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Institutional Power

The conceptualizations of power discussed in this section, while distinct from each other, share a common assumption that institutions—again: rules, norms, and shared strategies—carry within their particular form and structure the ability to influence societal outcomes. During the first half of the twentieth century, an important theoretical innovation of “old” institutionalism was to highlight the distinction between institutional and non-institutional aspects of social phenomena. Institutional factors are those that the policy process can directly influence through laws, rules, and regulations, while non-institutional factors can only be influenced indirectly by means of the particular institutions that are created (e.g., economic or demographic conditions) (Ostrom 1976). Embedded within this distinction is an opportunity to study the influence of the former on the latter, or of the ability of institutions to make a difference on a range of existing conditions.

For example, John R. Commons, a particularly prominent “old” institutionalist, proposed an institutional theory of markets that sought to explain the ways in which economic power resulting from the accumulation of wealth, uneven access to resources, and/or monopolies on the means of production could be mitigated by what he referred to as working rules. These working rules are scripts that tell individuals what they may or may not, must or must not do as they transact with others (Commons 1931). Through an emphasis on working rules, Commons (1924, p. 6) examined the “principles of collective control of transactions through associations and governments, placing limits on selfishness, that are more recently included in economic theory” to build a foundation for understanding how the social injustices of laissez-faire capitalism might be mitigated. For Commons, institutions were embodiments of power and thus carried with them the possibility of rectifying what he saw as the problems of the day. Since then, multiple institutional theories have been proposed that each point to the central role that institutions play in allowing individuals and groups to make and adhere to choices in complex environments. Nonetheless, Commons' typically positive view of institutional power has receded as scholars such as Riker (1980) lament the democratic implications of an institutional theory of political processes. The most notable of these implications is that political outcomes are not only the result of the will or “tastes” of the people but also of the institutions that are used to make decisions and the political skills or “artistry” of those who seek to manipulate agendas and exploit opportunities for their own ends. In other words, institutional power may be used and manipulated by individuals or groups in pursuit of their own interests, and thus can serve as the source of, as well as the solution to, social problems.

The Bloomington School of new institutionalists does not often explicitly include power as a distinct or circumscribed concept in its frameworks and analyses. Nonetheless, for scholars interested in questions of institutional power, the Bloomington School has adopted a broad definition of institutions (Crawford and Ostrom 1995; Ostrom 2005) that can be interpreted as a potential carrier of power. First, institutions are said to include de jure institutions (rules-in-form or rules on paper) and de facto institutions (rules-in-use), as well as social norms and shared strategies. All of which are nested into layers of institutions that determine how institutions at other levels may be changed; these layers are differentiated into operational-, collective-, and constitutional-choice situations. In the context of resource governance, operational-level institutions govern how resources are accessed and used. Such rules may state, for example, that only members of a given community—not outsiders—may access a forest, as with community forest concessions in Mexico (Alcorn and Toledo 2000; Bray et al. 2006). Other rules might determine what types of resources may be extracted, during what seasons, and using which harvesting tools. Collective-choice institutions, in turn, provide a framework for how—and by whom—operational-level rules are created and modified. A collective-choice institution might state that a majority of forest users are required to approve a rule change or, alternatively, that a local leader has the power to unilaterally create or alter operational rules. Operational-level and collective-choice-level rules are almost always nested in at least one more institutional level—a constitutional level—that sets the constraints within which collective-choice rules are determined. The US Constitution is an example of a set of constitutional-level institutions that determine the procedures through which, and the bounds within which, other rule-making procedures are themselves modified (Ostrom 2008). For an institutionalist concerned with power and its effect on individuals and groups, the implication is that one must explore not only the effects of operational rules but also the formal and informal institutions that affect how operational rules are chosen, as well as the configurations of actors that hold power to initiate and manipulate these processes.

We begin the analysis with the most basic definition of institutional power, which suggests that any and all institutions have the capacity to privilege some groups, at the expense of others (Riker 1980; Immergut 1998; Pierson 2000). Thus all institutions, including operational rules (GS5), property-rights systems (GS4), collective-choice (GS6) and constitutional rules (GS7), as well as monitoring and sanctioning rules (GS8) merit consideration as unique classifications of institutional power. The IFRI database is replete with such details, which allow us to measure group-level subjective perceptions of operational rules, to determine whether users participate in collective-choice and monitoring processes, and to establish whether any member(s) of a group possess property rights over the forest commons. The assumptions tested by these measures are that the institutional power of a group is higher when (1) operational rules reflect subjective interests of the group of resource users, (2) group members participate in the rule-making process, (3) group members monitor conformance to rules, and (4) group members hold enforceable property rights. Broadly speaking the results indicate a positive relationship between social-ecological benefits and groups that possess power in the form of favorable operational rules (GS5) and participate in monitoring and sanctioning processes (GS8). Power as characterized by participation in collective-choice processes (GS6) and property-rights systems (GS4) did not have a significant relations with the dependent variable, although this is possibly the result of the bivariate analysis that fails to control for additional sources of heterogeneity (Table 6.2).

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