My fellow researchers and I have recently begun a new endeavor, the Virtual Center for Advanced Studies in Institution (VCASI, pronounced “vee-kasi”), a Tokyo Foundation research project. Below I briefly explain our aims for this project with some thoughts of my own included. I hope that we will receive your support.
The Revival of Institutional Studies
After the 1990 publication of Douglass North's Institution, Institutional Change and Economic Performance, a revival of institutional studies occurred in the fields of economics, political science and sociology across the global academic community. It was around the same time that the fall of the Berlin Wall triggered the sudden demise of communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Looking back, the 20th Century was a time when “the ideology of planning” became dominant, not only in the communist system but also even within the capitalist system in such forms as Keynesian policies, the war-time economy, industrial policy, and big business oligopoly, etc. However, at the end of the last century, many things occurred to diminish the power of such thinking, including the rise of the internet. Yet it soon became apparent that this did not mean the ultimate victory of the laissez-faire market economy either. Expanding opportunities for voluntary exchange undoubtedly benefits those parties involved, but looking around the world, one realizes from day to day that a trustworthy network of exchange will not develop if left on its own.
It is clear that this situation was one of the key factors in the revival of institutional studies. The market is without doubt one of the most important systems that make up society, but its functioning and the results it produces depend on its interaction with social norms, national institutions that formalize and execute the relationship between rights and duties, as well as technology and culture. The relationship between these elements is greatly dependent on a country or region's history (if we were to use the technical term this would be called “historical path dependency”). Therefore, policies within such a system must have a measure of compatibility—or “fit”—with these historically determined relationships if they are to be effective. The confusion seen in the policies of the US occupation in Iraq is a case in point. Thus institutional research is of vital importance to policy research.
Achievements and Limitations of the Current Style of Research
Please let me spend a few words my personal experiences in order to explain why VCASI was founded. In the 1990s I worked in an ideal environment for institutional research at Stanford University. Together with colleagues like Milgrom and Greif, I established a Ph.D field for
Comparative Institutional Analysis in the Economics department where we exchanged ideas and research topics with many graduate students. In addition, we were in contact with leading researchers in institutional studies in other fields such as sociology, political science, law, and psychology. It was through these experiences that I realized the necessity and effectiveness of trans-disciplinary research on institutions. When I had nearly finished assemblying my research outcomes from the 1990s in a monograph, I received an invitation from the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (as it was known then) to join its research center and was given a chance to work on the front lines of Japanese policy research. I remember being encouraged by Professor North, who said, “This could be an excellent opportunity for fieldwork for institutional studies!” When the research center became afterwards an independent administrative agency called Research Institute of Economy and Trade and Industry (RIETI) , I took the opportunity to create a research organization involving bureaucrats, academic researchers and professionals in the private sector. This type of research system did not exist before except for policy research committees created on an ad hoc basis by government ministries for the formulation of particular policies, so it could be considered a novel endeavor at the time. In a period of three years we published over 20 analytical monographs and about the same number of policy-oriented books. However, although the Institute was an independent legal entity, I gradually began to feel various constraints placed upon us as a result of being under the governance of our parent ministry. In particular, they had little understanding of the significance of theoretical research, which can be the basis of policy research, or the independence of our researchers. I retired from my position after three years.
Conceptualizing VCASI-a Network–based Research Organization
Recently, with the incorporation of universities and an increase in mobility of government officials and specialists in the private sector, there is now a greater potential for new and different types of research collaboration in Japan. Furthermore, the expansion of the internet is causing what might be called revolutionary changes in the circulation of scholarly information and the nature of academic discussion. Until now, the fundamental objective of international scholars has been to have their work published in what were considered to be the best academic journals, even if that took time. However, we are now beginning to see fierce competition to publish one’s research results as soon as possible on websites. As a result, on-going research output can be found soon anywhere in the world so long as people have access to the net, and it is possible for scholars who have never met to exchange ideas and to receive criticism and feedback over the internet. It has become much easier to search for potentially relevant journals. When we considered these circumstances as a whole, it seemed that the time was ripe for an experimental endeavor like VCASI.
The aims of VCASI are as follows:
- Institutional research is becoming increasingly important to both scholarly development and effective policy analysis. VCASI aims to become involved in institutional studies on a variety of levels (the “Studies in Institution” aspect of VCASI).
- We aim for cutting edge research in institutional studies through interdisciplinary communication unconstrained by the kinds of field divisions seen in the social sciences up to this point (the “Advanced Studies” aspect of VCASI).
- In order to achieve free and lively communication and collaboration that is not bound by the limits of field, association, location or career, and in order to assure the resulting research is disseminated widely, we aim to use and develop internet technologies in addition to occasional face-to-face dialog (the “Virtual Center” aspect of VCASI).
The research activities of VCASI will need financial support and a governance mechanism to ensure that they are effective and conducted in accordance with the aims I mentioned above. It goes without saying that support from impartial private organizations is the kind most desirable for supporting and evaluating independent research free from the influence of special interest groups (including government offices). Such support is often cited as the institutional background of the kind of advanced research seen in the U.S.. It can be said that the potential for such support is yet to be fully realized in Japan, but VCASI had the good fortune to come to the attention of the newly reformed Tokyo Foundation under the administratve leadership of Chairman Hideki Kato, and was inaugurated as one of the Foundation's projects. We are very grateful for the Foundation's support and intend to do our best to live up to their expectations. Naturally, as a new experiment it will be some time before VCASI achieves its full potential, but we sincerely hope that you will give us your time and support, and perhaps even participate in VCASI research activities as well.