Shackle analysis: a pastoralist example


Unlike most economists of his generation or later ones, G.L.S. Shackle was preoccupied with how economic agents make real-time decisions in situations so uncertain that no one, including agents, knows the range of options and their probability distributions upon which to decide. In answer, Shackle produced an analysis based on possibilities rather than probabilities and what is desirable or undesirable rather than what is optimal or feasible.

For Shackle, possibility is the inverse of surprise (the greater an agent’s disbelief that something will happen, the less possible it is from their perspective). Understanding what is possible depends on the agents thinking about what they find surprising, namely, identifying what one would take to be counter-expected or unexpected events that could arise from or be associated with the decision in question. Once they think through these alternative or rival scenarios, the agents should be better able to ascribe to each how (more or less) desirable or undesirable a possibility it is.

These dimensions of possibility (possible to not possible) and desiredness (desirable to undesirable) form the four cells of a Shackle analysis, in which the decisionmakers position the perceived rival options. Their challenge is to identify under what conditions, if any, the more undesirable-but-possible options and/or the more desirable-but-not-possible options could become both desirable and possible. In doing so, they seek to better underwrite and stabilize the assumptions for their decisionmaking.


Let’s move now from the simplifications to a complexifying example. Consider the following conclusion from an investigation of sedentarization among Borana pastoralists:

Although in the case of this study we can speculate generally about what has prompted the sedentarization adaptation from quantitative analysis and the narratives of local residents, we do not sufficiently understand the specific institutions and information that individuals, households, and communities have utilized in their adaptation decision making. Only in understanding the mechanisms of such inter-scale adaptations can national and state governments work toward increasing community agency and promoting effective and efficient local adaptive capacity. ES-13503-270339

Such an admission is as rare as it is much needed in the policy and management research with which I am familiar. Thus the point made below should not be considered a criticism of the case study findings. Here I want to use the Shackle analysis to push their conclusion further.


At least in this example we know where to start the Shackle analysis: sedentarization’s dismal track record.

Briefly stated, what and where are now undesirable adaptations in Ethiopian pastoralist sedentarization–by government? by communities? by others?–that: were not possible then and there but are now; or were possible then and there but are not now? More specifically, where else in Ethiopia, if at all, are conditions such that those undesirable adaptations of sedentarization are now considered more desirable by pastoralist communities themselves?

If there is even one case of a community where the undesirable has now become desirable and where the now-desired is (still) possible, then sedentarization is not a matter of, well, settled knowledge.

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