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Et Tu, Avner Greif?

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The citation practices of an academic of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Not perhaps the most obviously compelling subject for a blog post. The practice of ostracism in Mediterranean ports in the middle ages.  Likewise. But ... put them together?

I've just been mucking about in the "history" of the wikipedia page on Avner Greif -- a page I first created, though years ago. I created that page out of fascination with a certain work of Greif's to which I'll return, but there have been many changes to the page since I last paid attention. I've noticed quite a bit of contention about his citation practices, and about whether he is shorting someone else out of credit for her accomplishments in the field of institutional economics.

Hmmmm. Where do we start? Oh, here's a place.!

"Institutional economics" flourished in the 1920s and '30s and boasted such luminaries as Thorstein Veblen and John R. Commons. It sees (mostly hierarchical) institutions, both public and private, as worthy of study in their own right, and it treats them as a key concern of economics, as part of a feedback loop with such other concerns as market competition and the profit-seeking behavior by individuals.

The school died out, or seemed to, as the calendar moved into the '40s and as the discipline of economics split into "micro" and "macro" halves. The work of the first-wave institutionalists didn't fit neatly on either stool.

But about 1975, institutionalism made a comeback, led this time by such thinkers as Oliver Williamson and Elinor Ostrom.

Avner Greif became an important figure in the new institutional economics in 1993, with the publication of an important article in the American Economic Review on what might have seemed to some at the time to be an obscure historical inquiry. It was about the Maghribi traders. Here's a pdf.  The Maghribi traders were a geographically diffused group of Jewish merchants operating in the Islamic Mediterranean ports in the 11th and 12th centuries. Greif's thesis: this trading "coalition" as he called it operated quite successfully outside the state-based court system of its time, creating an environment in which the chief sanction for misbehavior was ostracism. Thus, commerce does not always require a sovereignty-centered system of laws, and the circumstances in which it can survive without such a system are themselves something we can best understand using game theory.

Fortunately, Maghribi records have survived. We have for example the bitter letters of a Jerusalem based merchant who discovered around 1055 that coalition members as far away as Sicily wanted nothing to do with him or his cargoes, because word had gotten around that he had embezzled the funds of another trader. The ostracized fellow wanted back "in," and he believed he had been misrepresented. The point (for Greif, and for me when I first created a wikipedia page for Greif) was that there was no recourse to any sovereign's courts, for relief against embezzlement OR defamation.  A compromise was reached, the word got around that the two merchants had reconciled, and Abun ben Zedaka could do business within the Coalition again.

Inspiring and Deflating

If you're a regular reader of this blog you can imagine that I found Greif's depiction of the Maghribi and their coalition inspiring.

The bottom line for my purposes today is that Greif became known as the man who had united institutional economics with game theory ("iterated prisoners' dilemma" and all of that).

With all this as background: I was distraught to learn that Greif had become the subject of scholarly attack for, in effect, plagiarism. Something close to it, anyway.  In 2009, a scholarly article titled "The Curious Citation Practices of Avner Greif" took him to task for supposedly burying work to which he was indebted, the work of Janet Landa "on the economic analysis of trust and identity."

I haven't examined closely the accusation, or Greif's reply (he is as indignant as was Abun ben Zedaka).  I'll make no observations on the merits of the dispute except that the fact that it is a non-legal sort of dispute -- no lawsuit for copyright infringement is involved -- and the reputational nature of the stakes -- render it fittingly ironic.

His historical account of the Maghribi coalition appears to have gone unchallenged, whatever one might say about the theoretical frameworks in which he wrapped it. Or his citation practices in discussing those frameworks. And I'm inspired by them, not by him.


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