I took a course in game theory when I was in college. In our first lecture, the professor said that game theory had given him a powerful “lens” to see the world. When you put the lens on, you see a public policy challenge from a new perspective, which can be very powerful.
This lens analogy stuck with me for many years as I increasingly understood the importance of taking an interdisciplinary approach to political issues. There are three parts to this analogy that can be extended to the world of politics.
The first relates to the importance of using analytical frameworks or “lenses” to understand and diagnose problems. The real world is an inherently complex place. A political or development challenge can be daunting at first sight because you might ask yourself: where to start? Having an analytical lens helps simplify the political issue by highlighting some important aspects that you might not have easily seen otherwise.
It can also provide policy makers with a whole new way of looking at the challenge. For example, at first, civil service reform may seem like a daunting topic, but you can easily use game-theory-based moral hazard models to analyze particular aspects of the civil service related to employee performance. . Alternatively, you can use an analytical framework that provides an optimal level of discretion to examine a completely different aspect of their performance. In short, an analytical lens will facilitate a structured approach to a policy challenge that is ideally underpinned by solid theory and evidence.
Interdisciplinary approaches to politics work best.
The second part discusses the importance of interdisciplinary approaches to solving public policy problems. You can see how having multiple lenses in your analytical arsenal can be crucial to gaining a holistic understanding of the problem. For example, different disciplines (eg, economics, political science, sociology, anthropology, moral philosophy, etc.) may have different elements to highlight in relation to the same policy challenge. If we rely solely on our narrow area of expertise, we run the risk of having a myopic view of the challenge ahead.
To give an example, if you are a game theorist, you might be tempted to view each political challenge exclusively from this angle and not see the big picture. On the other hand, if you take an interdisciplinary approach, you are likely to better understand the challenge and, therefore, come up with viable solutions.
Another implication is that developing a holistic understanding of a complex political issue requires narrow expertise as well as the integration of various specialist findings – linked to a coherent and larger narrative of the political challenge. Narrow expertise without a broad and cohesive narrative would likely lead to a myopic view of the problem. A broader political narrative without narrow expertise would likely lead to a misleading narrative.
The third is to recognize the strengths and limitations of each lens we use. Of course, some analytical approaches would be better suited than others to explain certain kinds of policy problems. A simplified example might be that economics and political science are more likely to emphasize the importance of incentives. If a policy challenge has multiple actors with misaligned incentives, it may be useful to consider an economic or political science lens to examine it.
Similarly, moral philosophy could highlight a completely different element related to the ethical aspect of political debate. For example, economics would have much more to say about the distortions created by different forms of taxation than about their ethical implications. Therefore, knowing when to use which type of lens is as important as having several in your analytical arsenal.
The lens analogy highlights the importance of a nuanced and holistic approach to policy challenges. To recap, the three extensions of the lens analogy that can be important for policy makers are: a complex policy challenge; (ii) having multiple lenses in your analytical arsenal can help you see a policy challenge holistically and, therefore, help you see the big picture; and (iii) knowing the strengths and limitations of each lens is vital as it allows you to choose an appropriate lens for the problem while being aware of the caveats for each interpretation.
Appropriate use of analytical frameworks can therefore be vital to improving decision-making in the political world.
The writer holds a doctorate from Oxford University and is a graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
Posted in Dawn, April 13, 2022