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Conclusions: An Interdisciplinary Agenda for the Study of Power in SESs

This chapter has illustrated that the SES framework holds great potential for social science integration, and may serve as a bridge between power-centered approaches and institution-centered approaches to the study of social-ecological systems. It further demonstrates that the SES framework is equipped with a wide range of attributes that can be used to study to several definitions or theories of power. Although the analysis presents empirical results with associated significance, the study does not provide definitive answers to the questions of whether any individual type of power matters, or which of the many alternatives best captures the concept of power. Instead, our primary goal was to assess whether asking such questions with the SES framework is possible and whether such an endeavor is potentially fruitful. We believe that the answer to both questions is yes, but that there remains considerable work to be done with regards to other theories of power, measurement, and evaluation before the framework could be said to facilitate such an endeavor.

The four methodological steps that we applied in this study provide guidance that other researchers can use to integrate other theories of power within the SES framework. Rather than simply assuming that power exists in some objectively observable way, researchers must attend to the ways in which (1) the values of existing SES attributes differentially affect different actors and groups and (2) different actors and groups contest and reshape the value of SES attributes. For example, instead of asking what type of operational rules produce better social-ecological outcomes, we asked how the perceived fairness of operational rules influences outcomes. We reoriented questions about the form of collective-choice institutions to ask whether groups have the power to control the outputs of institutional decisionmaking processes, and what effect this has on social-ecological outcomes. If we use the SES framework to conceptualize a social-ecological system made up of the four key subsystems and the variable subsets within them, then to wrestle with the role of power within such a system is to examine the shadow that those variables cast on the material, institutional, and discursive attributes of a varied set of actors.

Questions of power must be investigated in a space of inquiry that is onceremoved from the social-ecological system; it does not consist of the subsystems and variables within those subsystems but rather the heterogeneous effects of those variables on different groups, as well as the process through which heterogeneous actors contest those variables. In studying the effects of power, we are not posing questions about the direct relation between the variables and outcomes but about the effects that the differentiated meanings and implications of those variables for different key actors have on social-ecological outcomes. This is why we make the claim, at least regarding institutional conceptualizations of power that “power” or “politics” need not appear as attributes, themselves, within the SES framework. Rather, as we suggest, institutional conceptualizations of power are realized in the relationships between existing attributes and their implications for a specified group of actors.

Similarly, future research about the relationships between power and sustainability need not, necessarily, add new power-related attributes the framework. Rather, the process of research design and collection should carefully attend to the connections between indicators of existing attributes, their implications for particular groups and their relationship with social and ecological outcomes. Implicit in an approach that locates power not as a single, discrete attribute but as relationships between one or more attributes and a group of actors, is a claim about the ontology of power itself. Specifically, it suggests that power is a composite theoretical construct made up of attributes and relationships. This claim is further supported by the existence of a wide range of distinct conceptualizations of power from across disciplines. Thus, to engage in a cross-disciplinary study of power in the context of SESs requires us to deconstruct the vague and variegated concept, power, and specify its component parts and the relationships among them. The SES framework is well suited for this task.

The general approach adopted in this chapter to study institutional forms of power may be used to advance the study of other conceptualizations. Many materialist approaches from political ecology, for example, suggest that power exists as a result of unequal access and control over wealth, natural resources, or the means of production. An initial glance at the SES would suggest that many of the attributes, including the economic value of the resource, socioeconomic characteristics of the resource users, resource users' dependence on the resource, and property rights regimes, may be put to use to develop appropriate measures of materialist conceptions of power. Moreover it seems likely that the framework could similarly structure studies of discursive conceptualizations of power in terms of communicated knowledge, norms, and mental models that shape individuals' beliefs and behavior. Indeed, some attributes of the SES, such as knowledge of the SES/mental models as well as social norms, may provide an opportunity to better understand what, if any, differences exist between knowledge and discourse, and how they are transmitted across groups.

Ultimately, however, whether the SES is fully equipped in its current form to facilitate research on the role of power across all disciplines will require further theoretical, conceptual, and empirical work that is beyond the scope of this chapter. Nonetheless, this general strategy, which focuses on identifying existing SES attributes and the relationships among groups with respect to those attributes, encourages researchers to embrace interdisciplinary approaches to power, while thinking rigourously about how to move through the research process from conceptualization to operationalization and measurement. The SES framework was designed precisely to facilitate such interdisciplinary work and to provide a foundation upon which multiple disciplinary approaches to research may find, if not agreement, then mutual intelligibility.

Finally, further issues arise as researchers move from measurement to analysis of whether particular conceptualizations of power matter. This analysis presumed to evaluate the relationship between power and social-ecological benefits by positing a single causal step from the indicator to the outcome. However, many scholars view power in terms of a complex web of self-reinforcing historical processes, institutions, and resources that collectively privilege some groups over others (Pierson 2000; Benjaminsen et al. 2009). Furthermore, studying some individual indicator of power in isolation from others may fundamentally conflict with the ways in which power operates to either sustain or degrade social-ecological systems. This reflects a growing debate in the social sciences concerning the ways in which attributes or variables are understood to affect social phenomena. The classic approach that corresponds to multivariate quantitative methods is to assume that variables have a conditionally independent and additive effect on a dependent variable (Freedman 1999). In contrast, many qualitative methodologists view outcomes in terms of a unique confluence of slowand fast-moving causes that interact in complex ways to produce often unexpected results (Pierson 2003). More recently, a third perspective has emerged that seeks to strike a balance between these two extremes and suggests that outcomes depend upon the state of combinations of attributes that collectively define a case (Ragin 2000; Basurto and Ostrom 2009). We suggest that the SES framework offers scholars engaging diverse theoretical and methodological approaches an opportunity to structure their debates in systematic and coherent terms.

The SES framework is a bold and ambitious tool meant to serve a diverse audience of interdisciplinary scholars, many of whom focus explicitly on questions of power and inequality. It is unfortunate that the framework has yet to take greater strides in this direction, forcing scholars to develop ad hoc solutions, or, more likely, to choose alternative, more disciplinary-focused analytical tools. In perpetuating the shift toward a positive theory of environmental governance, the SES framework neglects the important normative question as to why we should care in the first place. The fields of environmental governance in particular and public policy in general exist to confront the problems of society and promote “human dignity” (Lasswell 1951). Power is an integral part of human affairs, and we believe that power ought to be given greater attention within institutional studies of SESs. However, such an endeavor must seek to explicate the positive and normative implications of diverse forms of power that characterize “alternatives futures” (Ostrom 2008).

 
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