My Research Program

I. Overview

The central theme of my research is value in multiple forms.

I follow Georg Simmel in characterizing value as only objectively measurable when it is manifest in exchange and view money as inherently social. Thus, I seek to understand how value is assessed and transferred in all forms of social and economic exchange, not just those involving money.

The Problem. Traditional measures like GDP and PPP focus only on the monetized portion of human exchange and can provide an incomplete picture of human social and economic behavior at the macro scale. Uni-dimensional measures of household poverty at the micro level suffer from a similar shortcoming. I seek to redress these problems by studying the relationship between multiple forms of value in exchange, and by tracing their impact on contemporary concerns about deforestation, land use change, rural-urban migration, and household wellbeing in poor regions.

I use data from long-term multi-method research projects in Thailand and the Brazilian Amazon to study specific facets of coupled human and natural systems, as well as to support comparative work.

II. In Focus: Social Capital, Monetization, and Social Networks 

Social theory, both classical and contemporary, has an underappreciated role in helping us to understand one of the most ubiquitous aspects of daily life: monetary exchange. Money epitomizes Bordieu’s habitus, and yet, as financial crises attest, money remains, in Marx’s idiom, “a riddle.”

First, I have worked to further unravel this riddle of money by applying an institutional and network-based perspective that synthesizes the best from Simmel, Marx, Bordieu, and others into a general theory of monetization: the shift from barter to cash. My central argument is that it is not the presence of money alone that defines monetary exchange, as economics would have us believe. The precise nature of the social institutions, exchange networks, and the social trust among transactors are all crucial as well. I argue that to understand what money is and how it affects human interaction, we have to focus not just on what is exchanged, but by whom and with whom.

Second, shifting the unit of analysis from individuals to relations requires a concomitant shift to theories rooted in social network analysis and exchange theory. My research on labor monetization in Nang Rong, Thailand uses multi-relational network data to explore the overlapping nature of social and economic affiliation that shapes decisions about specific exchanges, particularly agricultural labor. I find evidence suggesting that monetization is not a simple process of cash supplanting barter, but rather a wholesale realignment of exchange networks and information needs.

Third, the data demands of this work, paired with the difficulty of examining alternative counterfactual paths have led me, with colleagues, to explore the potential for using agent-based modeling to simulate networks and social contexts based upon less costly, focused qualitative and small-scale data collections. In this way, we aim to explore the effect of dynamic contextual shifts on key outcomes in a way that allows for mutual dependencies and emergent properties across scales. While this research is still in the planning stages, we are very enthusiastic about its support potential.

III. In Focus: Multiple Capitals, Livelihoods, and Wellbeing 

The “sustainable livelihoods framework” that is popular among development experts presumes that humans require more than just financial capital (income) to successfully escape poverty. Human capital in the form of education, social capital embodied in social network connections to people, information, and assets, and natural and physical capital – land and equipment – are all necessary in certain times and places. It has been a major focus of my postdoctoral research to further specify the specific roles performed by each. I do this in several ways.

First, working together with Leah VanWey and Gilvan Guedes at Brown, we developed a theoretical model of frontier development that synthesizes existing approaches and resolves some longstanding conflicts in the literature. We posit that it is not just the amount of various capitals controlled by households (what we term the “portfolio”) that determines livelihood choices and the attainment of wellbeing, but the match between a household’s portfolio and current returns to each type of capital. The latter follow a predictable evolution over time in many frontier contexts, making it vitally important to know where a particular frontier is in this process in order to understand the motives of individual actors, now and in the future.

Second, work with Gilvan Guedes, we have devised a simple but effective methodology that supports the comparative study of multidimensional poverty and well-being. We explore the interaction between specific dimensions of poverty and the underlying context by identifying what is common to all contexts – plenary poverty – and what is unique to a given context – idiomatic poverty. By building sensitivity tests directly into the approach, we encourage researchers and practitioners to pay attention to the interaction between context and multiple dimensions of poverty.

Third, I study the contribution of natural capital assets to household financial wellbeing. This is just one of many applications of our general framework, but is uniquely important in Brazil and other regions experiencing rapid natural capital conversion. This work finds that characteristics of the farm plot like accessibility help to shape economic destinies and suggests that policies aimed at making it difficult for households to get agricultural products to market may have the perverse effect of slowing transitions toward less extractive livelihoods and prolonging high rates of deforestation.

IV. Additional Unifying Themes

Interdisciplinarity and Multidisciplinarity. In attempting to understand how returns to multiple forms of capital interact with the changing context of accessibility, social and political institutions, ecology and health, demography, and economy, I draw upon both my interdisciplinary training in undergrad and graduate school and a multidisciplinary team of collaborators who, in addition to providing strong discipline-specific expertise bring a valuable emic perspective to bear in my global research locations that complements and mutually reinforces my own outsider’s perspective.

The Importance of Context. To understand what is being exchanged and why requires that we carefully characterize the relational and institutional context in which social exchanges are carried out. Combining complete network data on multiple relations, rich longitudinal data on demographic, economic, and social behaviors, and qualitative observations in the field provides me with a much fuller picture of the context shaping dynamic processes like monetization and development. Rather than treating such processes as pure cause or effect of concurrent ecological shifts, I attempt to view society and environment as mutual components in an evolving system, theoretically and empirically.