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The Drama of the Commons 11 Emergence of Institutions for the Commons: Contexts, Situations, and Events Bonnie J. McCay For my part in this common endeavor, I was asked to consider the emergence of institutions for common-pool resources and “the commons.” My goal is to use the topic of emergence to present ideas and research that modify and supplement the neo-institutional effort, providing ideas about new directions for common property research. The notion of “situated choice” frames my discussion of emergence. Although closely linked to the neo-institutionalist endeavor through the focus on choice, it is tied even more closely to a critical perspective on commons research that emphasizes the embeddedness of the individual and rational choice in larger contexts and in particular situations that can only be known through investigations into history, political dynamics and social structure, culture, and ecology. Consequently, in addition to an effort to think through what might be involved in the emergence of institutions for the commons, I address larger methodological and theoretical issues. My ideas about institutions and the commons owe a great deal to the large body of institutionalist and rational choice literature that informs the rest of this volume and the collective effort behind it. Underpinned by a “rational action model” (Dietz, 1994) of human behavior and the mechanics of “free rider” and “prisoners’ dilemma” situations, much of the “neo-institutionalist” work on common-pool resources has focused on incentive structures and group dynamics that change the perceived costs and benefits to individuals to favor more cooperative action (e.g., Bromley, 1992; Agrawal, this volume:Chapter 2). The cultural, historical, and ecological approach that I advocate calls for a somewhat different perspective on institutions than is currently dominant in common-pool resource studies. Institutions are more than “rules of the game in society” (North, 1990:3). Rules and rule making have proved a fruitful focus of in-
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The Drama of the Commons quiry in understanding commons institutions (e.g., Bromley, 1989; Ostrom, 1990). Rules, law, and governance are major institutions affecting human behavior. However, many social scientists see institutions as including not only rules but also norms and values (McCay and Jentoft, 1998; Scott, 1995), and at the very least as including both rules and the patterns of behavior that may or may not be shaped by rules and lead to changes in them (Leach et al., 1997). Accordingly, the emergence of institutions for the commons should include not only rules and governance systems but also new and changed patterns of behavior and norms and values. For example, changing perceptions of the environment or patterns of supply and demand can change human behavior on a fairly large scale without involving the social dynamics and political behavior involved in making and changing rules. Consequently, I assume a broader conception of institutions that includes patterned behavior as well as rules and that locates institutions as major features of the cultural, cognitive, and ecological realms within which acting and decision-making individuals and social groups are embedded. In emphasizing the importance of “situation” and “context,” I join those who believe that a fuller and more satisfactory account would include the possibility of irrational and arational action and of motivations beyond narrowly pecuniary ones. It also would rely less on methodological individualism than the classic neo-institutional approaches do. Methodological individualism starts with the individual as the heuristic in understanding the behavior of groups. It frames “commons” questions as ones that are about the bases of cooperation or about how individual motivations and actions affect the collective. So far so good, but these frames also marginalize huge sets of phenomena that concern interrelations among collectivities as well as how the choices and actions of individuals are embedded in, influenced by, and constitutive of larger social and cultural phenomena (Peters, 1987). A more cultural and historical approach in human ecology sees “commons” questions as ones about competition and collaboration among social entities; the embeddedness of individual and social action; and the historical, political, sociocultural, and ecological specificity of human-environment interactions and institutions. It suspends or at least calls into question the methodological individualism that is associated with rational action models. In theory all institutions and social actions could be reduced to the individual level. However, reducing complex local situations and local and larger institutions to individuals is not always necessary or appropriate for adequate explanation, the requirements for which are contingent on the question being asked and the particulars of the phenomenon being studied. STRUCTURE OF THE CHAPTER In the first section of this chapter I focus on the assigned “emergence” question, using the notion of “situated choice” to underscore the importance of contexts and situations when attempting to explain the behavior of people faced with
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The Drama of the Commons choices related to common-pool resources. The discussion builds on work done in health psychology and risk studies, but it should be clear that it calls for a far more social, political, and ecological perspective than usually found in those research traditions or in the neo-institutionalist tradition of common-pool resource studies. For example, I discuss matters such as the role of culture in appraisals of environmental problems, why incrementalism or “muddling through” helps in the provision of institutions, and the importance of physical and social spaces and open communication for deliberation about common problems. The second section of the chapter reviews alternatives to the neo-institutionalist paradigm for understanding commons problems. I begin by introducing two approaches in human ecology that may be helpful in understanding commons problems and the emergence of institutions. The older one is the “economics of flexibility” or “response process” approach developed and used mostly during the 1970s. The newer one is “political ecology.” I then discuss the broader set of historical, social constructionist, and “embeddedness” perspectives that underpin many critiques of common-pool resource studies and the importance of being specific and critical about key concepts, in this case “community.” The third section brings together social constructionism and “event ecology,” emphasizing the methodological points shared by otherwise seemingly strange bedfellows. Among the shared perspectives is concern about adopting a priori any particular theory or hypothesis if the goal is to understand and explain human-environment interactions. SITUATED RATIONAL CHOICE AND THE EMERGENCE OF INSTITUTIONS FOR THE COMMONS A start toward bringing together the rational choice approach and theoretical and methodological approaches in the social sciences that emphasize context and sociality may be found in the notion of situated or embedded rational choice. Rational choices are embedded in situations or contexts that structure the preferences people have, the knowledge available to them, its quality and levels of uncertainty, the risks they face, the resources to which they have access, the people with whom they interact, and more, including the institutions—norms, rules, values, organizations, and patterns of behavior—that frame and structure their lives. Neo-institutional models of behavior play a major role in this discussion of the emergence of institutions. The analytic and rhetorical power of such models cannot be denied. The idea of “situated rational choice” is that rational choice is affected strongly by the situation of the individual or other decision-making entity, with situation defined in social, cultural, political, and ecological terms as relevant to contexts that are specified in historical, geographic, and other ways. It is an incremental move toward an analytic orientation that gives stronger methodological and theoretical weight to the complexity, history and dynamics, and in-
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The Drama of the Commons teractive features of social and environmental phenomena (e.g., McCay and Acheson, 1987a; Leach et al., 1997). The study of risk perception and human behavior (Chess et al., 1995; Gardner and Stern, 1996; National Research Council, 1996), has been helpful to me in thinking about the emergence of common-pool resource institutions. Problems affecting the sustainability of natural resources or the viability of livelihoods based on those resources may be viewed as situations of risk: the risk of losing access to and the use of something valuable and essential to the life of a person, a family, a community. Many common-pool resource issues are classic ones of risk, such as the contamination of water, air, and soil. But the concept of risk can be extended to changes in the condition of renewable natural resources as well. How people—individuals, organizations, communities, bodies of experts—are affected by and perceive those risks is critical to whether and how they respond, including responses that affect the emergence of institutions for reducing or preventing those risks. Take, for example, the risk of illness and death from exposure to natural or anthropogenic sources of the gas radon. The kind of question typically asked in this research tradition concerns voluntary individual action: Why do some people voluntarily test their homes and make structural changes to reduce their exposure to radon, and others do not? What leads people to adopt precautions to protect themselves from threats of exposure to radon? The answer is interesting and important to the notion of situated rational choice. According to Weinstein and Sandman (1992), it all depends: Some people do not know or understand the threat of radon in their homes; others know but do not see it as serious to themselves personally; others are at a different stage, seeking or perhaps assessing information about what can be done about the problem; yet others have concluded that they can or cannot afford to address the problem, given their resources and what they know about it. Only a few are actually receptive to educational campaigns. This is a good example of the experimental and observational research done by health psychologists that shows that the responses of people to perceived risks to their lives and health are contingent on the so-called “stage” they are in with respect to recognizing the problem and adopting some precaution or taking other action (Weinstein et al., 1998). Although the notion of stages implies an unfolding process of linked events, it also can be viewed as a decision-tree or a step-wise series of situations. The idea of “situation” and “situated rational choice” applies to the “stages” or decision-points, which may or may not be part of a predictable process (cf. Vayda et al., 1991). It is reasonable to conclude that answering questions about what leads people to change how they act—including actions that affect institutions with respect to common-pool resources—similarly requires analysis of their situations. Translated into the domain of concern about common-pool resources and related environmental problems, the theory becomes the following: Depending
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The Drama of the Commons on their situations, some people simply may be unaware of environmental problems; others may be aware but not convinced they can do anything about them; and others simply may not have the resources required to do something about them or may reckon that the effort is not worth it, given costs and other obligations. Some may be in a situation and have the interests and resources that affect their decisions about whether to participate in or support collective action, whether through existing political forums or through social movements (Stern et al., 1999). As will be shown, addressing the question of emergence of institutions this way can lead to important insights and expanded arenas of inquiry. The following ideas about the emergence of institutions that relate to the use and management of common-pool resources thus are guided by a situated rational choice perspective—what is reasonable for an individual, or group of individuals, given the situation. However, the emphasis on situations also leads to a more social, political, and ecological perspective on the nature and explanatory importance of those situations and their contexts. The Step-Wise Model of Situated Rational Choice The emergence of institutions for governance of common-pool resources will depend on several step-wise conditions. To begin, is a problem calling for institutional change actually recognized by the people involved, particularly the people with the resources and power required to make changes? How serious is this problem compared with other issues as well as with past experience? Will it merit being put on the agenda of individuals, households, firms, social movement organizations, government agencies, or other actors? Recognition of a Serious Problem Attributes of the resource or environmental system make a big difference to these situations: Can people really know what is happening? Do they perceive changes in the environment that may signal problems with common-pool resources? Can they distinguish transient and local from persistent and large-scale problems? For example, for the Koyukon people of northern Alaska, moose and caribou differ significantly with implications for how people think about and act toward them. Moose are less migratory, and more territorial, and tend to be found alone or in small groups; consequently, people know more about particular moose and their habits, and the moose are less likely than caribou to be hunted by different groups of people (see Nelson, 1983). For the Miskito Indians of the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua, the presence, absence, and abundance of sea turtles off their shores seemed to have little to do with their own behavior, even when they began intensive commercial harvesting (see Nietschmann, 1973). Decline in turtle catches was interpreted as being due to the fact that turtles simply had gone some
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The Drama of the Commons where else. This interpretation has a certain rationality given the fact that the sea turtles do migrate over huge areas and are at their most vulnerable, when egg laying, far from the shores of Nicaragua. In addition, some kinds of common-pool resource problems are inherently difficult to perceive and assess, particularly those that are very diffuse, mostly invisible and intangible, and not easily associated with particular consequences. The most obvious examples are exposures to radiation, air and water pollution, and toxic emissions and wastes, where uncertainty plays a major role in the construction of personal understandings of risk but also in the political deliberative processes (Freudenberg, 1988). Attributes of experience and social organization and political system also make a difference, for example, to the ability of common-pool resource users to communicate and teach others about what they see as a problem and to deliberate the seriousness of the problem in comparison with the past and other issues. The challenge is to get people’s attention, to put it on the agenda. Social structure and culture can play a major role in determining which phenomena will be defined as risky as well as levels of risk and general notions about risk and the environment as discussed later in the chapter. They also influence the distribution of knowledge and expertise, whether widely shared or the closely guarded treasure of a few, as well as how effectively experts can communicate with the larger community. Many cases of the nonemergence of self-governance can be due to difficulties at the level of problem recognition and placement on an “agenda.” Some groups may not be able to appreciate the magnitude of the problems confronting them (such as declining productivity of an estuary or increased soil erosion due to grazing practices) because of the subtlety, novelty, or stochasticity of the ecological systems or because of imperfections in their monitoring systems. They may be unaware of or disinterested in the public goods (such as biodiversity or watershed quality) associated with their private uses (e.g., Gibson and Becker, 2000). If some people in the group do recognize the problem, they may or may not be able to communicate it effectively to others and get it onto the larger agenda, depending on their position in the social hierarchy, the social legitimacy of their knowledge versus other sources of knowledge, and other social-situational factors. Cultural understandings of human-environment relations can affect the definition of problems and the potential for solutions. In complex socioeconomic systems, some people are affected more than others, and differing interests and access to political power and communicative resources greatly affect the agenda. Examples include situations involving environmentalist nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), resource-dependent local communities, and extraction companies, but actual situations are likely to be even more complex and nuanced (for example, elite members of a local community making special deals with either the NGOs or the companies) (Sawyer, 1996). The agenda can be shaped heavily by national ideology and politics as well, as is the case for interpretations of
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The Drama of the Commons grasslands decline in China and Inner Mongolia (Williams, 2000). In addition, where there is a high degree of uncertainty about the environmental problems, as is often the case in fisheries as well as in many toxic exposure situations, there is even more scope for conflict and opportunistic behavior by special interests (Wilson and McCay, 1999). Finally, in some situations, the predicted response of most people and social entities is “so what?” During civil war or a famine, protecting a forest or water supply is not likely to galvanize action. The critical and scarce resource is the ability to survive. “So what” can also be the response when new opportunities arise quickly, before existing institutions can respond to them (or are overwhelmed by them). For example, if most people in a community are making money from the destructive practice of dynamiting fish on a coral reef, protecting that reef is not likely to happen unless someone can provide alternative resources and motivations (see Alcala and Russ, 1990). Determining Cause and Effect Once on the agenda, a whole new set of questions arises. Do people see and accept any cause-and-effect or action-and-consequence relationship between their behavior and the environment issue at hand? (This also affects whether the problem gets onto the agenda.) If they do, is the situation viewed as something that can be corrected or that is “too far gone”? In many situations, because of culture, past experience, or the inherent disconnects between perceived action and perceived consequences, people do not accept that their actions or the actions of other people have any real effect on the resources in question, either as causes of problems or as potential sources of solutions. Carrier (1987) shows this for Ponam Islanders of Papua New Guinea, who believed that God, not people, caused change in fish, shellfish, and turtles, and thus were unwilling to accept the need to change their harvesting practices being promulgated by people concerned about major declines in some of these resources. Similarly, many New England fishermen have resisted changes in fishery management because they were convinced that chaotic-like processes in nature had long resulted in cycles of abundance and decline, and thus that restrictions on their catches would do little good (Smith, 1990; see Wilson, this volume:Chapter 10). The role played by such dismissals or suspicions of human agency is likely to be greater with respect to resources that are difficult to monitor (i.e., fast-moving fish versus stationary shellfish; or fish versus trees). Other ecological factors are important as well, such as variability and uncertainty. As noted already, features of the natural world influence whether people are able to accurately see what is happening to a common-pool resource, much less appraise the effects of human activities on it and predict what happens next. However, one should not focus too much on features of the natural environment at the expense
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The Drama of the Commons of recognizing ethno-ecological and cosmological differences in knowledge systems and philosophy. These differences are found among academic cultures as well. Nearly a generation of postmodern critical theory and analysis has shown how much our representations of the natural and social worlds are shaped by social facts and cultural preconceptions (e.g., Soulé and Lease, 1995). They are very imperfect mirrors of a reality we are hard pressed to know about, much less to care for. Culture plays a major role in how people assign causation and link events to consequences. One fairly well-developed way of incorporating culture into this kind of analysis is the “cultural theory” of anthropologist Douglas and political scientist Wildavsky (1982). They posit deep-rooted “cultural biases” that affect how people see cause and effect and appropriate action, as well as whether people will be concerned about the natural environment and be likely to act on that concern. They identified egalitarianism, hierarchy, individualism, and fatalism as the generic biases, which are distributed differently within and among societies and cultures. The biases express broad differences in the understanding of causes and consequences of environmental change and of the proper way of dealing with them, including reliance on authorities (hierarchy), individual behavior (individualism), possible collective action (egalitarianism), and leaving it to fate. Subject to much criticism (Rosa, 1996; Johnson and Griffith, 1996; cf. Stern et al., 1999), this approach nonetheless highlights the importance of culture. It is also another reminder of the evolving multidisciplinary area of research on risk perception and behavior, which articulates with the common property research tradition at several points. One of the dangers of “cultural theory” lies in esssentialism: In these accounts, people are or are not “individualists” or “fatalists,” and so on. Situation specificity should apply here, too, to capture the differences and changes in culture apparent in a particular situation. I noted that many New England fishermen have resisted changes in fishery management because they were convinced that chaotic-like processes in nature had long resulted in cycles of abundance and decline, and thus that restrictions on their catches would do little good (Smith, 1990). It is quite possible that this perception of nature, and especially its rhetorical use in public forums, was socially constructed in the course of decades-long conflicts over fisheries management in New England (see Miller and van Maanen, 1979) as well as in encounters with nature. Certainly the expression of this perception in the contexts depicted by Smith (1990) was skeptical and oppositional. In recent years, the use of such skeptical ideologies in adversarial encounters has begun to decline, as the contours of conflict have shifted such that New England fishermen are more likely to accept their role in the decline of fish stocks and seek a greater role in research and management (see Wilson, this volume:Chapter 10). From another, related analytic perspective, the cultural dimension is less about an overall, holistic “culture” than about how particular problems are framed, or socially constructed. To many fishermen in the New England and Mid-Atlan-
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The Drama of the Commons tic regions, such problems appear to be framed more in terms of the need to protect their livelihoods against intrusive outsiders, but for conservationists it was framed as the need to protect the fish populations in the context of what they viewed as a situation of industry “capture” of the regulatory institutions. Moving on to the next step: If there is acceptance of a serious problem and the possibility that human behavior has contributed to it, another question that arises is whether the problem is “too far gone” by the time it is recognized and accepted (Ostrom, 2001). Members of the community may decide that they can do nothing about it. And doing something about it may prove very difficult. Hanna’s (1995) analysis of user participation in fishery management in the Pacific coast of the United States showed the difficulties of sustaining cooperation where the natural resource had declined sharply. In sum, institutions for common-pool resource management may or may not arise depending on whether people accept that human behavior is a cause of problems, agree on whether some kind of regulation or other institutional change is called for, and believe the situation is not too far gone to do something about it. What to Do and Whether It Is Worth Doing In theory, even though people may be in a situation of recognizing and being concerned about a salient risk or environmental problem, nothing will happen unless they see possible solutions to the problem that they can take, individually or collectively, and then, whether they can weigh the costs and benefits of the alternatives and act on them. One or more of the alternatives must be seen as affordable and potentially effective to be considered worthwhile (Weinstein et al., 1998). Moreover, accepting human agency (one’s own or someone else’s) as a cause of common-pool resource or environmental problems does not necessarily mean acceptance of the need for institutional changes. Unless the institutional frameworks already exist, these changes can be very costly, and there may be considerable uncertainty about whether existing or new measures will actually work. For many common-pool resources, particularly the wild ones we often call “natural resources,” there is a high level of uncertainty about their behavior and dynamics. In addition, in situations dominated by bureaucratic structures, the issue of whether something will work may get lost because of lack of will and resources to plan for evaluation and adaptation of measures undertaken as well as because of conflict (Lee, 1993). Conflict is a major problem. A typical social response to perceptions of scarcity or other manifestations of trouble with a common resource is to exclude others from using that resource (Oakerson, 1992). This immediately raises the likelihood of conflict. As Bruce (1999) has shown in an overview of challenges to common property institutions for forest management (see also Pendzich et al., 1994), these and other conflicts, including internal
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The Drama of the Commons ones, can defeat attempts to create or change appropriate management institutions. Because of competing claims and interests, managing the commons often is tinged with fear and violence as well as competing and discordant uses. To sum the argument to this point, let me address the topic of this chapter in terms of how to explain the nonemergence of institutions for managing the commons. Nonemergence may come about because some people simply are unaware of environmental or common-pool resource problems. That is their situation. Others may be aware but not convinced they can do anything about them, given their situations. In some situations the problem is inability to come up with acceptable and reasonable ways to deal with the problematic conditions. And in others, it may be a matter of people not having the resources required to do something about the problem or reckoning that the effort is not worth it, given costs and other competing obligations, not to mention fear of reprisal from those with other interests and inability to resolve conflicts. Building on Existing Institutions From a rational choice perspective, the existence of institutions that can be adapted for new purposes may be extremely important to the emergence of self-governance of common-pool resources (Ostrom, 1990). They can lower transaction costs, providing the decision-making structures, enforcement powers, experiences, and cultural expectations that otherwise might have to be created anew and at great economic and political expense. Accordingly, the emergence of institutions is as likely as not to be a case of adapting or redirecting institutions that already exist and were created for other purposes. One example from the Shetland Islands is a community-based thrift institution that has become the vehicle for an innovative method of ensuring community benefits from privatized fishing rights (Goodlad, 1999). It is tempting to suggest that institutions for managing the commons are more likely to be ones that had their genesis in situations of conflicting claims to common-pool resources than ones that came about in situations in which people became aware of depletion or degradation per se. Most of the “sea tenure” institutions in fisheries (Cordell, 1989) were constructed in response to user conflicts rather than resource sustainability concerns. Rules, norms, and other institutions mitigate conflict by coordinating the use of fishing grounds and techniques. They also are created to protect groups against other groups, through creating exclusive territories (Acheson, 1987) or restricting the use of particular techniques and outlawing waste disposal in fishing grounds (Stocks, 1987). This is not to deny the existence and value of conservation-oriented behaviors. In fisheries the value of many such institutions has been amply documented, but with the interesting finding that in hardly any cases is the amount of catch actually controlled, in contrast with controls over access, timing, spacing, and other factors (Acheson and Wilson, 1996; Schlager, 1994). Hence, “indigenous conservation” is actually “indig-
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The Drama of the Commons enous conflict management” in many cases. Polunin (1984) makes a similar argument for the many and various systems of complex sea tenure arrangements in Indonesia and New Guinea, in the context of concern about overreliance on these “indigenous” sea tenure institutions for a task toward which many were not designed: preventing resource decline. Many cases of indigenous groups trying to create institutions for the commons are also good reminders of the danger of assuming that “conservation” or protecting the “sustainability” of local resources is always or properly the goal. As shown in many parts of Latin America, struggles to claim or gain recognition for common property by indigenous groups are often struggles for territory and for cultural identity vis-à-vis other claimants (Bruce, 1999:53). Prolonged political and other forms of conflict often are required before these groups gain the legal and political recognition they seek (Pendzich et al., 1994). In many cases, the goal of attempts to create institutions for the commons is less finding ways to address local resource scarcities or environmental problems than to protect against incursions from outsiders or to claim, or reassert, cultural identities and political power. Whether success in achieving those goals provides the wherewithal and motivation to develop appropriate internal rules for managing the commons for sustainability is another question. Arguably, it is a critical step, the basis for the boundary definition, local autonomy, and other “design principles” of managing local commons (Ostrom, 1990), but it may or may not lead to management beyond the exclusion of outsiders. Conflicts do, of course, come about because of the very scarcities or threats to common resources that may prompt people to create or change institutions, making it difficult to separate conflict from conservation. A common response to resource scarcity is to try to exclude others (Oakerson, 1992). Those others may dispute the claims, leading to conflict. Indeed, the entire process of creating institutions for the commons can be highly conflictual, and finding ways to effectively resolve conflicts can be a critical task. As Bruce (1999:53) notes, “Disputing can harass and exhaust, and ultimately lead to the dissolution of common property institutions.” The development of institutions for conflict management and attempts to convert them to conservation purposes can be seen at national and international levels, too. In the course of the Law of the Sea proceedings of the 1970s and 1980s, nations eagerly grabbed 200 nautical miles off their coasts as exclusive territory or “extended economic zones” (EEZs) while paying little attention to the requirement that they manage their own fisheries as well as restrict outsiders’ fisheries in the new EEZs (Hoel, 2000). Regional institutions and organizations also have developed from similar bases, and the challenge today is their reorientation for sustainable resource use and conservation (Hall, 1998; Noonan, 1998). There is also “indigenous marketing management.” McCay (1980) and Berkes and Pocock (1987) report on fisheries cooperatives that do limit catches, exceptions to the finding noted earlier. In those cases, the intended reason for
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The Drama of the Commons attention if one relied solely on a bioeconomic model of fish population dynamics and incentives for entry into a fishery. Moreover, use of the “tragedy of the commons” model may blind investigators to other causes and justify the adoption of social policies that unfairly disadvantage the “commoners.” A much broader set of explanatory possibilities emerges if one is not constrained by a theory-driven agenda, including the “common property” model, or even a topic-driven agenda, including the admittedly fascinating study of rule-driven institutions for dealing with common-pool resources. Institutions affecting access and regulation of uses of common-pool resources may indeed be important causes of environmental change, and the study of them can be important in its own right, but if our ultimate goal is explaining the causes of environmental change, we should start elsewhere, keeping institutions in their situation-specific contexts. CONCLUSION: SPECIFYING THE COMMONS It is widely appreciated that context is important to the choices and behavior of people, but the theoretical and empirical underpinning for that observation is woefully lacking. Ostrom reviewed the roles of trust, reputation, and reciprocity in enhancing levels of cooperation in structured and natural common-pool resource experiments and suggested some of the contextual factors that make a difference, including the size of the group and whether there is face-to-face communication, as well as information about past actions (Ostrom, 1998:15). The experimental and behaviorist approach she advocates and has developed addresses the question of collective action or cooperation. She calls for a concerted effort to develop “second-generation theory of boundedly rational and moral behavior” (Ostrom, 1998:16) that would focus on questions such as why levels of cooperation change and vary so greatly among individuals and situations and why specific configurations of situational conditions affect cooperation. Others in this volume contribute to the effort and questions she has outlined. I have taken a somewhat different tack in order to draw attention to efforts by social theorists to address “commons” kinds of questions in ways that bring the social and contextual more directly into the analytic picture. One is the well-known approach that emphasizes the social construction of reality. Another is the “embeddedness” approach, which has been credited with finding an accommodation between the economic individualist and the social/structuralist ways of analyzing human behavior and institutions. Closely related is the set of approaches loosely called political ecology, which insert the macro-structural forces emphasized in political economy into studies of human-environmental relations, and which also emphasize the roles of discourse and power in the social construction of environmental and social realities—and in the construction and use of key terms, including “the commons” and “community.” Context is much more than group size, the nature of communication, and group history, especially if the ques-
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The Drama of the Commons tion is not what causes people to cooperate or not but rather how to explain particular institutional and environmental outcomes. I have also identified two approaches that provide a stronger orientation toward the “ecological” side of the human-ecological set, the “economics of flexibility” theory and the methodology that Vayda and Walters (Walters and Vayda, 2001) have come to call “event ecology.” My argument is simple, although its implications for research are not. Explaining how people relate and respond to common-pool resources requires knowing more about their “situations” and how property rights and other institutions have been specified within those historical, ecological, and cultural situations. It requires specification of those situations and their broader contexts. These are essential elements of the frameworks within which decisions and actions concerning particular “commons” are embedded. Accordingly, the task of explaining the interactions between people and the common-pool resources in their environments requires looking not only at the decision-making calculi of individuals, but also a more fully specified account of who they are, what they have done, and what they will do in relation to those common-pool resources and in relation to governance issues. It requires documenting the events that lead to and follow from particular human-environmental interactions and trying to explain causes and consequences. Depending on what appears significant to explaining such events and interactions, it may require investigating the social entities that represent them and that they help reproduce and alter (families, households, voluntary associations, ad hoc coalitions and action groups, professional societies, political parties, government agencies); their histories, values, resources, and social networks; the nature of the common-pool resource/environmental problems they face; the local, regional, and global economic and political forces that influence their behavior; their “webs of significance” or the cultural “filters” by which people perceive, construct, and understand common-pool resource/environmental problems; and the political, legal, cultural, and other institutions that mold and constrain their perceptions and interpretations and the options and incentives they face. These are some of the tasks that may be required to adequately explain “dramas of the commons,” whether tragedy, comedy, romance, or just plain narratives of human ecology. NOTES 1 The concept of “governing mechanisms” is part of a respecification by Wilson of Habermas’ communicative systems theory (see Wilson and McCay, 1999). 2 Selsky and Memon introduce the concept of domain to refer to the larger social field within which common-pool resources and the various groups involved in their use and regulation exist. They use “commons” to refer to “an enduring set of emergent local processes of resource mobilization and institution building with specific properties” (Selsky and Memon, 2000:6), and they distinguish between emergence in and emergence of a commons, arguing that a focus on domains allows study of the emergence of commons institutions. 3 “Event ecology” developed from the “response process” and “economics of flexibility” ap-
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Representative terms from entire chapter: