Despite literature on rational choice theory and neoclassical economics, it has become increasingly clear that even individuals within the same groups hold a myriad of conflicting values.  This makes collective decision-making incredibly complex.  How do people make decisions with regard to the environment, a commonly held resource, when presented with such varying value structures?  If we cannot assume that all individuals are acting in a standardized rational way, how do we calibrate for a varying scale of individual values?  One commonly cited problem is that of concentrated private costs versus diffuse public benefits.

To investigate ways of resolving tensions, first we need to understand how decisions are made and implemented.  Decision-making is an interaction between federal, state and local governments, industry, citizen groups, and individuals; thus, it is important to look at the ways that external forces such as institutions and government play a role with respect to individual behavior.  In his book, Institutions, Institutional Chance and Economic Performance, Douglass North tells that institutions matter because they are a way for reducing uncertainty.  In an era of a ‘we vs. they’ worldview, in which the individual was viewed as isolated from any social context, things were simple, straightforward, certain—we made predictions based on ideological bents.  However, we have seen that the neoclassical paradigm was a huge misfit for other countries as it assumed zero transaction costs and rational behavior of individuals; it assumed that humanity was predictable using the self-interested individual as the unit of analysis.

Illuminating the crucial differences within groups, North emphasizes that a common set of rules will function differently in different societies given their specific histories and institutional framework. In personal exchanges, because the salience of informal rules, community, and cooperation is high, situations for risk and uncertainty are low.  In tribal exchange, “the absence of a state supported by formal written rules is made up for by a dense social network” (North, 123).  Because of this, there is little need for costly, often inefficient, formal institutions such as regulatory agencies or government institutions to step in.  People are willing to take risks on behalf of their community.  However, as society grows and we become more and more globalized, it is not that informal rules lose their meaning, but the opportunities of defection are greater.  It is here that society may benefit in having weak ties with rooted cosmopolitans (Granovetter, Tarrow, and Tilly).

However, if values are not written into the individual stemming from inner personal motivations but are embedded in a society, how do we account for varying values within a colony? Coming from a socio-cultural and systemic thinking perspective, I ask how people today make decisions on how to use publicly shared resources.  As this is an age-old problem, dating back to antiquity, how might individuals resolve tensions with new information communication technologies?

In particular, I am curious about how useful, if employed at all, are information technologies in the context of contention over issues of land use.  Is there a way for preserving individual values while responding to the wants and needs of each person?  There is a paradox in the attempt to be sensitive to a diversity of individual values while also preserving the land.

One example of where we see this tension is in conflict between the tribe members of Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Northern Montana who are currently arguing over whether or not to lease their land for hydraulic fracturing.  In some literature such as Richard Pascale’s The Power of Positive Deviance, we see that the solution to many problems can come from within communities.  It comes from an observation of local identity and an understanding for how society works together.


North, Douglass. (1990). Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance: Political Economy of Institutions and Decisions. Cambridge University Press. Print.

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