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Elinor Ostrom's Definition of Power

Although the Bloomington School is often criticized for the general absence of power in related studies, Ostrom (2005) offers a clear and concise definition of power in her seminal work on the IAD framework, Understanding Institutional Diversity. According to Ostrom:

the “power” of an individual in a situation is the value of the opportunity (the range in the outcomes afforded by the situation) times the extent of control. Thus, an individual can have a small degree of power, even though the individual has absolute control if the amount of opportunity in a situation is small. The amount of power may also be small when the opportunity is large, but the individual has only a small degree of control. (2005, p. 50)

This definition has several implications for power and how it can be studied. First, it suggests that a value that corresponds to power can be assigned to each actor, and does not necessarily imply a zero sum situation. Second, power also varies with the expected benefits and costs of a situation, such that the power of actors holding a small amount of control over a valuable opportunity may be equivalent or greater than that of an actor holding a large degree of control over a less valuable opportunity. For example, an individual vote among many on a very important and potentially rewarding issue may offer more power than unilateral control over a situation with a less valuable outcome. Finally, power can be measured and said to exist as a “power to” do something regardless of whether an actor chooses to make use of it.

Ostrom's (2005) definition of power could be operationalized at any of the institutional levels (i.e., operational, collective choice, constitutional), although we chose to focus on the collective-choice level. Collective-choice rules are often seen as particularly important sources of power because they allow participants to modify the rules that govern operational situations from which flow the majority of instrumental benefits and costs. For instance, when forest users operating under a set of operational rules are confronted by a new disturbance or threat, such as external poachers (Fleischman et al. 2010), participation in collective-choice processes allows them to rapidly adjust those rules to changing conditions. We measured power as the product of a binary measurement of participation in decision-making processes regarding operational rules (GS5) and an ordinal measure of the commercial value of the forest (RU4). Thus, the power of a group is highest when they participate in collective-choice processes and the commercial value of the forest is high, while it is lowest when they do not participate in collective-choice processes and the commercial value of the forest is low. Participation is just one of many potential measures of the concept of control that is indicated in Ostrom's definition of power and may not carry a strong correspondence with control over decisionmaking processes. The results suggest that Ostrom's definition of power has a positive but insignificant relationship with the combined social-ecological benefit measure used in this study.

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