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Incorporating Power Within The SES Framework

The SES framework is a particularly noteworthy addition to the set of frameworks, theories, and models used for the study of sustainability (Ostrom 2007, 2009). However, the SES framework, like its predecessor the IAD framework, appears mostly silent on questions of power with the notable absence of terms such as “power” or “politics.” Perhaps the primary challenge in incorporating power into an analysis using the SES framework is grappling with the many competing and overlapping conceptualizations of power that exist across social scientific disciplines. While the range of conceptualizations of power may at first seem overwhelming, and reviewing them in detail is indeed beyond the scope of this chapter, it is nonetheless helpful to delineate some broad categories. For example, one branch of political ecology emphasizes the primacy of materialist conceptions of power, drawing on ideas rooted in the scholarship of Marx. The focus here is on differing control over and access to natural resources and the influence of material conditions on social and ecological outcomes. As Robbins (2004) asserts, “no explanation of environmental change is complete, therefore, without serious attention to who profits from changes in control over resources, and without exploring who takes what from whom,” (Robbins 2004, p. 52). Other social theorists are more concerned with discursive forms of power, or those ways of talking about, representing, and generating knowledge about the world that influence human-environment relations. Discourses can both create and limit the realm of possibility for how humans may think, act, and behave with regards to the natural world. Post-structural approaches to power, such as Foucault's, conceive of a discourse that includes not just the way actors talk about and represent nature and nature's governance, but also the everyday institutions and activities that shape actors' perceptions of themselves, their desires, and their relationships with the world around them.

In this chapter, we choose to focus on operationalizing and measuring institutional conceptions of power, which are distinct from yet always interrelated with materialist and discourse approaches. We chose to focus on institutional conceptions of power for two reasons. First, the fact that power is an integral aspect of institutions is almost always underemphasized in the current literature. Second, due to the SES framework's disciplinary proximity to institutionalism, testing institutional forms of power is a reasonable first step. Only after showing that institutional forms of power can be taken into account by the SES framework might we move forward in conceptualizing how an analysis of materialist, discursive, or post-structural accounts of power might be applied within the framework. As we will explain, though power is not explicitly included in the SES framework, several key potential indicators of institutional power, such as the operational rules governing the system, are included. These attributes can be employed to ask questions concerning how different levels of access and control over resources are shaped by institutional characteristics of the system and how, in turn, these relationships may influence social-ecological outcomes. Before turning to this question, we briefly describe the SES framework, and then consider how it may be used to study the effects of power on sustainability (for a more comprehensive description, we refer readers to Ostrom 2007; Basurto and Ostrom 2009; Ostrom and Cox 2010).

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