The premise of this article is that outcomes of economic models and process analyses of anthropology are both essential for understanding social phenomena, including those surrounding the commons. An explanation of any model outcome is invariably about process and structure—the outcomes of several models are compatible with many different causal processes. Anthropologists also pay equal attention to exclusions and inclusions, to the said as well as the unsaid. In that spirit, one must ask if models of resource management that are silent on, for example, influence or the desire for dignity implicitly suggest that these factors are less important to cooperation than economic and ecological factors. This article argues that policy advice has to take into account the explicit findings of a model as well as its silences. Finally, anthropologists are critical of economic models for their simplicity and allegedly obvious outcomes. But models of common‐pool resources can and do provide anthropologists with points of departure for their own research. Additionally, models can surprise us with counterintuitive results, especially with respect to emergent phenomena. Such results should be an invitation to anthropologists to investigate new social processes that were hitherto not anticipated.
In this essay we argue that the key barriers to interdisciplinary work between economists and anthropologists are differences of methodology and epistemology—in what the two disciplines consider important to explain and how they evaluate the criteria for a good explanation. The essay is an introduction to three articles, on economics, anthropology, and the question of the commons, that illustrate some of these differences and that suggest both the potential and the pitfalls of trying to bridge these methodological gaps. Our goal is not somehow to resolve the differences. Rather, we are motivated by the belief that understanding what is important to the other discipline, and seeing the differences in the light of that understanding, is important for interdisciplinary work and for respectful conversation. We have highlighted three dichotomies that are emblematic of some of these differences: autonomy versus embeddedness, outcomes versus processes, and parsimony versus complexity. We hope that our discussion leads economists and anthropologists to reexamine the assumptions and modes of analysis that prevail within the disciplines and to open up new conversations in new directions.