Lin’s work focuses on the empirical analysis of collective goods problems – how it is that people can come up with their own solutions to problems of the commons if they are given enough room to do so. Her landmark book, Governing the Commons, provides an empirical rejoinder to the pessimism of Garret Hardin and others about the tragedy of the commons – it documents how people can and do solve these problems in e.g the management of water resources, forestry, pasturage and fishing rights. She and her colleagues gather large sets of data on the conditions under which people are or are not able to solve these problems, and the kinds of rules that they come up with in order to solve them.
This is, as Kieran suggests, a vote in favor of detailed, working-from-the-ground-up, empirical work, which doesn’t rely on sharply contoured theoretical simplifications and flashy statistical techniques so much as the accumulation of good data, which reflects the messiness of the real social institutions from which it is gathered. Quoting from Governing the Commons:
An important challenge facing policy scientists is to develop theories of human organization based on realistic assessment of human capabilities and limitations in dealing with a variety of situations that initially share some or all aspects of a tragedy of the commons. … Theoretical inquiry involves a search for regularities … As a theorist, and at times a modeler, I see these efforts [as being] at the core of a policy science. One can, however, get trapped in one’s own intellectual web. When years have been spent in the development of a theory with considerable power and elegance, analysts obviously will want to apply this tool to as many situations as possible. The power of a theory is exactly proportionate to the diversity of situations it can explain. All theories, however, have limits. Models of a theory are limited still further because many parameters must be fixed in a model, rather than allowed to vary. Confusing a model – such as that of a perfectly competitive market – with the theory of which it is one representation can limit applicability still further. (pp.24-25)
One plausible characterization of her life’s work is that it is about demonstrating the empirical weaknesses of a ‘cute’ economic model (the Tragedy of the Commons) that assumed a role in policy discussions far out of proportion to its actual explanatory power, and replacing it with a set of explanations that are nowhere near as neat, but are far more true to the real world. It is also worth pointing out in passing (as an email correspondent has brought to my attention) that she has received roughly a dozen grants under the NSF program that Senator Tom Coburn wants to abolish. Tom Coburn vs. the Nobel committee as a judge of scholarly quality – you decide.
It is also a vote in favor of supplementing quantitative work with qualitative understanding...
It is important that the Nobel Committee recognizes that there is more than one approach to science in general, and social science in particular. It strikes me that Darwin used "detailed, working-from-the-ground-up, empirical work, which doesn’t rely on sharply contoured theoretical simplifications and flashy statistical techniques so much as the accumulation of good data," and he moved our understanding of how life on earth works. Real scientists tell me that an awful lot of his specific predictions have stood up, as well.