On Breaking silos and nudging the Homo Economicus Academicus community

Part I: The systemic foundations and actor trajectory that triggered SITE4Society   (A social innovation)
2017_2_shyamaBy Shyama V. Ramani, UNU-MERIT, ramani@merit.unu.edu

For Citation: SITE4society Essay No. 1-2018


John Stewart Mills, the great economist and philosopher, defined a homo economicus as an economic actor “who inevitably does that by which he may obtain the greatest amount of necessaries, conveniences, and luxuries, with the smallest quantity of labor and physical self-denial with which they can be obtained.” (thanks Wikipedia!) So what would a homo economicus academicus of the social scienticus tribe be like? For that we need to understand the incentive structure of academic systems.

In standard institutions of higher education, the main job of academics is to teach and train youth for industry, public sector organizations, politics and academia. In the best ones, an academic’s career primarily depends on the quantity and quality of her/his publications and the revenues generated through contract research for national and international agencies. Furthermore, social scientists, especially in the management sciences, often undertake consultancy or research work with companies that can support research by academics and students. When this leads to publications or useful social networks, it again helps the academic move forward in her/his career. To gather evidence for policy or strategy design, social scientists study the available literature or gather data on their own through surveys, experiments, focus group discussions, interviews, direct observations etc. (see Figure 1).


Under such a system, a homo economicus academicus (or simply academicus henceforth) primarily focuses on getting publications in the top tier academic journals as the payoffs to this achievement are very high. Next, academicus work on generating research contracts for the institute. Learning to be a good teacher can be also useful and being a nice person is usually appreciated – but these traits are not absolutely necessary. And finally, academicus  have to work enthusiastically or unwillingly, from time to time, starting from the beginning of their career as a doctoral student, on the construction of social networks and relations, for even in academics, entry into an organization, mobility between organizations, ascension within an organization, publications and all forms of institutionally founded stardom, are highly influenced by them.

 A systemic shock and creation of a mutant

It is well known in evolutionary theory, that unforeseen systemic shocks can trigger the Untitled2creation of mutants, which emerge as a response to a radically new context. That’s how I became a mutant! I was a typical academicus, plodding along the standard trajectory and suffering much angst at not being able to move up in my academic institute. Then the Asian  tsunami happened the day after Christmas in 2004 and I was so moved by the devastation caused that I joined millions of others responding to this calamity. Eventually, I adopted an isolated fishing village called Kameshwaram in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and founded a non-profit called ‘Friend in Need India’, (www.friend-in-need.org). Over time the mission took shape. I was shocked at the lack of toilets, the lack of water history pagemanagement and also the indifference of residents to littering and waste management in general. All this completely broke my imagined idyllic view of rural bliss. So my mission became to make this village as clean as any in the world, and somehow ensure access to clean water and safe toilets to all and document the process comprehensively for replication elsewhere. (Video links to this work are given at the end of the essay)

I became so busy juggling the professional, personal, family and NGO fronts that I stopped thinking about my slow ascension as an academicus within my institution. I Untitled3simply had no time. Furthermore, the work in the village began to provide me with material for research. My publications definitely became more heterodox and useful and I found real world problems much more exciting to work upon and discovered action-research. Very unexpectedly, my new interest and activity gave me an opportunity to change my institution, an extremely rare event in our market, as once permanently employed, most academicus live and die in the same place. At the United Nations University, I became happier than ever before.

But I still could not lure any my homo economicus academicus friends of the social scientificus tribe into my den. Try as I might, I could not mobilize them to engage in any major way in my village project.

Life as a mutant is fun but lonely

I had thought that scholars of economic development would be excited as the village project was a wonderful opportunity and terrain to study how self-interest maximizing economic players in a small rural community with disparate objectives, resources, Untitled4.jpgcapabilities and hidden intentions, can be corralled to contribute to a set of common and collective goals. But they preferred to continue on their well trodden path as ‘outside thinker-observer-researchers’ creating publications and policy recommendation through study of the poor, while leaving their ‘object of study’ pretty much in the same state as it was before. To become an actor participant of the natural experiment, i.e. become a mouse in the laboratUntitled5ory experiment, joining the other mice in the cage, instead of being on the outside taking notes did not entice them. Of course, the latter involves a slower process of learning, of data collection with the risk of formulating a modest solution design rather than a publication, and hence obviously less preferred by academicus.

And so after more than a decade of trying and failing, I decided to follow Bacon’s advice and go to the mountain myself with a larger agenda – going beyond India, toilets and garbage management, but still with the same ulterior motive – of breaking the silo in which academicus community lived.

…..What happened next? That’s for Thursday!

Source Videos: TEDxMaastricht 2013 on Friend in Need experience: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=cjZiZVvK_kc

Action-Research Approach of FIN – 2016 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JVD6Pwqfu6A

Art for Behavioural Change 2016 https://www.pechakucha.org/presentations/simple-as-abc-art-for-behavioural-change

Photo sources:

John Stuart Mill https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Stuart_Mill

Mutant Jeans https://www.cartoonstock.com/cartoonview.asp?catref=tmcn1724

Lab with mice : https://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2018/03/25/lab-accidentally-created-city-180000-mice-experimented-without/

Francis Bacon : http://izquotes.com/quote/323817


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