Five Minutes with Emily Oster
Emily Oster, associate professor of economics, talks about the evolution of her work on issues critical to the social sector and what she sees as the broader challenges and opportunities for researchers in the field. Her interest in developing countries began during her time as a PhD student trying to understand how we could use economics to better examine problems like health and gender issues. Her recent research projects range from gender inequality in developing economies to domestic health care issues.
What are you currently working on?
My current research project involves infant mortality in the United States, which is staggeringly high relative to Europe. Basically, we're very bad in this area, and I'm trying to understand why.
By looking closely at the micro data, both from the United States and Europe, my research partner and I have found that mortality really takes off in the post-neonatal period - one to 12 months after birth, when people are home with their kids. These are full-term babies with high APGAR scores when they leave the hospital who die, mostly from suffocation, SIDS, and accidents. And these deaths are mostly occurring in families with lower socioeconomic status.
Do your findings give you an understanding of what improvements need to happen in this area?
The goal in a lot of the policy-oriented research I pursue is to suggest solutions, of course. But it is tricky to think about putting them into practice, in part because the results are often complicated. I wish the connection between findings and solutions were easier to make. It's something that is, in some ways, outside the bounds of academics. Perhaps our role as researchers is best in suggesting some ideas towards a solution. It's the role of somebody else hopefully to turn that into manageable policy.
Though our research into infant mortality isn't complete, the results suggest we should be looking for solutions that hone in on what is happening in people's households rather than, say, in the health care sector. It's looking as though, to get to the answer, we need to follow a hundred families and simply see what's going on. For an economist, I think that alone wouldn't be enough, but it's at this point where a pass-off can happen - presenting the data and the findings and hoping that an anthropologist or sociologist picks it up and helps us try to figure it out.
What does your vantage as an economist bring to social sector research that is different from other social scientists?
I think there are basically two big things. One, I think economics is more of a formal decisions science than some of the other social sciences. There is a sense in which we're most interested in drawing patterns of behavior that are describing the way that the market interacts.
A psychologist, for instance, is interested in how people process a decision and economists are much more interested in what happens after this. I happen to think economics is really good at causality and it's really good at thinking about causality in settings where it is difficult to grasp the causal mechanism.
We did a project about what happens after TV comes to villages in India and whether people change their attitudes toward women, predicated on research done by anthropologists on this subject. Previous research in other fields often looked at the relationship between behavior and whether you have a TV, with some controls, but without doing one essential thing - addressing the before and after effect.
As economists, we were careful about really uncovering the cause - whether it was the TV or something else that was causing this shift. It's emblematic of a broader difference between economics and other social sciences that we are trying to be very careful about causality. In that paper, we look at people before and after they get access to TV and see whether their attitudes change.
And so, the pass-off goes in the other direction, too. In this case, you could say the pass-off took place from the anthropologists to us: we read a lot of anthropology on the subject, took what they had uncovered, and went further.
Where do the ideas for your research come from?
It's a complicated question. Mostly, when I do one project I start thinking about things in that area and that leads to other projects. So many ideas happen like that, in associative leaps. I did some work on HIV and behavior change in the contacts of HIV in Africa. From there, I became interested in the question of how people respond to limited life expectancy by changing their behaviors, which led to a series of projects on this subject, including my next work, on Huntington's disease.
I thought Huntington's disease would be a good contact to sharply test how people behave differently knowing that they are going to die early, what kind of people pursue genetic testing, and how we can understand resistance to testing. Sometimes the thread connecting two projects may seem tenuous, but there's always a path between my work that's not very long, though the topics look totally unrelated at first glance.
What broad issue in the social sector do you think needs to be addressed?
In the context of development, the most pressing big picture question that I believe needs answering is how we get Africa to look like China. In the early 1980s, the two regions looked similar on a lot of the social development goals that we would care about: infant mortality, education, and health and longevity, etc. It is now the case that China has far surpassed both India and Africa, but especially Africa.
I think it's important to ask: Why did that happen? What are the kinds of institutional setups that allowed that to happen, and how can we use that information in context? These are extremely broad, but very important questions. Difficult, perhaps because they are so broad. No single intervention or set of micro data can touch these questions.
Is there one structural mechanism that you could see removing in order to start that change?
It's faulty to think there could be one piece that comes out, and everything else falls into place, like if you build a really great highway system, every problem would be fixed. Not likely, right? It's very hard to know since that's not something you can answer with a study or micro data.
But there's literature suggesting that the protection of property rights is a very important aspect of development. One thing a lot of people talk about again and again is the risk factor in Africa. It's very hard to undertake a lot of investment in Africa because of theft.
Kenya, for instance, is a very high functioning place. A few years ago, Kenya had an election, and during this election, there was a lot of violence and everybody's stuff was destroyed. What is going to incentivize people to build businesses when, every four years, somebody is going to burn them down? We see repeatedly in developing states that success comes in capitalizing their economy.
I don't think I could personally take a stand on whether property rights is really important, but it's something we see come up consistently in other settings.
What are your challenges as an economist working in developing economies?
One problem, basically, is that data is impossible. In some ways, the ease with which a survey can be done in a country is a good measure of how developed that country is.
A colleague and I have been talking about doing a project that isn't clearly defined at the moment. In talking about where we might do it, it became obvious: not Africa. The data doesn't exist, and it's too difficult to go out and get, which can basically shut you down. It's a big challenge when you're doing fieldwork to face an infrastructure that is ineffective.
When I became interested in studying female disadvantage early on, India and China became two very obvious areas to focus on. For one, these are two very large places with a history of female disadvantage. And they have rich stores of data in social elements like this, though getting data from China can be very difficult.
In India, I was able to ask questions about sex imbalance across the population and - in settings in which girls are disadvantaged in health - whether giving access to better health care would make them better off. I was able to get answers because the data was there.
Where will your research take you next?
I am very interested in obesity and preventative health care in general and behavior change in this context. It's an idea that has been in the back of my mind, without any great notions yet about what I would do with it or how to get at it. It just seems to me like an incredibly important health issue.
We all kind of understand for ourselves what the solution is on a personal level, and also understand how difficult it is, too. I feel like there is something very important and interesting about that.