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Studying Power with the Social-Ecological System Framework

Graham Epstein, Abigail Bennett, Rebecca Gruby, Leslie Acton, and Mateja Nenadovic


There is no concept that has captivated philosophers, historians, geographers, and political scientists, quite like power. Scholars have long posed theoretical questions concerning the existence, origins, and manifestations of power without settling on anything resembling consensus (Machiavelli [1532] 1988; Hobbes [1651] 2010). Normative questions regarding who should rule, under what conditions, and for what purposes have similarly been mired in centuries of debate that offer perspectives and insights, but no clear answers (Wilson 1887; Waldo 1948; Ostrom 2008). Differential treatments of power also lie at the heart of a long-standing divide among social scientific traditions in the study of social-ecological systems (SESs). Power is central in the interdisciplinary field of political ecology, where it is understood as a core driver of social-ecological outcomes (Lebel et al. 2010). In contrast, the “Bloomington School” of new institutionalists (grounded in the work of Vincent and Elinor Ostrom et al.) deliberately moved away from the focus on power that dominated twentieth-century political science—a focus they felt to be “extreme and limiting” (Aligica and Boettke 2009, p. 30). Instead, they directed their attention to institutions and how they affect the prospects for self-organized governance of common-pool resources (Ostrom 1990).

Institutions refer to the formal and informal rules, norms, and shared strategies (or conventions) that structure human interactions at all levels of social organization (Ostrom 2005). They are linguistic statements that specify what actions must, must not, or may be taken given certain conditions, and, as such, they may exist in written form, in the minds of individuals, or both (Crawford and Ostrom 1995). New institutionalists focus on how groups can create credible commitments to limit individual selfishness and obtain greater benefits for the collective (Dietz et al. 2002). When groups are able to communicate and develop trust, they are sometimes able to extricate themselves from predicted tragedies by forming institutions that prescribe cooperative behavior (Ostrom et al. 1994). This approach tends to assume that the outcomes of collective action benefit the group as a whole and that members of a group share a common understanding of desired outcomes. These assumptions give this work an air of equality and symmetry that often overshadows the importance of power and distributional inequalities. As a result, the new institutionalist view that social-ecological sustainability is primarily a function of implementing the 'right kinds' of institutions is often seen as overly optimistic and simplistic (Agrawal 2003; Clement 2010).

In recent years, new institutional theories and frameworks—inclusive of common-pool resource (CPR) theory, the institutional analysis and development (IAD) framework and social-ecological system (SES) framework—have faced increasing criticism for failing to adequately attend to issues of power, politics, and inequality and how they affect environmental governance processes (Agrawal 2013). For example, Mosse (1997, p. 470) has argued that “historically-specific structures of power, rather than simply calculated pay-offs (or traditional wisdom) underlie the norms and conventions of collective resource use, and account for the occurrence and persistence of local institutions of resource use.” Agrawal (2003) has similarly suggested that commons research does not adequately attend to intragroup politics, power, and resistance. He argues that the relationship between power and rights to access and use natural resources should complement the narrow focus of new institutionalist scholars on internal institutions and rules.

This chapter takes these critiques as a point of departure to begin to develop a systematic, interdisciplinary approach to integrate power with institutional studies of SESs. Our main goal is to assess whether diverse concepts of power can be explored and analyzed with the SES framework and whether such an endeavor is potentially fruitful. To this end, we structure our study in four stages. First, we provide an overview of the SES framework, which aims to enhance cross-disciplinary theory-building by providing “the most general set of variables [or attributes] that should be used to analyze all types of [SES] settings” (Ostrom 2005, p. 28). Second, we outline a process for operationalizing various concepts of power through this framework. Third, we illustrate how this process may be used to test a hypothesis— in this case, that power affects SES outcomes. In this third stage, we review how some new institutionalists have thought about, defined, and studied power and then classify these definitions using existing attributes in the SES framework. We then identify operational indicators of these attributes using data from a collaborative forest governance database—International Forestry Resources and Institutions (IFRI)—and use these to conduct an illustrative quantitative analysis of the relationship between power and the combined social-ecological outcome. Although we use quantitative data analysis techniques in our study, qualitative, quantitative, and mixed-methods approaches all stand to make distinct and complementary contributions to understand the role of power in resource governance. Fourth, we reflect on this analysis and its conclusions to consider the extent to which the SES framework can be used to integrate power within institutional approaches to studying SESs.

This chapter contributes four main arguments relevant to scholars interested in bridging power-centered and institution-centered approaches. First, power is, and always has been, part of new institutionalist thinking, although the term power is rarely invoked explicitly. Second, if the SES framework is to provide a metatheoretical structure for interdisciplinary, systematic, and diagnostic studies of sustainability as it intends, then this structure must be able to account for power. Third, the SES framework can be used to integrate power-centered approaches with institutional analysis, at least with regards to institutional forms of power. Lastly, there remains a need to consider more diverse conceptions of power across the social sciences and to determine whether broader integration is possible, and what if any implications this has for the SES framework and the study of sustainability.

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