Steven Samford

Steven Samford

Kellogg Institute Visiting Fellow
University of Notre Dame

"High-Road Development in Low-Tech Industry: Co-producing Innovation in the Mexican Ceramics Sector"

Tuesday, February 5, 2013
12:30pm - C103 Hesburgh Center

When threatened by international competition, small firms have the option of responding by squeezing wages and working conditions or by upgrading their skills and equipment. Given that small firms employ the vast majority of workers in the developing world, and that developing countries are increasingly open to global competition, the choice of “low road” or “high road” strategies has grave consequences for individual welfare and national development. Which firms upgrade with improved techniques and technologies? Which resort to ruthless cost cutting?

I address this variation in a single case by examining the Mexican government’s efforts to develop and disseminate a lead-free glaze to the roughly 10,000 workshops in the ceramics sector in Mexico. I find that upgrading is most likely to occur among firms that are tied to one another through formal organizations, which creates social ties that act as conduits for the flow of information about technology and markets. Particular clusters of producers are more likely to see upgrading where state agents coordinate their efforts to diffuse the new technology with existing networks in the cluster.

In other words, coordinated state inputs (knowledge) and social inputs (networks) have been necessary for what Elinor Ostrom called the “co-production” of upgrading and improved labor conditions. 

Steven Samford (PhD, University of New Mexico) is a Kellogg Institute visiting fellow for the 2012–13 academic year. With research interests in comparative political economy, globalization, and development and a focus on Latin America, he has studied the politics of innovation in low-tech industries in developing countries.

At Kellogg, he is working on the book manuscript “Coproducing Innovation: State-Society Relations and the Production and Diffusion of Technology in Mexico.” Expanding on his dissertation, the research examines how artisanal producers of ceramics, and small producers more generally, grapple with the demanding standards of globalized markets.  He explores why some small producers respond with “low road” strategies that undermine wages and working conditions while others take the “high road” to become globally competitive.

Samford’s research, which is based on extensive fieldwork in Mexico, draws on social network and statistical analysis of an original survey and interviews with producers and officials.  Preliminary findings focus on optimal ways for state agents and producers to interact, speeding the flow of information about technology and markets and increasing the likelihood of the adoption of new ideas.