Desktop version

Home arrow Sociology arrow Understanding Society and Natural Resources


The measures of power used in this illustration reflect a pragmatic attempt to operationalize a study of how institutional forms of power relate to social-ecological benefits. Some of our findings appear straightforward. For instance, our results indicate that groups with power, as exercised through operational rules and monitoring and sanctioning processes, are associated with better social-ecological outcomes. In addition, we find that Lukes's (2005) second face of power is associated with a particularly large and negative social-ecological outcome. That is, groups that are dissatisfied with operational rules but are unable to enter collective-choice situations and modify those rules, are less likely to develop long-term sustainable patterns of use. These results are not entirely surprising given that they correspond to Ostrom's (1990) design principles and continue to receive support from various sources (Chhatre and Agrawal 2008; Coleman 2009; Cox et al. 2010). Notwithstanding the patterns of association found in this study, important questions remain as to whether power is accurately captured by the classifications and measures that were used, and the extent to which the evidence presented provides a basis for causal inference. This section engages in self-critique to examine some limitations of the considered approach to analysis.

Although some definitions of power, particularly those that refer to specific institutions, were readily classified, it is far from certain that their operationalization accurately reflects the power of a group. For instance, with regards to institutional control, groups are assumed to hold greater power if operational rules are perceived to be fair, if they participate in rulemaking, or if they own the forest commons. There is, however, considerable room for debate as to whether a group could be said to be powerful if it possesses one of these attributes but not others. In addition, North's (1990) view of bargaining power as an output of early choices that generate a process of increasing returns and path dependence is equally problematic. According to our results using North's conceptualization of power, groups that manage to persist in a recognizable form over an extended period of time are more likely to be associated with positive social-ecological outcomes. The proposed explanation is that groups develop a matrix of supportive institutions that set them on a distinct historical trajectory (North 1990; Pierson 2003). However, while a group can be seen as an informal organization whose survival depends upon its ability to generate a continuous stream of benefits to its members, measures of its age may be prone to suffer from idiosyncratic measurement error or measure concepts completely unrelated to power, or even its inverse. India's caste system, for instance, has for centuries been used to define groups; however, it systematically assigns power to some of these groups while withholding it from others. In other words, a group may persist precisely because it finds itself on the less powerful side of socially, politically, or institutionally entrenched power inequities.

Finally, as definitions become more specific to involve interactions among attributes and measures, important questions concerning the level of measurement must be considered. For instance, Ostrom's (2005) definition involving the extent of control (presumably varying between 0 and 1) and value of opportunity (presumably a continuous variable) was operationalized using a binary and ordered variable, respectively. The way in which Ostrom's definition of power was operationalized reflects the availability of data, but also draws attention to the potentially confounding role of measurement of the dependent and independent variables.

Even if one accepts the general validity and assumptions related to definitions, classifications, and measurements offered in this study, there are several reasons why one might still reject the evidence provided. To begin with, most causal inference in the positivist paradigm rests upon the general validity of three attributes of an analysis: (1) association between a cause and an outcome, (2) isolation of potential causes from other attributes of the environment, and (3) the direction of effects (Bollen 1989). Association is generally the least controversial, and in this study were measured using standard methods such as difference of means and correlations. Isolation and direction are typically more problematic, as they ask the researcher to separate causes from all other attributes that may bias estimates and establish whether the “cause” is in fact responsible for producing the “effect.” Randomization, matching, or quasi-experiments are often considered the best means with which to isolate factors (Holland 1986; Shadish et al. 2002; Rubin 2005), although in some cases structural models and even linear regression may be sufficient for pseudo-isolation (Pearl 2012). Establishing the direction of causal effects from cross-sectional observational data is even more problematic. Temporal priority (i.e., a gap between the observation of a cause and the outcome), or direct manipulation in an experimental environment, are usually sufficient to infer the direction of a causal effect (Brady 2008). However, in the absence of either, most directional claims using observational data rest upon logical and theoretical understandings of the phenomena. In this case, the analysis neither seeks to isolate power from other influences, nor does the cross-sectional data allow us to infer whether a measure of power precedes the outcome, or instead whether the outcome is actually a cause of power.

A final critique of the illustrative analysis is that many of the same measures already appear in the literature on the commons (Chhatre and Agrawal 2008, 2009; Coleman 2009) and have been merely recast in terms of power. Institutional control, for instance, is typically studied in isolation from its normative power-laden implications. This highlights several points that merit additional discussion. First, power is, and always has been, a feature of the commons literature, which should be self-evident from many of the design principles (Ostrom 1990). Minimal rights to organize, participation in collective-choice processes, and the accountability of monitors all concern different types of institutional power held by a group of resource users. That is far from being a power-neutral approach to the study of social-ecological phenomena; power is as an integral part of commons theory and the SES framework.

However, the critiques are not entirely without merit. Compared to some disciplines, such as political ecology, new institutionalism often softens or hides the normative implications of power imbalances behind a veil of game-theoretic terminology and a pragmatic emphasis on designing institutions that produce beneficial societal outcomes, however those may be defined. In other words, accompanying the shift in language is a sense that something meaningful is lost. Thus, bringing together multiple disciplines to study power within the SES framework compels researchers to engage explicitly with challenging and inevitable tradeoffs between critical and pragmatic approaches. Moreover, the emphasis on groups, broadly labeled resource users, likely overlooks a wide range of power relations within groups, most notably differential power between elite and non-elite members (Vedeld 2000; Iversen et al. 2006; Mwangi 2006). Finally, it is clear that, while power exists implicitly in the SES framework, it is not given a prominent position; and if trends continue, the range of theorizing and studying power in the institutionalist tradition will remain overly narrow.

Found a mistake? Please highlight the word and press Shift + Enter  
< Prev   CONTENTS   Next >

Related topics