Working Paper 117

Situated Bounded Rationality: linking institutional analysis to cognitive, processual, and phenomenological approaches in anthropology

Brian Donahoe

Projektgruppe Rechtspluralismus

Jahr der Veröffentlichung


Working Paper 117

This paper is an attempt to further develop anthropological applications of institutional analysis by integrating it with approaches coming out of cognitive sciences. Institutional analysis has been successfully used to study changes in property rights and the negotiation of the collective-action problem inherent in managing common-pool resources under a variety of property regimes. It is particularly well-suited to the analysis of socio-ecological systems, and is compatible with theories coming out of ecological and economic anthropology. Yet despite the pioneering work of James Acheson and Jean Ensminger, institutional analysis remains unfamiliar to most anthropologists, primarily because of its theoretical foundations in rational choice and game theory, which many anthropologists see as irreconcilable with anthropology’s humanistic, reflexive, and relativistic biases. Institutional analysts circumvent the problems inherent in strict definitions of rationality through the concept of bounded rationality. This is a necessary first step, but still assumes the existence of an abstract Rationality as the underlying motivation behind human behavior, and as the normative baseline from which to measure "deviations" in human behavior. This paper is a step toward elaborating a more nuanced understanding of situated bounded rationality, based on situated cognition, humans’ evolved reliance on heuristics, and the predominance of preferences over actions (means) as opposed to preferences over outcomes (ends). This approach combines the strengths of two dominant types of actor-based models – the microeconomic and the psychological (behavioral) – and integrates them with the analysis of social structure. In this way, the approach proposed here reconciles institutional analysis with processual, cognitive, practice-based, and perhaps most surprisingly, phenomenological approaches in anthropology.

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