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PED-308: Social Institutions and Economic Development

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Harvard Kennedy School

PED-308: Social Institutions and Economic Development

Description: Most people for most of history have depended upon various types of social institutions -- i.e. kinship systems, community organizations, and social networks -- as their primarily resource for both survival ("getting by") and mobility ("getting ahead"). Social institutions are also a central basis of identity, meaning, and aspiration, even as they can be altered by the development process in quite contentious ways; as such, the broader policy challenge remains one of discerning how to sustain effective complementary relationships between social and 'formal' institutions as they change over time. This course explores the various ways in which social institutions have evolved historically in different contexts and uses this knowledge as a basis on which to better incorporate social institutions into the design, implementation, and assessment of development strategies. Our particular focus will be on strategies seeking to improve risk management, dispute resolution, service delivery, effective governance, and the extension of markets. A strong emphasis is placed on -- and assessment is geared towards -- developing the ability to: (a) analyze, integrate, and interpret data from different sources and levels of quality; (b) communicate with diverse audiences (scholars, practitioners, and the general public); and (c) understand how coalitions of actors, organizational imperatives, and political forces shape the nature and extent of support for (and/or resistance to) reform. 

Faculty Michael Woolcock

Source: At (accessed 20 January 2014)


Teaching Topics Addressed in this Course, Organized by Public Management Subject



Additional Course Description in Syllabus

This class focuses on initiatives that seek to incorporate social institutions into development strategies in three key policy areas: risk management, dispute resolution and service delivery. To this end we explore the historical, empirical and practical foundations on which to think about designing, implementing, assessing, replicating and scaling such strategies. A strong emphasis is placed on developing the ability to integrate and interpret data from different sources and levels of quality; to communicate with diverse audiences (scholars, practitioners, and the general public); and to understand how ideas, coalitions of actors, organizational imperatives and political forces shape the nature and extent of support for (or resistance to) reform. An overarching objective is to contribute to new development strategies that connect twenty-first century technologies and sensibilities to twenty-first century manifestations of perennial problems, many of which stem from the discontents surrounding the challenges to and reconfigurations of social institutions during the development process.

My hope is that PED-308 will help students acquire a distinctive combination of skills (of analysis, critique and evaluation) and sensibilities (for engaging with development as an ongoing historical and political process). Upon completion of this course, students should be able to:

  • Appreciate that different types of decision-making and problem-solving skills are required for improving the effectiveness of development interventions generally, and those engaging with social institutions in particular
  • Recognize the intrinsic importance of social institutions to people’s identities, aspirations, values and meaning, and how they make sense of what happens to them (and to others)
  • Analyze how social institutions shape risk management (survival and mobility), conflict mediation, service delivery strategies in poor communities, and the transmission of ideas
  • Articulate a range of key issues at stake when assessing the efficacy of social development projects
  • Demonstrate ways in which development theory, research and policy from different disciplinary and sectoral perspectives can be coherently and usefully integrated
  • Incorporate evidence from primary, secondary and web-based sources, and clearly communicate their ideas to different types of audience
  • Contribute in their own way to reimaging development for the 21st century.

Reference Materials

Bayly, C.A. (2004) The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914: Global Connections and Comparisons Oxford: Blackwell

Davis, Wade (2009) The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in a Modern World Toronto: House of Anansi Press

Pascale, Richard, Jerry Sternin and Monique Sternin (2010) The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems Boston: Harvard Business School Press

Commentary by the Atlas editors: The class titles  provide candidates for topic titles to be developed by the Atlas:

  • 'The Best Time to be Alive, Ever'
  • Deep History – ‘The Sociological Equivalent of Splitting the Atom’
  • Entering the Modern World – ‘Great Transformations and their Discontents’
  • And then there was Development – ‘All that was Fluid Freezes into Slush’
  • Solutions when the Solution is the Problem’
  • Some Evidence – ‘Getting By With a Little Help From My Friends…’
  • Evidence of a Different Kind – ‘Bulls in China Shops, Firefox on DOS’
  • Inference – ‘Lost Causes’ (or, ‘One Soft Cheer for Randomization’)
  • Extrapolation – ‘But How Generalizable is That? Can it be Scaled Up?’
  • A Concrete Alternative – ‘The Only Thing Worse Than Being Wrong is Being Ignored’
  • What Any Alternative Must Do – ‘Enhance (State) Capability for Implementation’
  • Some Alternatives in Action, at Scale – ‘Building a New Operating System’
  • Going Forward – ‘Miles to Go Before We Sleep’

Page created by: Ian Clark, 20 January 2014. The content presented on this page, except in the Commentary, is drawn directly from the source(s) cited above, and consists of direct quotations or close paraphrases.




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School of Public Policy and Governance