated in the Congo and other places too. So we are cautiously optimistic about the theory.”

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