Varieties of Experimentalism

Posted: 5 Aug 2014 Last revised: 19 Jul 2016

See all articles by Christopher K. Ansell

Christopher K. Ansell

University of California, Berkeley

Martin Bartenberger

Leiden University - Institute of Political Science

Date Written: October 6, 2016


Across a range of disciplines and issues, experimentalism has emerged as a prominent approach for addressing environmental problems. Yet the meaning of “experiment” varies markedly across these domains. We survey the diversity of experimentation, identifying three distinct experimental logics — controlled, Darwinian, and generative. Building on Pragmatist philosophy, we argue that each of these logics has different strengths and weaknesses, but taken together they offer a valuable experimentalist approach to environmental problem-solving. However, from a transdisciplinary perspective, it is important to recognize the different values, purposes, and stances toward knowledge that they entail. Controlled experiments primarily aim to isolate causality, while Darwinian experimentation endeavors to enhance systemic innovation and generative experimentation seeks to generate new solution concepts. Appreciating these differences allows us to be more reflexive about an experimentalist agenda, illuminating the appropriate role of these logics and suggesting possibilities for fruitfully combining them. To advance this reflexive agenda, we also distinguish between epistemic and political learning and argue that experimental approaches to environmental problem-solving may benefit from being more sensitive to this distinction.

Keywords: Experimentalism, Pragmatism, Randomized Control Trials, Environmental Policy, Adaptive Management, Democratic Experimentalism, Experimentalist Governance

Suggested Citation

Ansell, Christopher K. and Bartenberger, Martin, Varieties of Experimentalism (October 6, 2016). Ecological Economics, Vol. 130, 2016, Available at SSRN: or

Christopher K. Ansell

University of California, Berkeley ( email )

310 Barrows Hall
Berkeley, CA 94720
United States

Martin Bartenberger (Contact Author)

Leiden University - Institute of Political Science ( email )

Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences
PO Box 9555
Leiden, 2300 RB

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