Emergence of Institutions for the Commons: Contexts, Situations, and Events
Bonnie J. McCay
For my part in this common endeavor, I was asked to consider the emergence of institutions for common-pool resources and “the commons.” My goal is to use the topic of emergence to present ideas and research that modify and supplement the neo-institutional effort, providing ideas about new directions for common property research. The notion of “situated choice” frames my discussion of emergence. Although closely linked to the neo-institutionalist endeavor through the focus on choice, it is tied even more closely to a critical perspective on commons research that emphasizes the embeddedness of the individual and rational choice in larger contexts and in particular situations that can only be known through investigations into history, political dynamics and social structure, culture, and ecology. Consequently, in addition to an effort to think through what might be involved in the emergence of institutions for the commons, I address larger methodological and theoretical issues.
My ideas about institutions and the commons owe a great deal to the large body of institutionalist and rational choice literature that informs the rest of this volume and the collective effort behind it. Underpinned by a “rational action model” (Dietz, 1994) of human behavior and the mechanics of “free rider” and “prisoners’ dilemma” situations, much of the “neo-institutionalist” work on common-pool resources has focused on incentive structures and group dynamics that change the perceived costs and benefits to individuals to favor more cooperative action (e.g., Bromley, 1992; Agrawal, this volume:Chapter 2).
The cultural, historical, and ecological approach that I advocate calls for a somewhat different perspective on institutions than is currently dominant in common-pool resource studies. Institutions are more than “rules of the game in society” (North, 1990:3). Rules and rule making have proved a fruitful focus of in-
quiry in understanding commons institutions (e.g., Bromley, 1989; Ostrom, 1990). Rules, law, and governance are major institutions affecting human behavior. However, many social scientists see institutions as including not only rules but also norms and values (McCay and Jentoft, 1998; Scott, 1995), and at the very least as including both rules and the patterns of behavior that may or may not be shaped by rules and lead to changes in them (Leach et al., 1997). Accordingly, the emergence of institutions for the commons should include not only rules and governance systems but also new and changed patterns of behavior and norms and values. For example, changing perceptions of the environment or patterns of supply and demand can change human behavior on a fairly large scale without involving the social dynamics and political behavior involved in making and changing rules. Consequently, I assume a broader conception of institutions that includes patterned behavior as well as rules and that locates institutions as major features of the cultural, cognitive, and ecological realms within which acting and decision-making individuals and social groups are embedded.
In emphasizing the importance of “situation” and “context,” I join those who believe that a fuller and more satisfactory account would include the possibility of irrational and arational action and of motivations beyond narrowly pecuniary ones. It also would rely less on methodological individualism than the classic neo-institutional approaches do. Methodological individualism starts with the individual as the heuristic in understanding the behavior of groups. It frames “commons” questions as ones that are about the bases of cooperation or about how individual motivations and actions affect the collective. So far so good, but these frames also marginalize huge sets of phenomena that concern interrelations among collectivities as well as how the choices and actions of individuals are embedded in, influenced by, and constitutive of larger social and cultural phenomena (Peters, 1987). A more cultural and historical approach in human ecology sees “commons” questions as ones about competition and collaboration among social entities; the embeddedness of individual and social action; and the historical, political, sociocultural, and ecological specificity of human-environment interactions and institutions. It suspends or at least calls into question the methodological individualism that is associated with rational action models. In theory all institutions and social actions could be reduced to the individual level. However, reducing complex local situations and local and larger institutions to individuals is not always necessary or appropriate for adequate explanation, the requirements for which are contingent on the question being asked and the particulars of the phenomenon being studied.
STRUCTURE OF THE CHAPTER
In the first section of this chapter I focus on the assigned “emergence” question, using the notion of “situated choice” to underscore the importance of contexts and situations when attempting to explain the behavior of people faced with
choices related to common-pool resources. The discussion builds on work done in health psychology and risk studies, but it should be clear that it calls for a far more social, political, and ecological perspective than usually found in those research traditions or in the neo-institutionalist tradition of common-pool resource studies. For example, I discuss matters such as the role of culture in appraisals of environmental problems, why incrementalism or “muddling through” helps in the provision of institutions, and the importance of physical and social spaces and open communication for deliberation about common problems. The second section of the chapter reviews alternatives to the neo-institutionalist paradigm for understanding commons problems. I begin by introducing two approaches in human ecology that may be helpful in understanding commons problems and the emergence of institutions. The older one is the “economics of flexibility” or “response process” approach developed and used mostly during the 1970s. The newer one is “political ecology.” I then discuss the broader set of historical, social constructionist, and “embeddedness” perspectives that underpin many critiques of common-pool resource studies and the importance of being specific and critical about key concepts, in this case “community.” The third section brings together social constructionism and “event ecology,” emphasizing the methodological points shared by otherwise seemingly strange bedfellows. Among the shared perspectives is concern about adopting a priori any particular theory or hypothesis if the goal is to understand and explain human-environment interactions.
SITUATED RATIONAL CHOICE AND THE EMERGENCE OF INSTITUTIONS FOR THE COMMONS
A start toward bringing together the rational choice approach and theoretical and methodological approaches in the social sciences that emphasize context and sociality may be found in the notion of situated or embedded rational choice. Rational choices are embedded in situations or contexts that structure the preferences people have, the knowledge available to them, its quality and levels of uncertainty, the risks they face, the resources to which they have access, the people with whom they interact, and more, including the institutions—norms, rules, values, organizations, and patterns of behavior—that frame and structure their lives.
Neo-institutional models of behavior play a major role in this discussion of the emergence of institutions. The analytic and rhetorical power of such models cannot be denied. The idea of “situated rational choice” is that rational choice is affected strongly by the situation of the individual or other decision-making entity, with situation defined in social, cultural, political, and ecological terms as relevant to contexts that are specified in historical, geographic, and other ways. It is an incremental move toward an analytic orientation that gives stronger methodological and theoretical weight to the complexity, history and dynamics, and in-
teractive features of social and environmental phenomena (e.g., McCay and Acheson, 1987a; Leach et al., 1997).
The study of risk perception and human behavior (Chess et al., 1995; Gardner and Stern, 1996; National Research Council, 1996), has been helpful to me in thinking about the emergence of common-pool resource institutions. Problems affecting the sustainability of natural resources or the viability of livelihoods based on those resources may be viewed as situations of risk: the risk of losing access to and the use of something valuable and essential to the life of a person, a family, a community. Many common-pool resource issues are classic ones of risk, such as the contamination of water, air, and soil. But the concept of risk can be extended to changes in the condition of renewable natural resources as well. How people—individuals, organizations, communities, bodies of experts—are affected by and perceive those risks is critical to whether and how they respond, including responses that affect the emergence of institutions for reducing or preventing those risks.
Take, for example, the risk of illness and death from exposure to natural or anthropogenic sources of the gas radon. The kind of question typically asked in this research tradition concerns voluntary individual action: Why do some people voluntarily test their homes and make structural changes to reduce their exposure to radon, and others do not? What leads people to adopt precautions to protect themselves from threats of exposure to radon?
The answer is interesting and important to the notion of situated rational choice. According to Weinstein and Sandman (1992), it all depends: Some people do not know or understand the threat of radon in their homes; others know but do not see it as serious to themselves personally; others are at a different stage, seeking or perhaps assessing information about what can be done about the problem; yet others have concluded that they can or cannot afford to address the problem, given their resources and what they know about it. Only a few are actually receptive to educational campaigns. This is a good example of the experimental and observational research done by health psychologists that shows that the responses of people to perceived risks to their lives and health are contingent on the so-called “stage” they are in with respect to recognizing the problem and adopting some precaution or taking other action (Weinstein et al., 1998). Although the notion of stages implies an unfolding process of linked events, it also can be viewed as a decision-tree or a step-wise series of situations. The idea of “situation” and “situated rational choice” applies to the “stages” or decision-points, which may or may not be part of a predictable process (cf. Vayda et al., 1991). It is reasonable to conclude that answering questions about what leads people to change how they act—including actions that affect institutions with respect to common-pool resources—similarly requires analysis of their situations.
Translated into the domain of concern about common-pool resources and related environmental problems, the theory becomes the following: Depending
on their situations, some people simply may be unaware of environmental problems; others may be aware but not convinced they can do anything about them; and others simply may not have the resources required to do something about them or may reckon that the effort is not worth it, given costs and other obligations. Some may be in a situation and have the interests and resources that affect their decisions about whether to participate in or support collective action, whether through existing political forums or through social movements (Stern et al., 1999). As will be shown, addressing the question of emergence of institutions this way can lead to important insights and expanded arenas of inquiry.
The following ideas about the emergence of institutions that relate to the use and management of common-pool resources thus are guided by a situated rational choice perspective—what is reasonable for an individual, or group of individuals, given the situation. However, the emphasis on situations also leads to a more social, political, and ecological perspective on the nature and explanatory importance of those situations and their contexts.
The Step-Wise Model of Situated Rational Choice
The emergence of institutions for governance of common-pool resources will depend on several step-wise conditions. To begin, is a problem calling for institutional change actually recognized by the people involved, particularly the people with the resources and power required to make changes? How serious is this problem compared with other issues as well as with past experience? Will it merit being put on the agenda of individuals, households, firms, social movement organizations, government agencies, or other actors?
Recognition of a Serious Problem
Attributes of the resource or environmental system make a big difference to these situations: Can people really know what is happening? Do they perceive changes in the environment that may signal problems with common-pool resources? Can they distinguish transient and local from persistent and large-scale problems? For example, for the Koyukon people of northern Alaska, moose and caribou differ significantly with implications for how people think about and act toward them. Moose are less migratory, and more territorial, and tend to be found alone or in small groups; consequently, people know more about particular moose and their habits, and the moose are less likely than caribou to be hunted by different groups of people (see Nelson, 1983). For the Miskito Indians of the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua, the presence, absence, and abundance of sea turtles off their shores seemed to have little to do with their own behavior, even when they began intensive commercial harvesting (see Nietschmann, 1973). Decline in turtle catches was interpreted as being due to the fact that turtles simply had gone some
where else. This interpretation has a certain rationality given the fact that the sea turtles do migrate over huge areas and are at their most vulnerable, when egg laying, far from the shores of Nicaragua.
In addition, some kinds of common-pool resource problems are inherently difficult to perceive and assess, particularly those that are very diffuse, mostly invisible and intangible, and not easily associated with particular consequences. The most obvious examples are exposures to radiation, air and water pollution, and toxic emissions and wastes, where uncertainty plays a major role in the construction of personal understandings of risk but also in the political deliberative processes (Freudenberg, 1988).
Attributes of experience and social organization and political system also make a difference, for example, to the ability of common-pool resource users to communicate and teach others about what they see as a problem and to deliberate the seriousness of the problem in comparison with the past and other issues. The challenge is to get people’s attention, to put it on the agenda. Social structure and culture can play a major role in determining which phenomena will be defined as risky as well as levels of risk and general notions about risk and the environment as discussed later in the chapter. They also influence the distribution of knowledge and expertise, whether widely shared or the closely guarded treasure of a few, as well as how effectively experts can communicate with the larger community.
Many cases of the nonemergence of self-governance can be due to difficulties at the level of problem recognition and placement on an “agenda.” Some groups may not be able to appreciate the magnitude of the problems confronting them (such as declining productivity of an estuary or increased soil erosion due to grazing practices) because of the subtlety, novelty, or stochasticity of the ecological systems or because of imperfections in their monitoring systems. They may be unaware of or disinterested in the public goods (such as biodiversity or watershed quality) associated with their private uses (e.g., Gibson and Becker, 2000). If some people in the group do recognize the problem, they may or may not be able to communicate it effectively to others and get it onto the larger agenda, depending on their position in the social hierarchy, the social legitimacy of their knowledge versus other sources of knowledge, and other social-situational factors. Cultural understandings of human-environment relations can affect the definition of problems and the potential for solutions. In complex socioeconomic systems, some people are affected more than others, and differing interests and access to political power and communicative resources greatly affect the agenda. Examples include situations involving environmentalist nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), resource-dependent local communities, and extraction companies, but actual situations are likely to be even more complex and nuanced (for example, elite members of a local community making special deals with either the NGOs or the companies) (Sawyer, 1996). The agenda can be shaped heavily by national ideology and politics as well, as is the case for interpretations of
grasslands decline in China and Inner Mongolia (Williams, 2000). In addition, where there is a high degree of uncertainty about the environmental problems, as is often the case in fisheries as well as in many toxic exposure situations, there is even more scope for conflict and opportunistic behavior by special interests (Wilson and McCay, 1999).
Finally, in some situations, the predicted response of most people and social entities is “so what?” During civil war or a famine, protecting a forest or water supply is not likely to galvanize action. The critical and scarce resource is the ability to survive. “So what” can also be the response when new opportunities arise quickly, before existing institutions can respond to them (or are overwhelmed by them). For example, if most people in a community are making money from the destructive practice of dynamiting fish on a coral reef, protecting that reef is not likely to happen unless someone can provide alternative resources and motivations (see Alcala and Russ, 1990).
Determining Cause and Effect
Once on the agenda, a whole new set of questions arises. Do people see and accept any cause-and-effect or action-and-consequence relationship between their behavior and the environment issue at hand? (This also affects whether the problem gets onto the agenda.) If they do, is the situation viewed as something that can be corrected or that is “too far gone”?
In many situations, because of culture, past experience, or the inherent disconnects between perceived action and perceived consequences, people do not accept that their actions or the actions of other people have any real effect on the resources in question, either as causes of problems or as potential sources of solutions. Carrier (1987) shows this for Ponam Islanders of Papua New Guinea, who believed that God, not people, caused change in fish, shellfish, and turtles, and thus were unwilling to accept the need to change their harvesting practices being promulgated by people concerned about major declines in some of these resources. Similarly, many New England fishermen have resisted changes in fishery management because they were convinced that chaotic-like processes in nature had long resulted in cycles of abundance and decline, and thus that restrictions on their catches would do little good (Smith, 1990; see Wilson, this volume:Chapter 10).
The role played by such dismissals or suspicions of human agency is likely to be greater with respect to resources that are difficult to monitor (i.e., fast-moving fish versus stationary shellfish; or fish versus trees). Other ecological factors are important as well, such as variability and uncertainty. As noted already, features of the natural world influence whether people are able to accurately see what is happening to a common-pool resource, much less appraise the effects of human activities on it and predict what happens next. However, one should not focus too much on features of the natural environment at the expense
of recognizing ethno-ecological and cosmological differences in knowledge systems and philosophy. These differences are found among academic cultures as well. Nearly a generation of postmodern critical theory and analysis has shown how much our representations of the natural and social worlds are shaped by social facts and cultural preconceptions (e.g., Soulé and Lease, 1995). They are very imperfect mirrors of a reality we are hard pressed to know about, much less to care for.
Culture plays a major role in how people assign causation and link events to consequences. One fairly well-developed way of incorporating culture into this kind of analysis is the “cultural theory” of anthropologist Douglas and political scientist Wildavsky (1982). They posit deep-rooted “cultural biases” that affect how people see cause and effect and appropriate action, as well as whether people will be concerned about the natural environment and be likely to act on that concern. They identified egalitarianism, hierarchy, individualism, and fatalism as the generic biases, which are distributed differently within and among societies and cultures. The biases express broad differences in the understanding of causes and consequences of environmental change and of the proper way of dealing with them, including reliance on authorities (hierarchy), individual behavior (individualism), possible collective action (egalitarianism), and leaving it to fate. Subject to much criticism (Rosa, 1996; Johnson and Griffith, 1996; cf. Stern et al., 1999), this approach nonetheless highlights the importance of culture. It is also another reminder of the evolving multidisciplinary area of research on risk perception and behavior, which articulates with the common property research tradition at several points.
One of the dangers of “cultural theory” lies in esssentialism: In these accounts, people are or are not “individualists” or “fatalists,” and so on. Situation specificity should apply here, too, to capture the differences and changes in culture apparent in a particular situation. I noted that many New England fishermen have resisted changes in fishery management because they were convinced that chaotic-like processes in nature had long resulted in cycles of abundance and decline, and thus that restrictions on their catches would do little good (Smith, 1990). It is quite possible that this perception of nature, and especially its rhetorical use in public forums, was socially constructed in the course of decades-long conflicts over fisheries management in New England (see Miller and van Maanen, 1979) as well as in encounters with nature. Certainly the expression of this perception in the contexts depicted by Smith (1990) was skeptical and oppositional. In recent years, the use of such skeptical ideologies in adversarial encounters has begun to decline, as the contours of conflict have shifted such that New England fishermen are more likely to accept their role in the decline of fish stocks and seek a greater role in research and management (see Wilson, this volume:Chapter 10). From another, related analytic perspective, the cultural dimension is less about an overall, holistic “culture” than about how particular problems are framed, or socially constructed. To many fishermen in the New England and Mid-Atlan-
tic regions, such problems appear to be framed more in terms of the need to protect their livelihoods against intrusive outsiders, but for conservationists it was framed as the need to protect the fish populations in the context of what they viewed as a situation of industry “capture” of the regulatory institutions.
Moving on to the next step: If there is acceptance of a serious problem and the possibility that human behavior has contributed to it, another question that arises is whether the problem is “too far gone” by the time it is recognized and accepted (Ostrom, 2001). Members of the community may decide that they can do nothing about it. And doing something about it may prove very difficult. Hanna’s (1995) analysis of user participation in fishery management in the Pacific coast of the United States showed the difficulties of sustaining cooperation where the natural resource had declined sharply.
In sum, institutions for common-pool resource management may or may not arise depending on whether people accept that human behavior is a cause of problems, agree on whether some kind of regulation or other institutional change is called for, and believe the situation is not too far gone to do something about it.
What to Do and Whether It Is Worth Doing
In theory, even though people may be in a situation of recognizing and being concerned about a salient risk or environmental problem, nothing will happen unless they see possible solutions to the problem that they can take, individually or collectively, and then, whether they can weigh the costs and benefits of the alternatives and act on them. One or more of the alternatives must be seen as affordable and potentially effective to be considered worthwhile (Weinstein et al., 1998). Moreover, accepting human agency (one’s own or someone else’s) as a cause of common-pool resource or environmental problems does not necessarily mean acceptance of the need for institutional changes. Unless the institutional frameworks already exist, these changes can be very costly, and there may be considerable uncertainty about whether existing or new measures will actually work.
For many common-pool resources, particularly the wild ones we often call “natural resources,” there is a high level of uncertainty about their behavior and dynamics. In addition, in situations dominated by bureaucratic structures, the issue of whether something will work may get lost because of lack of will and resources to plan for evaluation and adaptation of measures undertaken as well as because of conflict (Lee, 1993). Conflict is a major problem. A typical social response to perceptions of scarcity or other manifestations of trouble with a common resource is to exclude others from using that resource (Oakerson, 1992). This immediately raises the likelihood of conflict. As Bruce (1999) has shown in an overview of challenges to common property institutions for forest management (see also Pendzich et al., 1994), these and other conflicts, including internal
ones, can defeat attempts to create or change appropriate management institutions. Because of competing claims and interests, managing the commons often is tinged with fear and violence as well as competing and discordant uses.
To sum the argument to this point, let me address the topic of this chapter in terms of how to explain the nonemergence of institutions for managing the commons. Nonemergence may come about because some people simply are unaware of environmental or common-pool resource problems. That is their situation. Others may be aware but not convinced they can do anything about them, given their situations. In some situations the problem is inability to come up with acceptable and reasonable ways to deal with the problematic conditions. And in others, it may be a matter of people not having the resources required to do something about the problem or reckoning that the effort is not worth it, given costs and other competing obligations, not to mention fear of reprisal from those with other interests and inability to resolve conflicts.
Building on Existing Institutions
From a rational choice perspective, the existence of institutions that can be adapted for new purposes may be extremely important to the emergence of self-governance of common-pool resources (Ostrom, 1990). They can lower transaction costs, providing the decision-making structures, enforcement powers, experiences, and cultural expectations that otherwise might have to be created anew and at great economic and political expense. Accordingly, the emergence of institutions is as likely as not to be a case of adapting or redirecting institutions that already exist and were created for other purposes. One example from the Shetland Islands is a community-based thrift institution that has become the vehicle for an innovative method of ensuring community benefits from privatized fishing rights (Goodlad, 1999).
It is tempting to suggest that institutions for managing the commons are more likely to be ones that had their genesis in situations of conflicting claims to common-pool resources than ones that came about in situations in which people became aware of depletion or degradation per se. Most of the “sea tenure” institutions in fisheries (Cordell, 1989) were constructed in response to user conflicts rather than resource sustainability concerns. Rules, norms, and other institutions mitigate conflict by coordinating the use of fishing grounds and techniques. They also are created to protect groups against other groups, through creating exclusive territories (Acheson, 1987) or restricting the use of particular techniques and outlawing waste disposal in fishing grounds (Stocks, 1987). This is not to deny the existence and value of conservation-oriented behaviors. In fisheries the value of many such institutions has been amply documented, but with the interesting finding that in hardly any cases is the amount of catch actually controlled, in contrast with controls over access, timing, spacing, and other factors (Acheson and Wilson, 1996; Schlager, 1994). Hence, “indigenous conservation” is actually “indig-
enous conflict management” in many cases. Polunin (1984) makes a similar argument for the many and various systems of complex sea tenure arrangements in Indonesia and New Guinea, in the context of concern about overreliance on these “indigenous” sea tenure institutions for a task toward which many were not designed: preventing resource decline.
Many cases of indigenous groups trying to create institutions for the commons are also good reminders of the danger of assuming that “conservation” or protecting the “sustainability” of local resources is always or properly the goal. As shown in many parts of Latin America, struggles to claim or gain recognition for common property by indigenous groups are often struggles for territory and for cultural identity vis-à-vis other claimants (Bruce, 1999:53). Prolonged political and other forms of conflict often are required before these groups gain the legal and political recognition they seek (Pendzich et al., 1994). In many cases, the goal of attempts to create institutions for the commons is less finding ways to address local resource scarcities or environmental problems than to protect against incursions from outsiders or to claim, or reassert, cultural identities and political power. Whether success in achieving those goals provides the wherewithal and motivation to develop appropriate internal rules for managing the commons for sustainability is another question. Arguably, it is a critical step, the basis for the boundary definition, local autonomy, and other “design principles” of managing local commons (Ostrom, 1990), but it may or may not lead to management beyond the exclusion of outsiders.
Conflicts do, of course, come about because of the very scarcities or threats to common resources that may prompt people to create or change institutions, making it difficult to separate conflict from conservation. A common response to resource scarcity is to try to exclude others (Oakerson, 1992). Those others may dispute the claims, leading to conflict. Indeed, the entire process of creating institutions for the commons can be highly conflictual, and finding ways to effectively resolve conflicts can be a critical task. As Bruce (1999:53) notes, “Disputing can harass and exhaust, and ultimately lead to the dissolution of common property institutions.”
The development of institutions for conflict management and attempts to convert them to conservation purposes can be seen at national and international levels, too. In the course of the Law of the Sea proceedings of the 1970s and 1980s, nations eagerly grabbed 200 nautical miles off their coasts as exclusive territory or “extended economic zones” (EEZs) while paying little attention to the requirement that they manage their own fisheries as well as restrict outsiders’ fisheries in the new EEZs (Hoel, 2000). Regional institutions and organizations also have developed from similar bases, and the challenge today is their reorientation for sustainable resource use and conservation (Hall, 1998; Noonan, 1998).
There is also “indigenous marketing management.” McCay (1980) and Berkes and Pocock (1987) report on fisheries cooperatives that do limit catches, exceptions to the finding noted earlier. In those cases, the intended reason for
controlling the amount of fish caught and landed by member fishers is to prevent oversupply to local markets rather than to prevent overfishing. The goal for common-pool resource management concerns prices and other market conditions, not levels of abundance of the resource per se. One question that arises from this observation is whether this is a legitimate case of common-pool resource management. Much of the literature seems to assume that the goal is sustainable levels of resource available for use (i.e., “conservation”), but “management” is a broader concept. The emergence of institutions for common-pool resource management that focus on specific marketing or other economic issues should not be marginalized simply because resource conservation is not a principal intention. Rather, more respect should be accorded to systems like these that manage to develop some degree of self-regulation, in the context of shared rights and competition, and often, if incidental to the main intended purpose, support biological conservation goals as well (for an example see McCay, 1980:37). Some of the institutions that emerged because of specific and immediate economic or conflict resolution needs provide experience and infrastructure that may be used to handle other common-pool resource problems, including protecting fish stocks from overfishing and their habitats from destruction.
Horizontal and Vertical Linkages
Thus far my discussion might be read to assume isolation of a group from the outside world; it assumes that the sources of motivation for common-pool resource institutions must be internal, and it says nothing about situations where rules are imposed on common-pool resource users. External agency and resources may make all the difference. Even without accepting causal linkages between human agency and the environment, people may be persuaded to accept institutional changes because of other benefits. In many rural areas of the world, government agencies and NGOs seeking paths to sustainable development are able to convince people to cooperate with a project in “community-based” natural resource management as long as side benefits such as jobs or improved access to health care are available. External resources and actors can play an extremely important role, interacting with internal and local ones, in creating civic arenas or forums, social and political spaces for deliberation.
Broadening the analytic scope to include much larger vertical and horizontal linkages among social entities, one sees that forces external to local communities of common-pool resource users play an extremely important role in institutional change. With outside help, local communities can imitate and adapt what they see others doing and the models for change created and promulgated by government and nongovernment organizations. Thus, for example, in the tropical rain forest region of coastal Ecuador studied by Rudel (2000), one community, Playa de Oro, came up with an ecotourism-oriented sustainable forestry program using
foreign technical assistance. Within a few years, many surrounding communities have begun to develop similar programs.
Although the situations and choices of the individual decision makers are important in determining whether a community will be receptive to such opportunities, helpful explanation of the adoption of such institutional changes can be done without reference to the individual, looking instead at factors such the availability of appropriate technological approaches, the use of demonstration projects, and the existence of a network of individuals and organizations committed to the process. Much institutional activity depends on the actions of parliaments and presidents, of kings and county officials, and of organized groups and governmental forest and fisheries agencies—as well as networks and coalitions of nongovernmental, domestic, and international environment and development organizations (Stonich, 1996). Consequently, the question of emergence also should be directed at these actors and levels.
Recently, Bates and Rudel (2000) did this in a cross-national study of how to explain the creation of parks in the forested humid tropics. They theorize a general process, beginning with perception of a threat to wild areas or biodiversity because of the activities of coalitions of companies, politicians, and landowners. Whether this provokes the creation of counter-coalitions on the part of environmentalists and others depends in part on how compelling the problem appears to be. Take the case of deforestation. If deforestation rates are very rapid, and if relatively little is left, then the chances of a major response are greater than where the country has many rich forests left. Thus the ultimate cause of park creation is the mobilization of a countercoalition. But that is not enough for an adequate explanation. What happens next depends on whether the governments sense broad popular support and whether they have resources to create and manage parks. It is equally important to focus on proximate causes such as the political conditions that support park creation, which may include various manifestations of “green imperialism,” including political pressure of conservation groups on international lending organizations or regional development banks, or the activities of groups such as the Nature Conservancy, which use the “power of the purse” to shape the political agendas of environmental groups. One also would need to examine the social and ecological conditions affecting the behavior of those groups.
Clearly “the outside” is very important. In some poor rural regions of developing countries, there are fewer local organizations and other features of civic society than in wealthier areas (Esman and Uphoff, 1984). Consequently, the emergence of institutions often means involving insiders and outsiders, resource users and development workers or resource managers. “Co-management” is one way to talk about this, but it may be too narrow, if it implies as it has in fisheries contexts—a simple arrangement between a group of resource users and a government agency. Interests and issues are often more diverse.
Emergence of viable commons institutions may thus depend on the creation of large multistakeholder organizations, or “encompassing organizations,” as
Rudel (2000) discusses in his study of Ecuadorian attempts at sustainable development. In that case, a “coordinating unit” was created (using a model tried out in Mexico) that represented local communities, timber companies, government agencies, environmental NGOs, and foreign assistance groups. It became a forum for discussion and debate on sustainable forestry issues, and a civic arena for bargaining and making compromises and tradeoffs, as well as communication. For example, the small local communities were able to improve the terms of trade with the timber companies because they could exchange information on deals offered and cooperate in demanding better prices. The timber companies also benefit by getting the communities to agree on a workable policy for sales of timber land. Watershed associations are excellent examples in the North, facilitated by the existence of a strong civic society.
When common-pool resource users are faced with the need to invest time, energy, money, and other resources in developing or changing self-governing institutions, the rational choice of free-rider strategies can overwhelm the effort. A “privileged group” may be able to counteract free riding by investing enough to provide benefits and eventually cajole others into contributing—or change the rules in ways that further marginalize or exclude most of the free riders. That is a side benefit of social stratification or unequal distribution of wealth and power that can make a great difference to the emergence of common-pool resource institutions. However, another way out of this collective action bind most likely available to groups with relatively equal power is to make institutional changes in small, incremental steps, starting small and cheap, the so-called “muddling through” method of public policy making (Lindblom, 1959). Ostrom (1990) showed this in her analysis of the efforts at collective action among private and public water rights holders in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Small steps have low initial costs and the prospect of early successes, which can change the decision-making environment (Ostrom, 1990:137): “Each institutional change transformed the structure of incentives within which future strategic decisions would be made.”
A second benefit of “still muddling, not yet through,” as Lindblom called it in 1979, is that a go-slow, incremental approach to problem solving may be a very wise strategy vis-à-vis complicated and highly uncertain ecological systems. This was a major lesson we learned when engaged in a program intended to restore productivity to shellfish in New Jersey’s bays (McCay, 1988). Given the high level of ignorance and uncertainty concerning clam biology and estuarine hydrodynamics in the area, we found that an incremental approach, where we acted without full prior examination of the situation and alternatives, was very helpful. Although we failed to increase the productivity of clams in the bay by the method we selected, we also reduced ignorance and uncertainty because our
method was designed to allow us to learn more about causes of declining productivity and to refine both goals and means. When “muddling through” is combined with efforts to learn and the capacity to adapt, or “adaptive management” (Walters, 1986), it can contribute to the emergence of effective common-pool resource institutions.
OLD AND NEW DIRECTIONS IN COMMON-POOL RESOURCE STUDIES
The previous discussion is influenced heavily by mainstream and also by less well-known and emerging traditions in studies of common property and, more generally, human ecology. My goal in the rest of the chapter is to highlight the less familiar and newer traditions that have influenced my own thoughts and are of potential interest to other scholars and practitioners.
Actor-Focused Ecology and the Economics of Flexibility
The value of muddling through processes, through which initial changes are small, relatively cheap, and not necessarily informed by consideration of larger values and goals, is similar to an argument made by Bateson (1963, 1972) and Slobodkin (Slobodkin and Rapoport, 1974; Slobodkin, 1968) concerning the “economics of flexibility” in evolution and adaptation. From that perspective, developed by human ecologists in the 1970s, responding adaptively involves not only deploying resources to cope with the immediate problem, but also leaving reserves (the source of flexibility) for future contingencies (Vayda and McCay, 1975:294). Minimal, less costly, and more reversible responses are predicted to occur first. If an environmental problem worsens or is not adequately met by the initial responses, “deeper,” most costly, and less reversible responses take over (McCay, 1978). In other words, there’s no point mustering the troops if you can survive by ignoring the problem or, if necessary, scare away the intruder yourself. But you may not survive, much less deal with problems like paying the rent, unless the troops are mustered. As stated by McCay (1978:415-416):
Within the “economics of flexibility” theory, minimal responses to perturbation may be valuable in providing a built-in time lag for evaluating the magnitude, duration, and other characteristics of problems, as well as the effectiveness of solutions. They therefore minimize the chance that costly and irreversible responses are activated for what might turn out to be trivial or transient problems. The implied cautiousness might also be adaptive for human actors who tend to define inherently complex problems in terms of narrow solutions on hand…and thus, as in the case of “technological fix” solutions to natural hazards…create new problems for themselves and others. However, if environmental problems persist, the costs of diversification strategies…may increase…for the actors. They are then expected to make decisions leading to increased commitment to
one or another course of action. If adaptive, the shift to “intensification” response strategies reduces some of those costs and helps restore “flexibility” to actors and their social units….
The approach was welcomed by ecological anthropologists for several reasons, including the fact that it fit nicely into a more actor-based ecology paralleling the neo-Darwinian shift in biology, in contrast with prior tendencies to relegate individuals and social groups to passive roles within cultures or systems (Vayda and McCay, 1975, 1977). The economics of flexibility can be translated into the topic at hand. For instance, if simple adjustments in technology compensate for decline in common resources, there is little reason to bother with the task of creating and changing regulatory institutions, particularly as that task can divert resources from other important issues such as finding food and shelter for one’s family. On the other hand, if those technological changes do not work, or if the environmental problem worsens or expands its scope, “deeper” or more costly changes are more likely to take effect, such as those implied in personal decisions to create or join social movements or social agreements to create, implement, and enforce regulations. To the extent that they work, they then free up the “lower level” capacities to respond to other and new issues. Governing institutions, like all leadership, are successful when they allow people to return to doing what they do best.
This line of thinking corresponds in broad outline with the work of economic historians on conditions for changes in property rights and other institutions, with a focus on transaction costs in relation to changing technology, population pressure, and other facts affecting costs and benefits of creating and maintaining new institutions (e.g., Anderson and Hill, 1977; Libecap, 1986; North, 1981). But there are some differences. As developed by human ecologists, including geographers and others (Grossman, 1977), a focus on responses to natural hazards has led to generalizations about how individual and social responses may be expected to relate to environmental variables. Temporal pattern is one class of environmental variables: The magnitude, speed of onset, duration, and relative novelty of environmental changes might be expected to affect the levels and kinds of responses (Barton, 1969). Spatial patterns also affect responses. An excellent example is the geographer Waddell’s (1975) analysis of how the Fringe Enga people of the New Guinea highlands coped with recurrent, and sometimes severe, plant-killing frosts. In addition, Vayda (1976) used the approach in his study of war in three Oceanian societies; Lees (1974) developed it in her analysis of the development of hydraulic control institutions and technology; Rudel (1980) examined automobile-related responses in the United States to the energy shortage of the early 1970s from this perspective; and Morren (1980) used it to analyze the pattern of responses to a drought in Great Britain. I used it in my analyses of responses to fisheries decline in Newfoundland (McCay, 1978, 1979) and New Jersey (McCay, 1981).
The “economics of flexibility” provides a general predictive framework for
relating the systemic “depth” of responses undertaken to various features of the environment, such as the scale, scope, and duration of the environmental hazards or risks involved. Its use also can lead to a sharper focus on institutional and political issues. For example, in my study of responses to decline in fish abundance in Newfoundland (McCay, 1978), I noted that through the 1960s, responses were initially at the level of individuals and households, and that two general strategies could be discerned: diversification (expressed through occupational pluralism, deploying different fishing techniques, and so on) and intensification (investing more in one activity). The logic of the “economics of flexibility” suggested that diversification should be the primary strategy because intensification requires greater investments and can lock people and their organizations into particular, “deeper” modes of response, becoming nearly irreversible. However, as the problem continued, and worsened, individuals and households were more likely to make intensification types of responses, including going on welfare, moving away, and buying bigger boats. There were also important social and institutional responses, including a “rural development” movement that led to the formation of a fisheries cooperative and other groups, organized to address the problems facing the fishing-dependent households and communities.
There seemed to be a graduated series of responses that articulated with worsening environmental problems as predicted. But it was puzzling that people had invested so much in the bigger boats, which seemed only to add to the problem of declining fish catches. In other words, those investing in the larger vessels appeared to have been moving too rapidly and too inappropriately, given the situation and what one might predict from any theory that emphasizes cautiousness in the face of uncertain environmental change. Exploring why that happened led to appreciation of the role of various social entities and economic and political actors outside the local community in decisions made about the future of the community. For example, the social movement that led to the creation of the cooperative and decisions to invest in new fishing technology both were shaped heavily by the involvement of government agencies, university extension workers, and particular “outsiders,” including film makers, in local matters. Such involvement, however, was also a source of the loss of local power to formulate problems and solutions, particularly the direction that the fishery would take.
The “economics of flexibility” or “response process” approach lends itself to a more open-ended methodology than implied by the task set out in relation to what we have come to know about common-pool resource research. The question is not what causes the emergence of or changes in governing rules, but rather how people with or without their institutionalized patterns of behavior respond to an environmental event (for example, a killing frost) or a series of events (for example, a series of poor fishing seasons). Responses may be small adjustments in individual behavior or in the deployment of household resources, or major investments in new technologies and resource procurement strategies. Responses may take the form of organized social action, whether raids on neighboring groups or
concerted efforts to get assistance from a government agency, or perhaps attempts to come up with effective community-based institutions for dealing with an environmental problem or its consequences. But they may not. At one time I suggested using the term “people ecology” (McCay, 1978) as a way to signal the need to avoid a priori prescriptions and assumptions about the units of action or significant factors implied in other terms used in anthropology and geography, such as cultural ecology, population ecology, systems ecology, and political ecology. People ecology was intended to suggest the value of leaving open the possibility that the significant units may be individuals, households, or various other social entities, ranging from voluntary associations and transient networks to political units such as municipalities and nations. These change in relation to changes in environmental and social situations or contexts, including the local culture and the larger political economy.
The “economics of flexibility” approach is but one of several sources of middle-range theory for understanding relationships between environmental phenomena and human behavior. Evolutionary ecology is another, particularly as it has evolved to apply optimization models and the predictions of “optimal foraging theory” to human populations (Dyson-Hudson and Smith, 1978; Smith and Winterhalder, 1992). Others are microeconomics and decision-making theory, which are, incidently, closely related to optimization models in evolutionary ecology (Rapport and Turner, 1977). The “economics of flexibility” approach shares economizing assumptions but differs by viewing flexibility, rather than efficiency or optimization, as the proximate goal of adaptive processes, and by viewing survival, rather than inclusive fitness, as the ultimate goal (Slobodkin and Rapoport, 1974). Flexibility means “uncommitted potentiality for change” (Bateson, 1972:497). The approach also is more abstract and inclusive in its application than evolutionary ecology, having been used by students of tribal horticulturists, agrarian peasants, “postpeasant” fishermen, and industrial society, not just hunter-gatherers.
Reporting on my use of the economics of flexibility approach in a study of the fishing strategies and illegal behavior of some New Jersey fishers, I argued that it is useful in stimulating a transition from studying narrowly defined environmental interactions to studying the politics of environmental problems or political ecology. However, I also posed the question: “Why use it at all when a straightforward analysis of social and political processes might do as well? The same question can be asked of optimal foraging theory: Why use it when a straightforward analysis of decision making, entrepreneurship, and their constraints might do as well, or better?” (McCay, 1981:376). Adopting theoretical approaches developed for quite specific problems and topics in evolutionary biology and ecology bears the risk of overly “naturalizing” the complex cultural,
social, and political phenomena of human ecology, or, put another way, defying the parsimony principles of Occam’s Razor.
Responding to questions like mine, geographers, anthropologists, and other social scientists have crafted the term and enterprise of “political ecology,” which is a general rubric for a wide set of approaches that make more explicit the role of human institutions and social, economic, and political forces in shaping both environmental problems and the ways people are affected by them and deal with them (Blaikie and Brookfield, 1987; Greenberg and Park, 1994). For example, so far in this chapter I’ve moved from the microscale of the rational individual to the local scale of a community of resource users in some particular place to the mesoscale of mediating and encompassing institutions. Only implicit so far are macroscale phenomena—the off-site structures and institutions of power and authority; demographic and ecological changes; and the workings of other social forces including political action and social movements, which Goldman (1998:45) and others insist should be foregrounded in any discussion of local-level institutions and commons problems. Approaches that foreground relationships of power and authority, domination and resistance, and so forth often are subsumed under the label “political ecology.”
Stepping back to the step-wise model for situated rational choice, one can see limitations of the health psychology model because it is limited mainly to the study of voluntary individual action—which is also the focus of much work in common-pool resource studies, for example, on free-rider disincentives to cooperative action on the part of individuals or individual entities. To properly account for how people respond to common-pool resource challenges, we need to know more about institutions and the deliberative processes that lead to their emergence and change. What led municipalities, states, and federal agencies to provide educational information, establish standards, and give subsidies for radon-protective home construction? The now-widespread rules and norms in North America against smoking in public places, airplanes, and many private spaces may be considered institutions for common-pool resource management, protecting many people from exposure to the risk of secondhand tobacco smoke. What accounts for variation in the pace and process of development of these rules and norms? Closer to the image that many people have when they talk about common-pool resources, what accounts for the decision of a group of fishing vessel owners to create and maintain complex rules about how much fish can be landed, as I observed when studying a New Jersey commercial fishery in the late 1970s and early 1980s (McCay, 1980)? Or what accounts for the development of new principles and understandings about global environmental problems that influence both voluntary actions and intergovernmental agreements? Issues of power and politics loom large when questions are reframed this way.
Political ecology also may be understood as calling for greater emphasis on local politics concerning common-pool resources and the environment. In the course of their critical review of the use of a simplistic, generic notion of commu-
nity in relation to conservation and development, Agrawal and Gibson (1999:629) argue for a more “political” approach, “focusing on the multiple interests and actors within communities, on how these actors influence decision-making, and on the internal and external institutions that shape the decision-making process.” In common-pool resource studies, political ecology also is expressed through
increased focus on the workings of power as well as differentiation by gender, age, class or caste, ethnicity, and other factors, within common-pool resource-using communities (Leach et al., 1997);
greater attention to the power dynamics among communities and between them and the institutions and organizations within which they are embedded or to which they are linked, or taking meso- and macro-scale perspectives to understand what is happening at the local level (e.g., Goldman, 1998; Mosse, 1997); and
more sensitivity to the exercise of power in the production of knowledge about common-pool resourcs (Taylor, 1998).
A political approach includes critical reflection and research on the practice of common-pool resource research and analysis itself. Goldman (1998) and Mosse (1997) are among those who suggest relationships between the approaches taken by common-pool resource researchers and the agendas and interests of various political actors. Brosius et al. (1998) emphasize the “external” and raise questions about how the paradigm of community, and community-based management, is “worked into politically varied plans and programs in disparate sites” (see also Zerner, 2000). The ideas of community, plus ideas of territory, customary law, and locality, are central to common property studies and the community-based resource management movement. A major difference is between conservationists and development organizations, the one emphasizing protecting biodiversity and habitat integrity, the other local participation. Spokespersons for indigenous peoples add values such as respect for local rights, knowledge, and culture. How these ideas materialize in actual cases depends on the workings of transnational as well as national and local actors and institutions, and they have different constructions or ways of “imagining” community-based resource management that play out in the lives and ecologies of local places (West, 2000). Peter Taylor (1998) emphasizes the rhetorical tactics used in common-pool resource discourse and their political implications, from a perspective that emphasizes the social construction of science itself. The “modernist” orientation of many common-pool resource approaches, emphasizing control and hierarchy, and sharp discontinuities between the natural world and the human experience, is also criticized in favor of more “postmodernist” (or poststructuralist [Escobar, 1996]) approaches that recognize the need to break down nature/culture dichotomies, the social construction of both nature and culture, the indeterminancies and contingencies of socionatural
systems, and the need for more pragmatic approaches that neither rely on nor reinforce dichotomies between nature and culture (Descola and Pálsson, 1996; McCay, 2000a; Pálsson, in press).
Much of what goes under the label of “political ecology” is influenced strongly not only by Marxist and other political economy approaches in the social sciences but also by theoretical developments that emphasize the social embeddedness and cultural construction of seemingly individual, economic, and natural phenomena.
In social theory, “embeddedness” (Polanyi, 1944) is a way of resolving the discrepancy between agency and structure-based approaches, which remains a key issue in many of the social sciences. Speaking directly to the problem as it appears in common-pool resource studies, Peters (1987:178) defines it as follows: “To avoid these polemic extremes we argue for the social embeddedness of a commons. It is an error to suppose that an individual calculus can explain a commons system; rather, one has to understand the socially and politically embedded commons to explain the individual calculus.” Agency-based theories, which dominate common-pool resource studies and have a long and strong history in the social sciences, see society as the aggregation of independent individual behaviors and often assume that these behaviors express the rational pursuit of utility on the part of those individuals. Structure-based theories include Marxist and other political economy approaches but also Durkheimian sociology. They emphasize the role of supra-individual social forces and groups in society, resisting reduction to individuals and utility functions. Hence, at one extreme we have the image of self-seeking individuals who, faced with a common-pool resource or public good, can only defect or free ride. At the other extreme is the romanticized society or local community imbued with the moral economy of “the commons” as belonging to and cared for by everyone but besieged by larger forces, such as commercialization and capitalism. Surely there is a more realistic middle ground, as suggested by experimental results (Ostrom, 1998) and as called for by many social theorists who wish to integrate both agency and structure. The social construction approach discussed in the last part of the chapter is a move in that direction. So is “embeddedness.”
A “thin” version of embeddedness is found in the work of sociologists and others who emphasize social networks (Swedberg and Granovetter, 1992). Actors or decision makers are embedded in social networks or patterned interactions (which can be construed as institutions). Granovetter (1992, 1985) argues that the agency approach sees actors as “undersocialized,” pursuing only their own interests, and the structural approach sees actors as “oversocialized” products of their class or group. If social structure is seen instead as patterned interactions among
actors, or social networks, then we can see that structure influences individuals in patterned ways, but we can also see that the individuals have agency, that they are more than just representatives of social categories (Wilson and McCay, 1999).
A “thicker” and more ethnographic perspective adds the missing elements of meaning and communicative content (Emirbayer and Goodwin, 1994) as well as a stronger sense of group differentiation and identity and contests over power and meaning. It “gives…interdependence a more specific conceptualization, one that includes the structure of relations (of which the individual commoners are a part), the differentiation among groups, and the set of shared and/or competing meanings and values associated with a particular commons and its use” (Peters, 1987:178). Peters’ case study of Botswana’s rangelands is an impressive indicator of the analytic potential of such an approach. She shows that this perspective, when applied to a situation of multiple links and claims to use of the commons, can result in a radical redefinition of the commons problem: “The ‘dilemmas’of a commons emerge not from an absence of social ties between the individual user and others [as postulated in most common-pool resource studies], but from competing rights and claims to legitimate use” (Peters, 1987:178). As noted in the introduction to the book in which Peters’ paper appeared, “Commons dilemmas must be explained in terms of the dynamics of conflict and competition between different social groups located in history and social systems rather than between the rational economizing individual unspecified and the group also unspecified” (McCay and Acheson, 1987a:22).
Embeddedness has several other analytic functions. In work focused on fisheries and institutions such as co-management, the metaphor of “embeddedness” has been used to emphasize the potentials for coordinated and cooperative action on the part of resource users, who otherwise are thought of as inherent free riders or, worse, opportunistic “foxes in the henhouse,” but who are linked with each other through webs of significance and histories of association within communities (Jentoft et al., 1998; Mccay, 1996; McCay and Jentoft, 1996, 1998). There it points to the role of the values and culture of an embedding community. In a somewhat different sense (Giddens, 1990), the notion of embeddedness is used to distinguish local communities in terms of the extent to which particular activities—for example, fish harvesting and processing—are embedded in or disembedded from the larger local community due to the globalization of production and marketing and other processes (Apostle et al., 1998).
Most important, the metaphor of embeddedness is a way to communicate the importance of specifying the historical, geographic, ecological, and social situations and contexts of individuals and groups. The notion of embeddedness thus emphasizes the need for fine-grained, long-term historical and ethnographic research on particular common-pool resource situations and their contexts. Specifying the embedding context allows for a focus on cultural and social phenomena as sources of institutional creation and change without having to reduce social action to individual choice alone. At the same time, it recognizes the agency of
the individual embedded within such phenomena, and particularly the agency involved in the social process of interpreting and recreating the natural and social environments (Helgason and Pálsson, 1997).
Deliberation, Discourse, and Embeddedness
Communication is central to social relations and culture; it is also central to the question of how people respond to environmental problems and risks. Psychological research has revealed interesting patterns in how individuals perceive risk, but these patterns are not necessarily what one would find if studying how people behave when confronted with practical problems of environmental management (Renn et al., 1996). People in communities talk to each other and to outsiders about particular risks, and that is what creates their meaningful, action-prompting perceptions of those risks. Cognition is linguistic, not calculative, and language and communication are at the core of perception and decision making (Dietz, 1994). Talking, discursive behavior, and the meanings construed from talk and action as shaped by identity and power—these are the stuff of social relations and culture. Discourse analysis and research on the social and cultural dimensions of communication are thus part of common-pool resource studies.
Emergence of institutions for the commons requires situations with the possibility of truly open and constructive deliberation as much as it calls for decision-making structures that are able to overcome free-rider and other perverse incentives that plague situations involving the provision of public goods. Often underappreciated is how hard it is sometimes to come up with good solutions to common-pool resource problems. Given the “bounded rationality” of the human mind (Simon, 1983), and the inclination toward “muddling through” when faced with difficult policy choices (Lindblom, 1959, 1979), the alternatives available for institutional change are likely to be quite limited, based in large part on the kinds of things people have already done for the same or other problems. Therefore, in some cases the critical factor may be the ability to share experiences and ideas among members of the group, as well as with other groups, in order to “get out of the box.” Doing this requires some kind of deliberative forum where information can be shared and conflicts and ideas aired. The existence of a political, social, and physical space for learning from and arguing with one another is one important “design principle” that should not be taken for granted. In many nations and at many times, political repression makes it nearly impossible to find and use places for talking and arguing about the commons, and economic deprivation can make it difficult for most people to come to them if they are allowed. These problems can occur within local communities as well.
Another criterion is the nature of discourse within such a deliberative forum. The nature and functioning of the process of discussing and deciding on solutions to a perceived common-pool resource problem is obviously critical. To what extent does a particular forum or ongoing deliberation about a commons problem
meet the requirements of “rational communication,” or of open and honest exchange and deliberation (Habermas, 1984; Dryzek, 1987)? It is well known that cooperative solutions require communication, trust, and reciprocity, but what are the sources of trust and reciprocity and the conditions for effective communication, and what sustains and reproduces these conditions (Hajer, 1995)? They may be affected by many things, including local leadership, the distribution of wealth, the structure of power and authority, the existence of other institutions, and relationships with outside governmental and nongovernmental groups, all of which, in theory, alter the possibilities for communicative rationality.
The question becomes to what extent are the decisions due to open and honest exchange and deliberation, or instead the result of the exercise of the “governing mechanisms” of money and political power and authority, on the one hand, or of prestige and social influence, on the other?1 What are the social and ecological consequences? Rational communication involves trust, information exchange, and joint problem solving. It works through convincing each other that something is true or right, in contrast with the roles of money, power, and authority, in forcing some to agree with others. Rational communication is heavily dependent on shared background assumptions, or embeddedness in a common world view or culture. As Wilson and I have argued (Wilson and McCay, 1999), if all participants are situated or embedded in similar cultures, social structures, and experiences, they are more likely to be able to engage in rational communication. If not, money, power, or influence “talk.”
This sociological approach to communication and decision making has ecological meaning as well. We have argued that in situations where environmental variables have high uncertainty and variability, institutions based on rational communication (and prestige and influence, to some extent) work better than ones based on the governing mechanisms of money and authority (Wilson and McCay, 1999). On the other hand, where the scale of the common-pool resource problems is very large, they may be difficult to resolve without recourse to the constraints of bureaucratic rules, property rights, and other “anchoring institutions” that express the roles of money and authority in social deliberation.
The degree to which deliberation is embedded in local culture, social relations, and experiences, the scale of environmental and common-pool resource problems, and the extent to which conclusions are reached through “communicative rationality” or through the exercise of institutions anchored by the forces of power, authority, and money are thus important conditions for the emergence of self-governing institutions for common-pool resource problems.
Being Specific and Critical About Community
The emergence of institutions for common-pool resource management is widely assumed to depend on either government or market or community—and much of the critical work done in this regard keeps returning to community. The
notion that local communities can and should play a major role in conservation and environmental management has been adopted by many important players in the world, from the World Bank to international NGOs such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). It is the one unifying message of the network of scholars and practitioners centered on the International Association for the Study of Common Property (IASCP), as well as the larger and more diffuse network of people devoted to community-based sustainable development and natural resource management. The reason is simple: “even well-funded coercive conservation generally fails” (Agrawal and Gibson, 1999:632; Peluso, 1993).
The general idea is that where people who live and/or work together share a sense of identity and belonging (therefore some notion of boundaries and membership criteria), where they share some level of dependence on or caring for the resources in question (or streams of income coming from those resources), and where they also share many norms and goals, they are more likely to be able to develop institutions appropriate to deal with the challenges they face in using common-pool resources. In other words, they are more likely to overcome the self-interested obstacles to collective action, the free-ridership temptation, the appeal of cashing in and defecting. Sharing a sense of identity and belonging also likely means having some shared history, even ancestry, and some expectation of a shared future. These are critical to the development of the trust and reciprocity known to be essential to developing cooperative relationships (Ostrom, 1998). These elements are found in the definition of community provided by Singleton and Taylor (1992; see also Taylor, 1982), who add the notion of mutual vulnerability. Community is measured by the presence, absence, or strength of shared beliefs and preferences; some stability in membership; some expectation of future interactions; and direct and multiple kinds of relationships among members. Mutual vulnerability refers to the extent to which members of the group can be affected by the contributions or withholdings of others; that is, the extent to which they are subject to peer pressure because they value the good opinion, friendship, or cooperation of others. Both attributes are essential conditions for the mutual monitoring and sanctioning that are widely acknowledged to be critical endogenous factors for managing local common resources. The explanatory link to solving the collective action problem is transaction costs in the models of Singleton and Taylor (1992:316) and Ostrom (1990, 1992). The more community there is, the lower the costs of getting information, bargaining, monitoring, and enforcement. Building on the argument made in discussing deliberation, discourse, and embeddedness, the more “community,” the more likely people are to be able to communicate with each other about whether there are problems that need to be addressed and if so, what to do (Wilson and McCay, 1999).
Singleton and Taylor (1992) argue that community can bridge inequality and heterogeneity to some extent, although it also can be undermined by economic and social differences (see Agrawal and Gibson, 1999). They also theorize that the types of solutions that result will depend on the degree of community: At one
extreme are fully decentralized, endogenous solutions, which depend on high degrees of community; at the other, solutions heavily dependent on the state, because of low degrees of community, and hybrids such as co-management.
There are communities and there are communities. Take three examples of communities featured in The Question of the Commons (McCay and Acheson, 1987b): the Swiss mountain village of Torbel studied by Netting (1976, 1981) and reanalyzed by Ostrom (1987); the coastal community of Teelin, Ireland, studied by Taylor (1987); and the lobstering communities of coastal Maine studied by Acheson (1987). The Swiss example is one of a very long history of formalized rules for use of common lands and resources such as mountain forests and the alp. It has become an icon in common property studies for the idea that local communities can manage common resources by themselves (as well as Netting’s specific argument that variation in ecology and land use accounts for variation in property rights). But it is also one where there is an unusually well-defined and fairly rigid hierarchy of authority within the village, presumably linked to the larger political system and culture as well as the very intensive and restricted system of farming and the expectation that most young people will go elsewhere.
The Irish example is one where local people have decided not to have direct control over the key common resource, the salmon fishery. They do manage access to it in a rotational system, but they prefer to leave creation and enforcement of conservation rules to outside authorities. Is it no accident that the structure of the village is very egalitarian with extremely weak leadership? No one is willing to risk offending that particular social order: “The river would run red with blood,” said a priest when explaining why villagers refused to support his idea of buying the rights to the salmon, so that the villagers would no longer be fishing illegally (Taylor, 1987). Hierarchical and oppositional relations are more between villagers and outsiders than within the village, and the locals seem to like it that way, even though it means that they bear the risks of being fined for illegal fishing and have no direct say in the management of salmon.
The third example, the Maine lobster fisheries, also has become an icon in common property studies because of data showing that the lobster fishers have constructed a system of territoriality, on their own, that counters the notion that all modern commercial fisheries are open access unless restricted by government action (Acheson, 1981). However, communities in the geographic and political sense have very little role in this. With the exception of a few offshore islands, lobstermen embark from communities that have no organized say in lobster management and are increasingly organized around the interests of tourism and exurbanites. Moreover, the law of the state protects the rights of everyone to participate. At the time studied, self-regulation took place very subtly and informally through the formation of what Acheson calls “lobster gangs,” which perform gatekeeping and regulatory functions. Only the island communities were able to really enforce territories, to the inch. Moreover, the “gangs”—which might be considered occupational or functional communities—have not been able to pre-
vent major increases in lobstering in recent years. Attempts to create lobster management zones within the framework of the state’s management authority are thus building on dispersed and complex communities.
One would like to know why these societies are structured as they are and how that relates to the beliefs and norms of the people within them, the interplay of social forms, beliefs, and the capacity to govern uses of the natural environment, a challenge posed by Douglas in How Institutions Think (1986; see also Douglas, 1985). To some extent the dimensions of community identified by Singleton and Taylor (1992) might help: There’s more “community” in the Swiss Alps community studied than in Maine lobstering communities because of closer interaction, more different kinds of social interactions, and a longer history in the alpine communities than in Maine’s coastal communities. But how do we account for the Irish? The specifics of hierarchical and oppositional relationships of power and authority seem to make a difference, as do the specific histories of domination and resistance and more subtle cultural differences in, for example, how people think they should relate to their neighbors as well as to the environment. “Community” and its relationship to common-pool resource management is meaningless without further specification, without clearly positioning particular places and peoples within their environments, their histories, their cultures, as well as regional, national, and global relations of wealth and power.
QUESTION-DRIVEN RESEARCH: SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIONISM AND EVENT ECOLOGY
Theoretical perspectives emphasizing embeddedness are closely tied to those emphasizing the “social construction of reality.” The constructivist tradition in sociology and anthropology, triggered by a treatise on the sociology of science (Berger and Luckmann, 1966), has come to focus on the interpretive processes by which individual and corporate actors perceive their surroundings and act on those perceptions to continuously construct and reconstruct themselves and their environments (McLaughlin, no date). One important idea is that of “frames,” or interconnected sets of socially constructed categories, that “provide a basis for forging shared meanings and coordinating social action” (McLaughlin, no date:6; Snow and Benford, 1992; Snow et al., 1986). Obviously, “frames” are likely to make a great difference in the “steps” outlined previously, such as whether people are aware of or prepared to act on their awareness of environmental problems. The focus on “framing” also has contributed to greater appreciation of the dynamics of social movements and their contributions to political and cultural change. The question about the emergence of institutions becomes one about when the “master frames” can no longer cope with changing conditions, forcing actors to question routinized assumptions and embark on a project of change (Krauss, 1983; McLaughlin, 1996). This body of work also addresses questions about the sources of legitimacy for new institutions in the social construction of organizations for
dealing with common-pool resource and environmental problems (Snow et al., 1986). Such an approach could be useful in analyzing the rise and deployment of concepts such as community-based management and self-governance of the commons (Brosius et al., 1998; Taylor, 1998).
Steins and Edwards (1999) employ a social constructivist perspective to criticize and improve “standard common-pool resources theory.” They point to the frequent assumption that common-pool resources are single-use resources even though they often have multiple and conflicting uses; the tendency to focus on factors that are internal to a resource-using community at the expense of external factors that affect the decisions of shareholders; and, finally, the failure to appreciate the role of processes “through which collective action is constructed (and reconstructed) by the shareholders” (Steins and Edwards, 1999:540). Steins and Edwards make their arguments through a case study of a situation in Ireland where an oyster-growers cooperative had been formed but most people refused to meet their obligations. They attempt to explain this free-riding behavior, and they find that explanation in the particular details of this situation and its larger context and longer history. They show the importance of careful analysis of processes of social construction of everyday reality and the environment. They contribute a stronger focus on the ways that critical elements of the situation under study, such as whether the institution is a “failure” or a “success,” and actors’ understandings of the political environment, are socially constructed. They also point to the ways these constructions or understandings vary among social actors and change over time and with experience. The process of collective action itself will reshape the networks, meanings, perceptions, and social experience that affect stakeholders’ choices (Steins and Edwards, 1999:544). In closely related work, Selsky and Memon applied social constructionism to examine the emergence of institutions for dealing with port development issues in New Zealand (Memon and Selsky, 1998; Selsky and Memon, 2000). They suggest that studies of complex common-pool resource domains2 such as ports may advance theory in ways that studies of simpler, single-use common-pool resource domains cannot. They are sites for multiple and indeterminate interactions among stakeholders, involving dynamics of power, conflict, and competition as well as collaboration and institutional innovation (Selsky and Memon, 2000). The constructivist orientation they use highlights the roles of various actors and relations among them in determining how property rights and other institutions are constructed and change in such domains, as well as the emergence of de facto rights and local rules as against de juris rights and extra-local policy.
Steins and Edwards argue that using a common-pool resource “design principles” approach at the outset of the analysis would have made it harder to see and appreciate the role of contextual and external factors. Moreover, they argue that using a design-principles analytic model too easily results in generalizations that raise the question of “normativity.” Design principles such as the high noticeability of cheating may be useful starting points for analysis, but it is im-
portant to ask whether a particular principle is indeed a condition in the case at hand and if so, whether or not it explains the phenomena observed, whether compliance or free riding.
One group of human ecologists has come to similar methodological positions. Vayda and Walters (1999) and McCay and Vayda (1996) emphasize the detriments to the task of explaining human-environment interactions created by the practice of starting with a priori assumptions about units of action, scales and levels of analysis, and appropriate explanatory tools (including the “tragedy of the commons” theory or meta-narrative). Like the social constructionists, they warn against the practice of bringing theories and models to particular issues in explanation (i.e., why deforestation proceeds at a high rate in certain areas, or why fish populations have declined in certain places), without careful bottom-up exploration of the events (what happened, where, who was involved, and why) and the situations and contexts of those events (which are important to their explanation) (see also McGuire, 1997; Walters and Vayda, 2001).
Both groups are calling for question-driven research rather than research organized around particular methods or hypotheses. In the Steins and Edwards case, the initial questions are similar to those of the neo-institutionalists working within the middle-range theories of Olson (1965), Ostrom (1990), and others: Why are some people free riding rather than contributing to a cooperative endeavor? However, they wish to answer that question for a specific instance of free riding, rather than for free riding in general. Their argument is that relying on those theories rather than examining the specifics of the case at hand may lead one to miss important causal factors. For Vayda and Walters, in the approach they now call “event ecology” (1999; Walters and Vayda, 2001),3 the initial questions are more likely to concern environmental issues (such as the causes and consequences of tropical deforestation) than institutional or social questions, although the latter may become important to the analysis. Their causal historical approach to explanation requires moving from large questions, such as the causes and consequences of forest change, to more specific questions, such as the causes and consequences of particular instances of forest change, just as Steins and Edwards insist on explaining particular instances of free riding. The goal with highest priority is to address such specific questions rather than to evaluate the merits of theoretical claims, although it is possible that method and theory will benefit.
Like the social constructionism of Steins and Edwards (1999), the methodology of event ecology leads to a critique of the use of common-pool resource thinking as “question-begging,” or overly “theory-driven,” rather than explanatory and question driven. Questions about the conditions of human cooperation and defection (or free riding), and the workings of models with greater or lesser degrees of open access, communication, risk, and so forth, are intrinsically interesting, but they are not always adequate or relevant to the task of explaining particular social or environmental events. Like dependency theory or claims about globalization, they are meta-narratives that may or may not be appropriate to the
explanatory task. This discussion assumes that explanation is not necessarily dependent on law-like generalizations; the causal historical approach to explanation, well-established in history but also acknowledged in the sciences, results in narratives linking particular events to causal antecedents and to consequences, using methods such as progressive contextualization (Vayda, 1983) and counter-factual reasoning (if x did not exist, would the results be the same?) (Walters and Vayda, 2001).
Just as Steins and Edwards (1999) argue that using a common-pool resource “design principles” approach at the outset of the analysis would have made it harder to see and appreciate the role of contextual and external factors, the human ecologists recommend avoiding a priori designation of appropriate models, theories, and methods. An important point is not to privilege any particular aspect of human-environment relations (political, social-structural, economic, cultural) nor any particular scale of those relations (local, regional, global) when beginning a study, letting importance emerge from empirical analysis.
From this line of reasoning, the very topic of this chapter is misleading. The appropriate question is not necessarily about the institutions appropriate for common-pool problems, but rather about the causes and consequences of particular human-environment situations, including institutions for managing the commons if and where they are relevant.
Take, for example, the general question of the role of pastoralists in the ecology of arid lands. Rather than arguing either that pastoralists tend to overexploit fragile grasslands, or that they have their own systems of regulating the use of such systems of production, the appropriate first step is to examine one or more particular cases of grassland ecology, coming up with concrete, clearly specified events to be explained. The initial question might be causes of decline in the quality of forage grasses in a particular arid region. A common-pool resource scholar might quickly jump to a study of the regulatory institutions of local tribal pastoralists, expecting from the middle-range theory that has developed (e.g., Ostrom, 1990) to find that relatively small, homogeneous groups with a long history in the region have developed rules and other institutions that help prevent overgrazing of common lands. However, this “jumps the gun.” Perhaps changes in the quality and quantity of forage grasses have little to do with the pastoralists’ herds. Perhaps they do. It may turn out that the patterns are heavily influenced by informal or formal rules and other institutions, in which cases those institutions are candidates for further study. But it may turn out that those changes in grazing activity that warrant the term “overgrazing” have little to do with local institutions, in comparison with changes in market demand, conflicts among pastoralist groups, expanded investment in livestock on the part of urban elites, or invasion of the grasslands by an exotic species. In that case, the investigator would put less effort into examining local institutions than in looking for causal connections with whichever of these other factors seems important.
Both social constructionism and event ecology emphasize the search for spe-
cific mechanisms of causation. Many evolutionary psychologists, ecologists, and anthropologists explain something by recourse to ultimate causes (i.e., inclusive fitness) or by recourse to consequences that are alleged to be the causes. Too often they fail to identify or study the mechanisms linking a behavior or institution and its purported causes and consequences (Vayda, 1995a, 1995b). To return to our hypothetical grazing case: A consequentialist (or “naive functionalist”) account might say that the institution of tribal control over specific territories is explained by its function in preventing overgrazing in areas controlled by tribes. The relevant generalization might be that the lack of territorial control results in overexploitation of resources (the open-access hypothesis of “the tragedy of the commons”), or that all else being equal, a group of people will respond to signs of overexploitation by developing rules intended to cope with the problem (the community-based management hypothesis or “the comedy of the commons”). There might be more focused generalizations, such as the need for sufficient time for trial and error, for the capacity to monitor behavior and enforce rules, and for other “design principles.” However, what is often absent or underdeveloped is an account of the mechanisms or causal linkages. How does the exercise of territorial control affect grazing patterns and intensities in particular cases? How, if at all, do changes in the condition of pasture lands trigger the use of institutional measures to control behavior? What were the conditions and events that led to the development of territorial control and that have influenced its maintenance or its breakdown or transformation?
The disagreement is not with the use of models but rather with the dominant role of models in research and explanation (Vayda 1995a; McCay and Vayda, 1996). A more judicious use would follow Schelling’s (1978:89) admonition to ask “whether we need the model—whether the model gives us a head start in recognizing phenomena and the mechanisms that generate them and in knowing what to look for in the explanation of interesting phenomena.” Optimal-foraging models of patch choice among Inuit hunter-gatherers may not be needed as much as investigations of foragers’ daily decisions and actions and cognized bases for them, in relation to contextual changes (Beckerman, 1983:288-289). The economists’ open-access model of problems in natural resource exploitation in fisheries (Gordon, 1954)—an important origin of modern thinking about the tragedy of the commons—may be very misleading or beside the point (McCay and Acheson, 1987a). In a particular situation, institutions affecting access or the distribution of rights to fish may or may not have played a role in causing or preventing resource decline. A good example is the recent tragic decline of Newfoundland’s northern cod (Gadus morhua) populations and the fishing communities dependent on them. Causes for the decline and the failure of the populations to recover are still the focus of research and debate, but it is clear that fishing rights were quite restricted, and that much of the overfishing that took place was due to errors in scientific practice and the politics of interpreting scientific results (Finlayson and McCay, 1998; Hutchings et al., 1997). These are issues that would receive little
attention if one relied solely on a bioeconomic model of fish population dynamics and incentives for entry into a fishery. Moreover, use of the “tragedy of the commons” model may blind investigators to other causes and justify the adoption of social policies that unfairly disadvantage the “commoners.”
A much broader set of explanatory possibilities emerges if one is not constrained by a theory-driven agenda, including the “common property” model, or even a topic-driven agenda, including the admittedly fascinating study of rule-driven institutions for dealing with common-pool resources. Institutions affecting access and regulation of uses of common-pool resources may indeed be important causes of environmental change, and the study of them can be important in its own right, but if our ultimate goal is explaining the causes of environmental change, we should start elsewhere, keeping institutions in their situation-specific contexts.
CONCLUSION: SPECIFYING THE COMMONS
It is widely appreciated that context is important to the choices and behavior of people, but the theoretical and empirical underpinning for that observation is woefully lacking. Ostrom reviewed the roles of trust, reputation, and reciprocity in enhancing levels of cooperation in structured and natural common-pool resource experiments and suggested some of the contextual factors that make a difference, including the size of the group and whether there is face-to-face communication, as well as information about past actions (Ostrom, 1998:15). The experimental and behaviorist approach she advocates and has developed addresses the question of collective action or cooperation. She calls for a concerted effort to develop “second-generation theory of boundedly rational and moral behavior” (Ostrom, 1998:16) that would focus on questions such as why levels of cooperation change and vary so greatly among individuals and situations and why specific configurations of situational conditions affect cooperation. Others in this volume contribute to the effort and questions she has outlined.
I have taken a somewhat different tack in order to draw attention to efforts by social theorists to address “commons” kinds of questions in ways that bring the social and contextual more directly into the analytic picture. One is the well-known approach that emphasizes the social construction of reality. Another is the “embeddedness” approach, which has been credited with finding an accommodation between the economic individualist and the social/structuralist ways of analyzing human behavior and institutions. Closely related is the set of approaches loosely called political ecology, which insert the macro-structural forces emphasized in political economy into studies of human-environmental relations, and which also emphasize the roles of discourse and power in the social construction of environmental and social realities—and in the construction and use of key terms, including “the commons” and “community.” Context is much more than group size, the nature of communication, and group history, especially if the ques-
tion is not what causes people to cooperate or not but rather how to explain particular institutional and environmental outcomes. I have also identified two approaches that provide a stronger orientation toward the “ecological” side of the human-ecological set, the “economics of flexibility” theory and the methodology that Vayda and Walters (Walters and Vayda, 2001) have come to call “event ecology.”
My argument is simple, although its implications for research are not. Explaining how people relate and respond to common-pool resources requires knowing more about their “situations” and how property rights and other institutions have been specified within those historical, ecological, and cultural situations. It requires specification of those situations and their broader contexts. These are essential elements of the frameworks within which decisions and actions concerning particular “commons” are embedded. Accordingly, the task of explaining the interactions between people and the common-pool resources in their environments requires looking not only at the decision-making calculi of individuals, but also a more fully specified account of who they are, what they have done, and what they will do in relation to those common-pool resources and in relation to governance issues. It requires documenting the events that lead to and follow from particular human-environmental interactions and trying to explain causes and consequences. Depending on what appears significant to explaining such events and interactions, it may require investigating the social entities that represent them and that they help reproduce and alter (families, households, voluntary associations, ad hoc coalitions and action groups, professional societies, political parties, government agencies); their histories, values, resources, and social networks; the nature of the common-pool resource/environmental problems they face; the local, regional, and global economic and political forces that influence their behavior; their “webs of significance” or the cultural “filters” by which people perceive, construct, and understand common-pool resource/environmental problems; and the political, legal, cultural, and other institutions that mold and constrain their perceptions and interpretations and the options and incentives they face. These are some of the tasks that may be required to adequately explain “dramas of the commons,” whether tragedy, comedy, romance, or just plain narratives of human ecology.
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