Here are a few ideas about how population thinking applies to various institutions, to be elaborated in some future posting:
Yochai Benkler’s peer-production arguments are based on population thinking. He explores the implications of recruiting project members from large populations, where the potential members have substantial variation in “fit” to the project.
Eric Raymond’s reasoning in “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” is based on population thinking in ways similar to Benkler’s (not surprisingly). “With many eyes all bugs are shallow” only makes sense in the context of a population with the appropriate variation in debugging skills. The whole “bazaar” idea is basically a population-based approach, while “cathedrals” (in Raymond’s usage) very much attempt to approximate ideal types. (Cathedral construction was probably much more population-based in real cases.)
Large open source projects are decisively population oriented. Consideration of these projects brings to the surface a central problem in applying population thinking to institutions. At any given time much of the structure and activity is defined by a small number of participants, and it is hard to regard them as a “population” – their individual characteristics and their relationships have a big influence on the project. Over a somewhat longer time scale, however, the populations (of users, contributors, partners, etc.) in which they are embedded have a major and often decisive influence on the evolution of the project. Often the core group is replaced over time (usually voluntarily) and the replacement process depends on the larger populations as much as the prior structure of the core group. (I’m talking here as though there was a clear boundary for the core group, but of course that is importantly incorrect. The core group merges into the population and individuals can migrate smoothly in and out, without necessarily crossing any clear-cut boundaries.)
Large companies should probably be understood (and managed) largely in terms of population thinking. Legal frameworks impose a significant amount of typological structure on companies (corporations, tax rules, accounting rules, etc. etc.). However when a company of more than a few people succeeds it is because of population dynamics – the dynamics of the internal population structure, and the dynamics of the external populations of potential partner companies and/or populations of individual customers.
The only workable view of science that I know is population based. (Often this is called “evolutionary epistemology”, but a lot of work still has to be done to figure out why science works so much better at generating knowledge than other institutions, even given the evolutionary framework.) Previous views, and most current views, attempt to find “rules” for scientific activity that guarantee (an approximation to) “truth” – obviously typological thinking, and more importantly clearly wrong; this “rule governed” approach can’t be made to work either retrospectively (trying to account for the real history of science) or prospectively (trying to give scientists recipes for how to do their job).
Operations like Ebay depend critically on population thinking. Ebay is a place for populations to coordinate. (Not so much true of Amazon, though the book reviews etc are population oriented.)
Duncan Foley has shown that population models of economic activity (using thermodynamics) can produce economic equilibria that model real economic data better than the standard neo-classical mechanisms (which are based on deterministic auction processes). Furthermore the equilibria produced by these population models are much more robust than neo-classical equilibria under random perturbation. Also the neo-classical process of convergence to equilibrium depends on absurd assumptions about the rationality of the participants and the information processing capacity of the market mechanisms; the assumptions required for a population approach are completely reasonable.