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Studies of social dilemmas consistently report higher than expected levels of cooperation, especially in the presence of appropriate institutions. At the same time, scholars have argued that institutions are manifestations of power relations. The higher than expected levels of cooperation amidst widespread power asymmetries constitute an important puzzle about the linkages between power asymmetries and the outcomes of local institutional deliberation. In this paper, I develop a microfoundation-based approach that examines incentives and imperatives to explain how power asymmetries shape individuals’ responses to institutional development and institutional change. I argue that local power asymmetries work across multiple interlinked institutional arenas. A fuller examination of the effects of power asymmetries, therefore, requires that scholars account for how interlinked institutional arenas shape strategic actions of the members and leaders within local communities.
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Journal of Theoretical Politics
2016, Vol. 28(1) 5–26
ÓThe Author(s) 2015
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DOI: 10.1177/0951629815586877
Integrating power in
institutional analysis: A
micro-foundation perspective
Prakash Kashwan
Department of Political Science, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT, USA
Studies of social dilemmas consistently report higher than expected levels of cooperation, espe-
cially in the presence of appropriate institutions. At the same time, scholars have argued that insti-
tutions are manifestations of power relations. The higher than expected levels of cooperation
amidst widespread power asymmetries constitute an important puzzle about the linkages between
power asymmetries and the outcomes of local institutional deliberation. In this paper, I develop a
microfoundation-based approach that examines incentives and imperatives to explain how power
asymmetries shape individuals’ responses to institutional development and institutional change. I
argue that local power asymmetries work across multiple interlinked institutional arenas. A fuller
examination of the effects of power asymmetries, therefore, requires that scholars account for
how interlinked institutional arenas shape strategic actions of the members and leaders within
local communities.
Collective action; institutional analysis; interlinked institutional arenas; power asymmetries; social
1. Introduction
Institutions of collective action remain one of the central concerns of social scien-
tists. Commons scholars examine the factors that foster successful collective action,
that is, prevent free riding and regulate individual actions that do not conform to
Corresponding author:
Prakash Kashwan, Department of Political Science, University of Connecticut, 365 Fairfield Way, Storrs, CT
06269, USA.
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the goals of sustainable management of common pool resources (Agrawal, 2001;
Coleman, 2009; McKean, 1992; Ostrom, 1990). The need for coercive enforcement
is minimal in local communities that are homogeneous. However, most local com-
munities are divided along multiple axes of caste, class, and gender that often rein-
force long entrenched inequalities within a local community (Agrawal and Gibson,
1999). The divisions within local communities are often tied to differences of stakes
and interests related to common pool resources.
The costs and benefits of collective action, in particular of coercive enforcement,
are often distributed unevenly across different groups within local communities.
Such outcomes are attributed in part to the differences of wealth and power that
enable local elites to secure institutional arrangements to serve their interests
(Olson, 1965). Studies show that, ceteris paribus, local elites often free-ride even as
they are able to subject the relatively powerless actors within local communities to
the enforcement of collectively agreed rules (Pe
´rez-Cirera and Lovett, 2006).
Others show that effectively functioning local institutions help dampen the nega-
tive effects of local inequalities (Andersson and Agrawal, 2011; Varughese and
Ostrom, 2001). In light of the ubiquity of intra-community power differences, these
two findings about the effects of power asymmetries on local institutional out-
comes point to a paradox: even though powerful local actors – community leaders
and government officials – prefer to put in place institutions of their liking, the lit-
erature on common pool resources suggests that a majority of local communities
are able to build consensus to design institutions that foster local collective action.
In this article, I propose the framework of multiple interlinked institutional are-
nas to explain the frequent cases of local consensus despite entrenched power asym-
metries. I argue that the choices actors make in one institutional arena reflect their
understanding about how those choices affect their interests and stakes in other
institutional arenas. The framework of interlinked institutional arenas is thus moti-
vated by a microfoundational theory about the drivers of the political behavior of
key actors involved in institutional bargaining (Achen, 2002). The framework of
interlinked action arenas prompts researchers to expand the analytical field of
vision to get a closer approximation of the full array of incentives, imperatives, and
expectations that shape individual choices. While other scholars examine interlin-
kages between multiple policy and programmatic arenas (Lubell et al., 2010;
McGinnis, 2011), I conceive of these interlinkages from the vantage point of the
interests and stakes individuals have in multiple institutional arenas. Such an
expansion of the scope of inquiry puts a greater empirical burden on the researcher,
but the payoff is a significant improvement in the ability of the researcher to predict
institutional outcomes. I also draw specific theoretical implications and hypotheses
that can be tested in the context of social dilemmas.
The empirical cases I use for this investigation are related to the multi-tier gov-
ernance of forests in India. The analysis presented in this article draws on two
rounds of field research conducted between 2007 and 2009 in the western Indian
state of Gujarat, which included participant observation of key events, such as
meetings of forestry associations, interviews with key government officials and
community leaders, and triangulation of information by referring to multiple
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sources of observations. The choice of forest governance as the empirical setting is
very appropriate because the commons scholars and political ecologists recognize
social and political power as an important driver of forest governance outcomes
(Agrawal, 2005; Larson, 2010; Ribot and Peluso, 2003). Forested regions, which
some scholars recognize as ‘socio-political hotbeds’, constitute important sites for
addressing simultaneously the questions of social justice and environmental conser-
vation (Brechin et al., 2002). Because power asymmetries are ubiquitous even in
the context of developed countries, a focus on entrenched power asymmetries is
likely to contribute to our understanding of human behavior in the context of pub-
lic economies in general (Newell, 2005; Sarat, 1990).
In the next section, I explain in more detail the theoretical framework of inter-
linked institutional arenas, and explain how it helps account for two different types
of local inequalities, viz. within group inequalities and inequalities of access to gov-
ernment agencies and officials. Section 3 presents evidence from field research on
two cases of institutional development and institutional change in forest govern-
ance, which is followed in Section 4 by an analysis of the empirical evidence. I con-
clude in Section 5 by drawing implications for debates about the integration of
power in institutional analysis, and demonstrating the relevance of the analytical
approach I develop this article to institutional analysis at meso and macro levels.
2. Bargaining in social dilemmas
Social dilemmas are a recurring feature in the governance of common pool
resources. The level of local cooperation is contingent not only on the interest indi-
vidual actors have in the sustainable management of resources, but also on
whether those interested in securing local cooperation are able to enforce locally
agreed upon norms. When some local actors are powerful enough to usurp the
benefits of local collective action, even without contributing a fair share of the
investment needed, the outcomes of a social dilemma situation closely approximate
the ‘tragedy of the commons’ (Cox et al., 2013). In these cases, manifest asymme-
tries in bargaining powers predictably lead to poor collective outcomes. However,
despite the widespread intra-community power differences, both empirical and
experimental studies of common pool provisions report significantly higher levels
of non-market cooperation than would be expected based on classical theoretical
statements, such as prisoner’s dilemma (see Ostrom, 1992; Rothstein, 2000).
While acknowledging that intra-community differences of income, wealth, caste,
ethnicity, and gender affect local institutional outcomes, scholars argue that place-
based attributes of trust, reciprocity, and reputation enable members of local com-
munities to overcome such differences (Ostrom, 2003). The multiple intersections
of local inequalities and place-based attributes explain the curvilinear effects of
inequality on local institutional outcomes (Bardhan and Dayton-Johnson, 2007;
Varughese and Ostrom, 2001). However, few empirical analyses examine the recur-
sive and dynamic effects of the intersection of local inequalities and institutional
outcomes. Exceptions include the interesting insight that scarcity of resources
needed for collective action creates cooperation-inducing interdependencies
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between groups of differently endowed cooperators (Ostrom and Gardner, 1993).
Without the interdependencies, experimental evidence shows, average payoffs fall
significantly when one of the participants has asymmetric power (Cox et al., 2013).
In this analysis, I argue that social and political interdependencies often engen-
der incentives and imperatives to which participants in institutional deliberations
respond. In cases in which, because of information asymmetries, resource users
must rely on leaders for securing information about public policies, leaders tend to
benefit at the cost of an equitable distribution of the benefits of resource manage-
ment (Theesfeld, 2004). More generally, the less powerful members of a community
often rely on relatively more powerful and wealthier community members to pur-
sue and sustain collective endeavors. However, as Mancur Olson argued, local
elites who make privileged contributions to the provision of local collective goods
are likely to seek a disproportionate share of the gains accruing from local ‘collec-
tive’ action (Olson, 1965). Once the distributional consequences of such institutions
are accounted for, many of the cooperative outcomes should be more accurately
described as the wealthy buying the acquiescence of the poor. Such ‘interdependen-
cies’ are hard to examine when they work across multiple issues arenas, a topic that
has been the subject of research by sociologists who study resource access.
To secure access to natural resources the poor within marginalized communities
invest in cultivating relationships with locally powerful gatekeepers. Subordinate
actors often transfer a share of benefits from resource management to local leaders
who control means of access (Ribot and Peluso, 2003). While the object of inquiry
for the access analysts is ‘a particular benefit coming from a particular resource’
(Ribot and Peluso, 2003: 161), others have examined how access mechanisms
become part of the ‘repertoires of .multiple, substitutable acts of domination that
draw upon varied sources of power’ (Poteete and Ribot, 2011: 439). I build on
these perspectives to examine how the interlinkages across multiple formal and
informal institutional arenas shape the outcomes of institutional design and institu-
tional change. Specifically, I address two different types of inequalities: within-
group inequality, which manifests in multipronged leverage that local leaders
wield, and inequality of access to the state and state officials.
Marginalized and poor people also wield power in some cases, viz. the weapons
of the weak. Even so, the historically entrenched power asymmetries enable local
leaders to exercise significant power and authority, as evident from the vast litera-
ture about elite capture and rent-seeking in many local institutional contexts (e.g.
Platteau, 2004). Elite capture is often attributed to corruption and malpractices,
which in turn are linked to the absence of the rule of law. The model of local leaders
that I propose in this article offers a more nuanced view of power asymmetries in
local institutions. This model recognizes that leaders exercise power by virtue of
their contributions to important institutional functions: they facilitate local conflict
resolution and act as a conduit between the local community and external govern-
ment and non-government agencies. A traditional leader who commands respect
and authority to mediate intra-village conflicts within the local informal institu-
tional arenas often also gate keeps state-led programs and services. Individuals who
are dependent on a leader’s goodwill for securing and maintaining access to, say,
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the state-sponsored welfare programs, must account for how their decisions might
affect their relationship with the leader who wields power in more than one institu-
tional arena. The choices that an individual makes with such a vantage point are
unlikely to make sense unless scholars expand the scope of their research to account
for such interlinkages.
This relatively parsimonious model of local power asymmetries also facilitates
an examination of how local power asymmetries link with the broader institutional
context. The inequality of access to state institutions creates a niche in which enter-
prising local leaders collaborate with government officials who hold discretionary
powers to allocate valued resources. The struggles between competing factions of
leaders to occupy such institutional niches has profound effect on local institutional
outcomes (see Section 3.2). Even so, the drivers of inter-elite struggles are not exclu-
sively ‘local’. The broader context of the absence of rule of law, which is a key fea-
ture of the countries in the global South, is integral to local power asymmetries
(Brechin et al., 2002; Sundar, 2011). Such features of the political and economic
context are a source of imperatives for the marginalized groups and a source of
incentives for the relatively powerful local actors, including leaders and government
The framework of interlinked institutional arenas across the state-society divide
facilitates an inquiry into the effects of power asymmetries on institutional design
and institutional change, and improves our understanding of human behavior in
social dilemma settings more generally. It leads to a key hypothesis that those with-
out power will defer to local leadership either to secure benefits or avoid additional
costs in other interlinked institutional arenas. This hypothesis is intended to explain
the counterintuitive outcomes in which individuals do not seemingly respond to the
incentives available to them in any given social dilemma situation. Indeed, the
choice to abstain from challenging an unfair rule or outcome is also a case of
sophisticated ‘voting’, broadly understood. This hypothesis about the effects of
inequalities that span interlinked action arena can be tested against the alternative
hypothesis in which the actions are explained vis-a
`-vis the incentives related directly
to the specific policy and institutional arena, such as that of the forestry or irriga-
tion commons.
An understanding of institutional effects across interlinked institutional arenas
can be used to conduct a rudimentary cost-benefit accounting of the institutional
arenas that are salient to participants in institutional negotiations. However, the
most powerful application of this framework is to identify the interlinkages and to
draw policy implications of intervening in any one action arena under varying
degrees of interlinkages. The types of political and economic linkages examined in
this article are common throughout the global South (see Harriss et al., 1995), and
even in many developed country settings in which locally powerful actors mediate
access to state-led programs and services (Newell, 2005; Ostrom, 1990; Sarat,
1990). These implications are discussed in the concluding section of this article.
The following section examines two cases that illustrate how interlinkages across
arenas shape the outcomes of institutional design and institutional change.
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3. Application to questions of multi-level forest management
The literature on institutions for collective action pertaining to the community-
based forest governance examines both intra-community deliberations related to
institutional design and maintenance, and the relationship between local groups
and external government and non-governmental actors. In parallel, the empirical
analysis presented in this section is organized to address the horizontal and vertical
dimensions of inequality. First, I examine the aspects of forest governance related
to the negotiations within community groups, which relates to the increasing
emphasis in the commons literature on intra-community power differences
(Agrawal and Gibson, 1999; Kashwan and Lobo, 2014). Second, I turn to the
responses of community leaders and inter-community organizations to a case of
institutional change imposed by government agencies, which constitutes an
instance of recentralization of forest policy reported in recent times from dozens of
developing countries (see Ribot et al., 2006).
3.1. Crafting institutions under shadows of power asymmetry
The village of Solivada in the western Indian state of Gujarat has small parcels of
forests, with a significant number of trees on farm bunds and in other open spaces
all over the village land.
Agriculture in the village comprises growing both subsis-
tence and cash crops, such as cotton and pulses. The average land holding in the
village is quite low (;2 ha), which means that cash crops are produced mostly by
relatively well-to-do households.
A recent introduction to the villagers’ agriculture
portfolio is the highly lucrative tomato farming, which has been a cause of local
forest degradation. As the fruits begin to ripen, they become too heavy for the ten-
der tomato plants, each of which must then be supported by a small wooden pole.
Harvesting of the poles for this purpose is usually done during summer months
when villagers’ patrolling of forests and fields hits a lean patch. Most villagers
either migrate to cities looking for temporary employment, or are busy attending
the many marriage ceremonies that are solemnized prior to the onset of the
On an evening in July 2009, some 40 men from the village met at the Patel’s (i.e.
traditional leader, henceforth, ‘the leader’) home to discuss the next year’s plans
for protection of village farmlands and forests.
During the meeting, some of the
participants brought up the issue of illegal harvesting of poles for tomato farming.
However, the leader dismissed this as a minor issue, and he urged the villagers to
think about the future without digging up ‘buried corpses’. In the process, by
exchanging glances and nods of mutual approval, the leader tacitly took into confi-
dence other village notables present in the meeting. In this case, the leader exer-
cised the power of agenda control to avert a discussion that might have attracted
blame to some influential figures within the community. The next agenda point of
the meeting was to recruit watchmen for the patrolling of village forests and fields.
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Two alternative methods of raising household contributions for paying village
watchmen were on the table. Under the first, each family would contribute accord-
ing to the size of their landholding (equitable contributions). The second option
was to pay the watchmen by raising equal contributions from each juth, a group of
three to five families who jointly own draught animals and agriculture equipment.
A system of group contributions would work in the favor of households with large
landholding because landholdings of households vary greatly across groups. A
group-based system was the outcome of this part of the deliberations during the
village meeting. Because the members of smaller groups were likely to resist paying
a contribution they deem to be too high, the amount each group of households
would contribute was kept very low.
This meant that the watchmen were to be
paid far less than they would be if the contribution were linked to the size of house-
hold landholding, or if the contribution varied according to the aggregate land-
holdings across the groups. Notwithstanding the apparently low wages, when the
village leaders asked the two individuals interested in securing the watchmen posi-
tions, they did not oppose the rules. The candidate watchmen looked dissatisfied
though, as evident from their expressions, which I was in a position to observe sit-
ting next to them in the meeting.
The reluctance to drive a ‘bargain’ was understandable considering that the
individuals interested in taking up the jobs belonged to the caste group Naikadas,
the most marginalized group within the Adivasis – India’s indigenous groups. But,
somewhat surprisingly, no one else from the community contested the proposal for
group-based contributions, which clearly favored large land owners within the vil-
The apparent consensus about group-based contributions was all the more
surprising because the village was split into two opposing camps on nearly every
other social, political, and economic issue. A full understanding of these issues
required an in-depth examination of the context within which the leader
A series of conversations with individuals and discussions in small groups
revealed that the leader who held the position of the Patel had gained significant
bargaining power by filling a leadership vacuum after the previous leader resigned
because a group of village youth had openly defied his instructions. Before agree-
ing to take over the position of Patel, the new leader had secured a commitment
from the villagers that they would respect his decisions. He was able to drive such
a hard bargain with the villagers because the position of Patel serves a critical lead-
ership need of the village. The statutory ‘village’ council, which is an elected body,
includes about five villages on average. The head of the village council that
included Solivada lived in a different village. Therefore, Solivada needed to have
its own leader willing to host visiting government officials and other dignitaries.
In return for a disproportionately high contribution to the provision of the pub-
lic good of village leadership, the leader also gate keeps access to social welfare
and grassroots development programs, and the government officials in charge of
implementing them. These programs include, to name a few, the state-subsidized
housing for the poor, old-age pensions, recruitment of supervisors for village child
care units, and employment in the national rural employment guarantee scheme.
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The recruitment of supervisors for the implementation of the rural employment
programs, and the appointments to various local committees related to these pro-
grams often bring unanticipated benefits in bribes or ‘cuts’ out of the payments
due to villagers. Moreover, the leader also exercises discretionary powers in issuing
permits for harvesting from village forests the small timber that villagers often use
for building houses and agriculture implements. For the poorest people in the vil-
lage, benevolent leaders also offer protection against undue harassment and a sup-
portive hand, if the poor were to run into problems with any of the government
The two individuals interested in taking up the watchmen positions also knew
that they would depend on the leader’s goodwill to be effective in their job. A vil-
lage elder contrasted the two new candidates to the previous group of watchmen
who belonged to a different social group, and were therefore thought of as inher-
ently more aggressive and strong.
The previous group of watchmen was apparently
very effective at their jobs, but the villagers had to suspend their services after one
of them developed an intimate relationship with a village girl. More importantly,
those watchmen got paid in proportion to household landholding. They could do
that, explained the elder, because they were capable of securing official cadastral
maps, and they had the gumption to successfully secure timely payments from indi-
vidual households. In comparison, the individuals who had now accepted the job
were not in a position either to secure cadastral maps or to force villagers to pay on
Because of their marginalized social position, these individuals had to rely on
the leader’s help to collect payments.
Opposing the leader on the issue of the group-based payment system would
undermine the ability of watchmen to secure timely payments and the benefits of
participating in any of the myriad socioeconomic and administrative arenas that
the leader gate keeps. Even more importantly, in a village environment where
power relations are deeply entrenched and continually reinforced by unsavory
implications that dissidents have to face, most people do not even bring up these
questions. This is why, even though some youth raised the issue during the meet-
ing, albeit in quiet voices that came from the back of the room, no one was willing
to openly contest the leader’s decisions.
The discussion above of institutional
development in Solivada points to the effects of power asymmetries spread across
multiple and interlinked institutional arenas. The leaders wield power in multiple
social and political/administrative arenas, even as actions of the poor in the com-
munity are constrained by weaknesses that also span multiple arenas. These wide-
spread power asymmetries, which cut across formal and informal institutions, left
deep imprints on local institutional design and enforcement.
Seen from the vantage point of the standard bargaining framework, an analyst
may wonder if the payment system induced more inequality or not. That is, in
exchange for lower pay, were the guards compensated in other institutional arenas,
so that the net effects cancel out? It is important to recognize that these situations
are akin to Faustian bargains in which individuals at the lower end of the power
hierarchy must choose from a highly constrained choice set (cf. Moe, 2005).
Equally important, for those unable to challenge the institutions effectively,
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institutional choice is reduced to an act of avoiding retribution or new types of
costs in other institutional arenas. In this case, the options available to the new
watchmen were severely limited because of their social identity. The acceptance of
an unfair payment system is attributable to both the limitations imposed by the
individuals’ social background and their interest in keeping the leaders happy so
that they would not impose additional costs in other institutional arenas. These
outcomes are therefore a joint product of the command that leaders wield across
multiple issue arenas and a general absence of the rule of law, which makes possi-
ble the private enforcement of power across issue arenas linked through such
power relations. This may well be the key difference in how power asymmetries
operate in traditional societies (Poteete and Ribot, 2011; Ribot and Peluso, 2003),
as compared to developed industrial countries in which, by and large, different
issue arenas operate independently.
Next, I discuss a case of institutional change leading to recentralization of power
in the hands of government forestry officials. The case is similar to more than a
dozen cases of recentralization of forestry decentralization policies documented by
Ribot et al. (2006). In line with the previous section, the following discussion illus-
trates the relevance of power asymmetries that span multiple domains of economic
and political affairs in shaping how community leaders and inter-community orga-
nizations responded to recentralization of forest policy and programs.
3.2. Institutional change in multilevel forest governance in India
The institutional context for this cases is the widely documented program of parti-
cipatory forestry management called ‘joint forest management’ (JFM). JFM entails
the constitution of village level joint forest management committees (JFMCs),
which are mandated to work in collaboration with the forestry department.
However, a long body of research shows that the terms of the transaction remain
stacked in favor of forestry agencies (for recent analyses, see Le
´and Menon,
2014). The success of JFM was limited, in part, because the jurisdiction of the
JFM-based governance and the operation of each of the JFM committees were
limited to one or two villages. Even though a number of regional level federations
of JFM committees were established, somewhat along the lines of nested enter-
prises suggested by Ostrom (1990), little scholarly research is available on India’s
inter-community forestry associations or forestry federations (for an exception, see
Baviskar, 2001). This section analyzes the effects of power asymmetries on the pro-
cesses and outcomes of institutional change through an examination of the cases of
two regional forestry federations, with very different origins but with overlapping
jurisdiction and conflicting interests.
3.2.1. The case of two competing, multi-scale institutional regimes in local forestry. The
Bhiloda Sangh (literally and henceforth, federation), with a membership of 40 JFM
committees, originated as a monthly forum organized by a non-government orga-
nization (NGO) with the intention of facilitating inter-community deliberations
about shared concerns of forest management. The federation had sprung into
action much before JFM was launched in the state of Gujarat in 1991. Over the
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years, as many of the federation’s member villages worked with the forestry agency
to create village-level JFM committees, the federation assisted JFM committees to
implement small-scale forestry and development projects.
Even more importantly,
federation leaders played a key role in founding a state level confederation that
represented JFM committees at state level policymaking forums (Baviskar, 2001;
Raju, 1999).
The space that the federation secured at the state level policymaking forums also
worked as a deterrent against the arbitrary action on the part of local forest offi-
cials (Raju, 1999). In the year 2000, the federation successfully thwarted the
attempts by forest officials to deny to a village the benefits of timber share due to
them from a forest that the village had protected for over two decades
(Mudrakartha et al., 2008). On the other hand, the federation leaders also used
their association with forest officials to selectively ask for favors, for instance,
requesting that forest officials ignore minor violations of forest laws committed by
the members of JFM committees. In a nutshell, the mobilization of village level
forestry groups into the federation, and its participation in policy discussions,
helped contain the effect of power asymmetries between government agencies and
local leaders.
The federation’s position as an apex organization of JFM committees in the
region was challenged when the federal Ministry of Environment and Forests
(MoEF) decided to constitute the Forest Development Agency (FDA) as the offi-
cial federation with jurisdiction over all JFM committees within a forest division
(which is the forestry department’s equivalent of a district). Of all the actors and
agencies affected by the introduction of the FDA, the federation would be the most
likely to mount an effective resistance, which makes it suitable for a ‘most likely
case’ design (Gerring, 2007). Such expectations seemed to materialize at the time of
the first interactions that I had with the federation leaders in the summer of 2007.
However, the resistance had dissipated entirely by the time of the second round of
field research in the spring of 2009. An examination of the micro politics of this
transition, from resistance to ‘resignation’, as documented in the following pages,
contributes useful new insights to our understanding of power effects in a nested
institutional setting.
3.2.2. The imposition of ‘official’ forestry federations. The World Bank recognized the
FDA as one of the ‘primary institutions for community-based forestry in India’
(World Bank, 2005: 9). By March 2007, projects worth 375 million USD had been
sanctioned for 729 FDAs spread over all twenty-eight states.
More than 24,000
JFM committees are reported to be involved in these projects, which cover a forest
area of 0.92 million hectares (Pai and Datta, 2006). The ministry constituted FDAs
as ‘confederations of JFM committees’ and as institutional mechanisms for decen-
tralization of power to the committees (MoEF, 2002). Contrary to these declara-
tions, the organizational and authority structures of the FDAs closely mimic the
organizational hierarchy of India’s forest departments. Moreover, the ministry
entirely ignored the prior existence and stakes of the federations, such as the
Bhiloda federations discussed in this article, which evolved organically as a result
of the joints efforts of community groups and NGOs.
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An FDA is constituted for each forest division (which is the main territorial unit
of management under forestry department), and high ranking forest officials
occupy key executive and leadership positions in the FDAs. Any JFM committee
interested in participating in the official forestry programs and project must be
reconstituted according to the ministry’s directives. The creation of FDAs thus
entails significant institutional changes to the internal functioning of JFM commit-
tees. Even though JFM was by no means a revolutionary program of forestry
decentralization (Le
´and Menon, 2014), the formal rules under JFM allowed for
the development of grassroots federations with locally elected executive committees
and leaders with fixed terms subject to periodic reelections (Baviskar, 2001).
Table 1 summarizes institutional changes that are imposed on JFM committees
interested in receiving support from state forestry projects, all of which are now
routed through the FDAs (Shah, 2003).
An examination of Table 1 shows the specific changes in institutional arrange-
ments that JFM committees must follow as a precondition for participating in the
Table 1. Comparing formal rules for functioning of JFMCs under JFM and FDAs (adapted from
Shah, 2003).
JFM committees under JFM
(prior to the introduction of the
JFM committees under FDA
Chairperson Elected by a majority/consensus
among members
Elected by a majority/consensus
among members
Member secretary A forester for first three years,
to be subsequently replaced by a
A forester
Treasurer Elected by a majority/consensus Appointed by the forester in
consultation with the
Members of Executive
Elected by a majority/consensus Nominated by the forester in
consultation with the
Representation of
local government
Some states, including Gujarat,
provide for representation on
the committee
One member to be nominated
by the forester
Potential for
Yes (as illustrated by the case of
the Bhiloda Federation)
No, JFM committees must join
the federated structure of the
FDAs to access state funding
Role of NGOs NGOs could independently
support JFM Committees on all
NGOs’ role has been restricted
to provision of specific services
–organization of various
trainings, microplanning, etc.
While there is some variation between different states within India regarding specific provisions of JFM, the
differences are minor, and, at the level of broader policy issues, it is reasonable to generalize nationally
(Khare et al., 2000).
JFM: Joint Forest Management; FDA: Forest Development Agency; NGO: Non-governmental Organization.
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FDAs. Except for the JFM committee chairperson, all other officials and members
of the executive committee are nominated by forestry officials. The government for-
ester occupies the important positions of secretary and treasurer, which leads to the
concentration of decision-making and resource allocation powers in the office and
person of the government forester. Therefore, participating in the FDAs makes
JFM committees less democratic internally (Shah, 2003). These conclusions are
also corroborated by a Government of India-appointed working group, which con-
cluded that ‘while claiming to be federations of JFM committees, [the] FDAs are
totally controlled by forest officials’ (Anon, 2006: 71). The working group’s conclu-
sions draw attention to the hierarchical organization of the FDAs at the state and
national level.
Fifty JFM committee chairpersons from a division are nominated to the general
body of an FDA, out of whom fifteen are nominated to FDA’s executive commit-
tee. Moreover, the JFM committee chairpersons nominated to the FDA executive
committee do not hold any voting rights (Le
´, 2004). This was quite a contrast to
the NGO-supported community-based federations and confederations, such as
Bhiloda Sangh discussed above, and similar federations in other states.
leaders are also not represented in the state and national level FDA committees,
which are headed respectively by the chief secretary of the state government and
the secretary of the federal ministry of environment and forests. The FDAs thus fit
the description of recentralization of forestry policy laws such that governments
that had promised to devolve stronger rights to local communities in the past have
reneged on those promises (Ribot et al., 2006). A paradox that the research about
forestry recentralization has often missed is that other than national level move-
ments organized and driven by NGOs and national activist groups, recentraliza-
tion of forestry policies by governments rarely provoke concerted opposition from
forest-dependent groups adversely affected by such recentralization (cf. Chhatre,
2008). In the following section I examine how the recentralization of JFM unfolded
in the context of entrenched power asymmetries and inter-elite competition for
leadership and influence.
3.2.3. Responding to a state-sponsored institutional change amidst inequalities. The intro-
duction of the FDAs was a major point of debate during the annual general body
meeting of the Bhiloda federation held in June 2007. While many of the federation
leaders were poorly informed about the goals of the FDAs, others opposed the idea
of JFM committee accepting the strings attached to the support made available
through the FDAs. One of the office bearers present at the meeting impatiently cut
short a long-winded discussion to offer his perspective: ‘from what I know, JFM
means ‘‘people’s power’’ and the FDA means forest department . . .’.
Even if
somewhat exaggerated, this statement reflected the sentiment that many of the
JFM committee leaders shared at the time: JFM had introduced important first
steps toward decentralization of forest management, but the constitution of FDAs
entailed a significant realignment of authority and control back in the hands of for-
estry department officials.
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The significantly greater financial resources that the FDAs placed at the disposal
of forestry agencies emboldened the forestry officials. On more than one occasion,
the officials referred to community members as majurs– Gujarati for ‘casual
Moreover, the officials openly talked about the discretionary power
they enjoyed to allocate FDA funds. This style of implementation of FDAs in the
chosen field sites was not an aberration. Other studies from eastern India also
noted that the FDA funds were used as an instrument to reward the JFM commit-
tees and the leaders who acquiesced in the top-down and corruption-ridden imple-
mentation of forestry projects (Mohanty, 2004). The World Bank report concluded
that the FDA projects were tightly controlled by forestry officials and the ‘villagers
[were] hired mainly to plant trees’ (World Bank, 2005: 9). Notwithstanding the
weak bargaining power of the individual villages, the collective strength of the
Bhiloda federation should have helped the federation leaders contest the attempts
of the forestry officials who sought to use FDA funds as a means to tighten control
of JFM committees. In practice, the federation leadership was divided in their
responses to the FDA. The competing interests of the two groups of leaders and
the extent to which each of these sought the patronage of forestry officials com-
bined with the context of the absence of rule of law, as I show below, shaped the
net outcomes of the institutional change process.
First, let us consider the case of leaders from Vibhasar, who were among the
most active members of the federation. They were hoping to repeat their track
record of successfully negotiating with the forest department in the past. Instead of
rejecting the FDAs outright, Vibhasar leaders bargained with forest department
officials to have FDA interventions implemented properly. The negotiations
reached an impasse when Vibhasar leaders and villagers demanded statutory mini-
mum wages for the people working on forestry projects. To be clear, though proj-
ect budgets always provide for paying statutory wages, part of those funds are
often swindled by officials at various levels. In the end, the villagers are often paid
an amount far lower than statutory wages (Ve
´ron et al., 2006). The officials refused
to give into these demands and continued to implement forestry projects by bring-
ing in laborers recruited from outside of the village. Such outcomes could not have
been foreseen if one were to consider the formal institutional arrangements in
place, which required that forest officials spend project funds only with prior
approval and signature of the local JFM committee chairperson. At the time of the
first round of my field work in June 2007, the forestry officials had not complied
with such provisions. Village leaders suspected that forestry officials had misappro-
priated the funds by faking the JFM committee chairperson’s signatures. My
research in other districts in the region corroborated these findings about the work-
ing of FDA projects on the ground.
A recent report by the Asian Centre for
Human Rights also documents gross irregularities in the implementation of FDA
projects in other states (Chakma, 2013).
To understand why local communities are unable to register their protest to
restore transparency and accountability, which are key goals of decentralized for-
estry, requires accounting for popular beliefs about the power and the authority of
the state. Returning to the June 2007 annual general body meeting of the
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federation that was mentioned at the beginning of this section, Manna Bhai, an
influential local leader urged the JFM committee leaders present in the meeting to
‘find ways to work with FDAs’. With an air of someone in a privileged position,
Manna Bhai shared with the participants his understanding of the ‘future of for-
estry development’: ‘I am told that FDAs have been approved at the highest level
of central government, they are flush with funds, and are going to be the primary
vehicle of forestry operations for a minimum of 50 years’. Furthermore, he added
confidently, ‘As far as I can see, foregoing such significant sources of funds doesn’t
make sense, particularly when it is backed by the central government’.
Intrigued by the level of knowledge that Manna Bhai claimed about the FDAs,
I visited him in his village and found him listening to the Hindi Service of the BBC
News. Not content with merely listening in, Manna Bhai interspersed our conversa-
tion with his reactions to global events broadcast over BBC World Service, which
continued to play in the background. During one such moment, Manna Bhai
remarked about the salience of forest conservation in light of the mounting evi-
dence of global warming. He explained how he had influenced forest officials to get
FDA funds approved for his village. However, he hastened to add that the relative
autonomy of decision-making that JFM committees enjoyed was of little use after
the government of India had decided to invest in the FDAs as the key mechanism
of forest development.
For Manna Bhai, the authority and the resourcefulness of
the state and government agencies were too important to be frittered away for the
sake of the autonomy of village forest committees and the federation. Further dis-
cussions revealed that Manna Bhai’s support for the FDAs was not attributable
solely to a sense of learned helplessness apparent in his defense of the forest depart-
ment’s authority. Manna Bhai was among the leaders who benefitted personally
from the centralization of decision-making post-FDAs.
Prior to the introduction of the FDAs, JFM committees had the authority to
permit members to harvest limited quantities of fuel wood. Post-FDAs, the author-
ity to regulate the harvesting of even minor forest produce, such as fuel wood,
reverted to forest department officials. The officials, in turn, delegate this authority,
albeit informally, to pro forest department leaders such as Manna Bhai. Therefore,
even though the constitution of the FDAs weakened the authority of JFM commit-
tees, individual leaders gained new discretionary powers. Manna Bhai’s strategic
support for the forest department’s control of the FDA projects was one of the key
reasons why other federation leaders failed to secure a fair bargain vis-a
`-vis the
FDA projects. Reports from eastern India describe similar cases of inter-elite riv-
alry triggered by the introduction of the FDAs (Mohanty, 2004). In a war of attri-
tion between the forest officials and internally divided local communities, the latter
possess very few bargaining chips.
By the time of the second round of field research in February 2009, Vibhasar
leaders had signed on to the FDA projects even though none of their demands had
been met. The Vibhasar leaders explained this change of course by arguing that a
‘self-imposed exclusion’ from FDA projects had not helped them. The leaders from
other villages were willing to work with forestry agencies without questioning the
below the statutory minimum wages paid for project work or the quality of project
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work. Perhaps even more importantly, Vibhasar people’s efforts were nipped in the
bud by the federation chairperson at the time, who feared that the real intention of
the Vibhasar leaders was to use the FDA issue as a means to mobilize members
against the incumbent chairperson.
The positions that leaders took vis-a
`-vis the
FDAs were thus driven quite significantly by a triangular power struggle between
two groups of local leaders and forest officials.
In the following section, I analyze and draw out the implications of the evidence
presented above about the ways in which entrenched power asymmetries and taken
for granted nature of state authority shaped the local institutional outcomes.
4. Analysis: when power asymmetries meet purposive agents
A discussion of local institutional development in the village of Solivada and the
‘negotiations’ over the changes in multi-tier forest governance brought about by
the constitution of the FDAs illustrates how power asymmetries shape the
responses of actors with competing stakes in a social dilemma situation. To under-
stand how the varied set of incentives and imperatives that drive individual actions
manifest in the aggregate outcomes, let us consider the two cases of institutional
bargaining discussed above.
Should Solivada’s rules for group-based contributions for protection of village
fields and forests be considered a case of successful collective action? The answer
will be in the affirmative if one examines the situation with a focus on the institu-
tions intended for protection of fields and forests. The answer will be in the affir-
mative still if one were to consider that leaders did not coerce those present at the
meeting to support one rule or the other. Also, the rules were developed ‘autono-
mously’ by the ‘local community’, without interference from government agencies
or officials. Going by the commonly cited manifestation of power, i.e. coercion and
agenda control by government officials, Solivada’s rule-making does not demon-
strate apparent effects of power asymmetries. The answer to the question about
whether the outcomes constituted ‘successful collective action’, would be far more
ambiguous if one dug deeper to examine why the villagers did not oppose such
rules, even though a majority of them would be affected adversely.
Additional research on the broader context of the institution of local leadership
showed that the puzzling silence of a majority of Solivada residents was attributa-
ble to the power local leaders wielded in a number of socio-political and economic
affairs important to community members. The leader who held the position of vil-
lage Patel also derived a great deal of leverage from the disproportionate contribu-
tions he made to the provision of the public good of village leadership, which filled
a void left by the deficiencies inherent to India’s local government system.
However, the exercise of discretionary powers by the leader worked against the
powerless within the community and benefitted, for instance, the larger landowners
and the tomato farmers. In this way, the powerless within the community ended
up bearing a disproportionate cost of the informal provision of the public good of
village leadership. The widespread failure of rule of law, which creates perverse
incentives for government officials to collude with some local leaders to misuse
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public authority for private gains, further reinforces the power asymmetries that
span interlinked institutional arenas. The apparently unexpected silence and
acquiescence of villagers is a rational response to a context laden with multiple
types of power asymmetries and institutional failures.
The political economy of discretionary public service delivery encourages for-
estry officials to flout formal rules of forest governance set out under the FDAs,
and compels other local actors to develop defensive adaptations. In the battle of
nerves between the FDAs and the federation discussed above, initially, the space
for negotiations seemed promising to the leaders of Vibhasar. They expected to
benefit from the collective bargaining strength that the federation had gained over
the years. However, they were compelled to act defensively because the federation
leadership was divided and forestry officials were not interested in playing by the
formal rules of the game. The evidence presented above illustrates that under con-
ditions of entrenched power asymmetries, the opportunities for autonomous action
are distributed asymmetrically between rival local actors, which reinforces the
entrenched power relations. Note that such inequitable distribution of opportuni-
ties is not an aberration – it is driven by the interests of forest department officials
in controlling FDA project funds, as also noted by the Government of India report
on the subject (Anon, 2006). To pursue these gains, the officials systematically,
albeit informally, reallocated discretionary power into the hands of pliable village
In a counterfactual situation with an effective rule of law, Vibhasar leaders
would have had the confidence to successfully pursue their demand that forest
department pay statutory minimum wages. Forest officials, on the other hand,
would not have been encouraged to openly flout laws of the land. Inequalities of
access to government agencies and government officials amidst power asymme-
tries, which are reinforced by the absence of rule of law, need greater recognition
in any analysis of local institutional development. After all, in a large number of
countries the absence of rule of law is the rule, not an exception (Me
´ndez et al.,
1999; Sundar, 2011; for a related perspective from the USA, see Sarat, 1990). The
following section brings together the analysis of two types of local inequalities
examined above and distills lessons for theoretical debates about integrating power
in institutional analysis.
5. A positive behavioral theory of human action: analysis and
This article builds on theoretical microfoundations of human behavior, developed
by the scholars of the Bloomington school, to better understand the effect of power
asymmetries on the outcomes of institutional design and change. The empirical
analysis above offers two key insights about the effects of power asymmetries: first,
I argue that a full comprehension of the effects of power asymmetries demands
that the scope of institutional analysis be expanded to look for power effects across
interlinked institutional arenas. The support for or opposition to specific proposals
for institutional design and change is often motivated by the consideration of the
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stakes key actors have in multiple interlinked institutional arenas. The second and
related argument is that many types of collective action outcomes may disguise sig-
nificant conflict of interests.
Under the conditions of entrenched power asymmetries, not all actors may be in
a position to articulate their opposition, even if the proposed institutional develop-
ment or changes work against their interests (see Gaventa, 1982; Moe, 2005; Ribot
and Peluso, 2003). Under such conditions, relatively weaker local actors are likely
to resort to the type of defensive adaptations that federation leaders had to fall
back on in the context of local forest governance discussed above. Accounting for
such adaptive instincts of participants in interlinked institutional arenas enables
the researcher to bridge theories of social power with the political and economic
analyses of institutional deliberations. Such an approach contributes to the devel-
opment of a ‘broader theory of human behavior [, which] views humans as adap-
tive creatures.who attempt to do as well as they can[,] given the constraints of the
situations in which they find themselves’ (Ostrom 2010).
The framework of interlinked institutional arenas facilitates a context-sensitive
comprehension of the choices that the relatively weaker individuals make in a vari-
ety of social dilemma situations. An important corollary of these findings is that
the effects of power asymmetries go well beyond the visible outcomes of institu-
tional development and institutional change. Long entrenched power asymmetries
are likely to be congealed in the form of institutional arrangements, even those that
have been developed without apparent coercion. Many collective action institu-
tions are thus better thought of as a resource, or a ‘bundle of opportunities’, for
those skilled in pursuing their vested interests in the guise of collective institutions
(see White and Runge, 1995). A reliance on the microfoundations of institutional
analysis thus does not necessarily exclude an examination of the broader social,
cultural, political, and economic contexts, including historically entrenched power
asymmetries that manifest in individual choices bound by an upper ceiling of social
identities, such as caste and gender.
Such an expansion of the scope of institutional analysis places quite a heavy
empirical burden on the researcher. However, as mentioned earlier, the efforts are
likely to be rewarded with a context-sensitive examination of the everyday politics
of institutional outcomes without sacrificing the valuable goals of analytical rigor
and parsimony. Moreover, in conjunction with the increasingly popular mixed
methods approaches (see Andersson and Agrawal, 2011), an examination of inter-
linked institutional arenas is likely to add to our understanding of the causal com-
plexity of political and economic phenomenon. Even though the analysis in this
article has been focused mainly on the micro-politics of institutional design and
institutional change, this approach may be applied to a variety of institutional
This analysis will resonate, for instance, with the students of game theory who
often examine multi-level games. However, in evolutionary game theory models,
agents typically play single games, even though in real life purposive agents play
an ‘ensembles of games’ (Bednar and Page, 2007). Robert Putnam applied a similar
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analytical prism to explain the unanticipated positive outcomes at the Bonn sum-
mit conference of 1978, which endorsed a coordinated program of global reflation
(Putnam, 1988). He showed that the coincidental synergy of multiple domestic
institutional arenas in half a dozen countries prompted policymakers to make
choices that led to the success of the Bonn summit conference. Those policy choices
would not make sense if Putnam had not expanded the scope of his inquiry to
domestic policy settings. Even more interestingly, Putnam described cases in which
American delegates cooperated with delegates from rival countries to put addi-
tional pressure on political actors back home.
The ‘ecology of games’ scholars similarly employ an analysis of closely related
but interlinked policy arenas, say, of transportation and land use planning in the
context of traditional and collaborative policy regimes. Empirical analysis pro-
duces the rather counterintuitive finding that increased participation in collabora-
tive arenas was linked to less collaborative and less cooperative actions in the
traditional policy arenas. They attribute these outcomes to two distinct mechan-
isms, viz. ‘symbolic policy’ and ‘limited attention’ that the traditional rational
choice theory would not account for (Lubell et al., 2010). The framework outlined
in this article, which examines interlinkages between institutional arenas that are
not formally linked, would prompt scholars to examine whether the symbolic
actions in some cases are attributable to the interests of key actors in other social,
political, and economic arenas (cf. Ascher, 1999). Collaborative programs may
have the backing of powerful actors, thereby forcing actors to join the program
even if such programs do not offer a clear comparative programmatic advantage.
In other cases, collaborative institutions may be employed ‘symbolically’ by an
official or a politician interested in portraying to the voters a willingness to reach
across the aisle, even as the politician neglects investments in traditional policy and
programmatic arenas.
These illustrative cases from previous scholarship suggest that the examination
of interlinked institutional arenas offers a high fidelity view of the multiple frames
of reference that individuals employ in any given situation. Most importantly, per-
haps, the substantive focus on power asymmetries, and the congealing of inequal-
ities in institutional outcomes, is especially relevant for an examination of some of
the most challenging questions of our time. It would be useful to examine the
effects of power asymmetries across interlinked institutional arenas in the context
of national and international environmental policy and politics, which often cut
across multiple social, economic, and political issue arenas. There seems to be a fair
bit of consensus that more decentralization and cross-scale institutional linkages
are critical to our ability to meet the contemporary challenges of environmental
governance (Ostrom, 2010). Simultaneously, questions of environmental change
are also closely intertwined with the questions of widening economic inequalities
the world over. This article is intended to contribute to the analysis of the complex
ways in which power asymmetries shape our understanding of institutions and
institutional change.
22 Journal of Theoretical Politics 28(1)
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Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, author-
ship, and/or publication of this article.
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication
of this article.
1. Names of all villages and individuals have been changed in order to maintain
2. Source: Household surveys conducted by the author in 2009; Village directory, the 2001
Census of India, Government of India.
3. Because the meeting was held late night, no women were present. For the exclusion of
women from local decision-making forums, see Agarwal (2001).
4. A group’s annual contribution was fixed at rupees 25 (Equivalent of USD 0.50 at the
time). In addition, every group would also pay in kind a fixed amount of maize and
paddy at the time of the harvest.
5. Ostrom and Gardner (1993) cite a similar case of rules for labor contribution in which
farmers who owned much less land than one bigha had to contribute labor equal to
those who owned two bighas or less.
6. These watchmen belonged to Sindhis, an ethnic group with roots in the Sindh region in
contemporary Pakistan, but spread across a number of states in western and northern
7. Interview, Solivada village elder, 31 July 2009.
8. However, several individuals were willing to speak out in the anonymity of private dis-
cussions about some very sensitive matters related to the questions of forest and land
rights. For instance, after a month-long association with the villagers, I was able to col-
lect concrete data on the bribes villagers had paid to forest officials who promised to
help them secure forest land titles under the newly enacted Forest Rights Act of 2006.
9. Personal interview, 3 August 2007.
10. The exchange rates used for conversion of original data in Indian Rupees are based on
the historical exchange rates archived at the Federal Reserve of the United States of
America \, last accessed
on December 15, 2013.
11. Participants in an online discussion during 14–24 March 2002, at the forum recounted a number of such autonomous efforts from the states
of Uttaranchal, West Bengal, Orissa, and Gujarat. The promoters in many of these
cases reached out to forest department officials at various levels. In almost all cases,
forestry officials discouraged and undermined these efforts. DNRM listserv messages
are on file with and available from the author.
12. The participants in the electronic forum debate referred to in note 11, above, also
referred to these substantive differences between the FDAs and the previously existing
district and state level federations.
13. Statement of one of the Sangh office bearers at the annual general body meeting of the
Sangh held in June 2007.
14. Telephone interview, NGO professional, 11 May 2008.
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15. In another community that had sought to assert its rights under the provisions of the
FDAs, the forestry officials publicly rebuked JFMC leaders for being ‘ungrateful’ and
threatened to cut them off of FDA projects, if the JFM committee leaders did not sign
on the dotted lines, as instructed by the officials (Group discussion, Garbapur, 7
October 2009).
16. Notes from the field visit, June 2007.
17. Interview, June 2007.
18. Interview, NGO professional, 14 June 2007.
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... A second group of critics suggest that community interactions are shaped by networks of patronage, alliances, and personal obligations related to social institutions and hierarchies related to race, gender, and caste, among others. This includes work on integrating inequality and power dynamics into common property/common-pool resource (CPR) theory (Agrawal, 2002;Kashwan, 2016;Mudliar and Koontz, 2018), the Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) framework (Clement, 2010;Kadirbeyoglu and Ö zertan, 2015;Whaley and Weatherhead, 2014;Kashwan et al., 2019;Brisbois et al., 2019), and Ostrom's Design Principles (Singleton, 2017;Mudliar and Koontz, 2021). Agrawal and Gibson (2001) find that in cases of apparently successful cooperation, cooperation may appear to exist because it is imposed on low-power actors through the exercise of social and economic power. ...
... Drawing on the theory of collective action, Kashwan (2016) scrutinizes a puzzling finding in the commons scholarship, as to why do we witness higher than expected levels of cooperation in communities with widespread power asymmetries? To address this, he develops the concept of 'interlinked action arenas,' and uses it to examine how the choices that actors make in one institutional arena are based on anticipated effects on their interests and stakes in other institutional arenas (Kashwan, 2016). ...
... Drawing on the theory of collective action, Kashwan (2016) scrutinizes a puzzling finding in the commons scholarship, as to why do we witness higher than expected levels of cooperation in communities with widespread power asymmetries? To address this, he develops the concept of 'interlinked action arenas,' and uses it to examine how the choices that actors make in one institutional arena are based on anticipated effects on their interests and stakes in other institutional arenas (Kashwan, 2016). Similar to Agrawal and Gibson (2001), Kashwan questions the claim made in the CPR literature that a majority of institutions are built through consensus, arguing that such 'consensus' disguises embedded inequalities of various types. ...
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This article brings to center-stage questions of inequality within the context of contemporary theory and scholarship on the commons. We engage with the commons literature to explore how social, economic, and political inequalities affect who has access to and control over the commons. We make the following key contributions as a way to engage simultaneously and bring together different strands of the literature. One, we take stock of existing scholarship examining the commons and inequality, bringing into sharp focus the role of race, gender, caste, and class, among other dimensions of inequality. Two, we critically engage with scholarship that is pushing the boundaries of commons theory by exploring the processes of commoning or decommoning via “grabbed commons”. Three, by using the lens of commoning and linking it to the historical processes of colonization and capitalist dispossessions, we seek to foster a conversation with scholars working on emancipatory claims to the commons. Based on such a synthesis, we offer a research agenda to broaden the theoretical and empirical scope of commons scholarship, especially with the goal of building stronger bridges with critical property and environmental justice scholarship.
... A second group of critics suggest that community interactions are shaped by networks of patronage, alliances, and personal obligations related to social institutions and hierarchies related to race, gender, and caste, among others. This includes work on integrating inequality and power dynamics into CPR theory (Agrawal, 2002;Kashwan, 2016;Mudliar and Koontz, 2018), the Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) framework (Clement, 2010;Kadirbeyoglu and Özertan 2015;Whaley and Weatherhead 2014;Kashwan et al. 2019;Brisbois, Morris, and de Löe, 2019), and Ostrom's Design Principles (Singleton, 2017;Mudliar and Koontz, 2021). Agrawal (2001) finds that in cases of apparently successful cooperation, cooperation may appear to exist because it is imposed on low-power actors through the exercise of social and economic power. ...
... Drawing on the theory of collective action, Kashwan (2016) scrutinizes a puzzling finding in the commons scholarship, as to why do we witness higher than expected levels of cooperation in communities with widespread power asymmetries? To address this, he develops the concept of 'interlinked action arenas, ' and uses it to examine how the choices that actors make in one institutional arena are based on anticipated effects on their interests and stakes in other institutional arenas (Kashwan, 2016). Similar to Agrawal (2001), Kashwan questions the claim made in the CPR literature that a majority of institutions are built through consensus, arguing that such 'consensus' disguises embedded inequalities of various types. ...
This article brings to center-stage questions of inequality within the context of contemporary theory and scholarship on the commons. We engage with the commons literature to explore how social, economic, and political inequalities affect who has access to and control over the commons. We make the following key contributions as a way to engage simultaneously and bring together different strands of the literature. One, we take stock of existing scholarship examining the commons and inequality, bringing into sharp focus the role of race, gender, caste, and class, among other dimensions of inequality. Two, we critically engage with scholarship that is pushing the boundaries of commons theory by exploring the processes of commoning or decommoning via "grabbed commons". Three, by using the lens of commoning and linking it to the historical processes of colonization and capitalist dispossessions, we seek to foster a conversation with scholars working on emancipatory claims to the commons. Based on such a synthesis we offer a research agenda to broaden the theoretical and empirical scope of commons scholarship, especially with the goal of building stronger bridges with critical property and environmental justice scholarship.
... Moreover, I attempt to contribute to recent trends in the literature (Kashwan 2016;Bennett et al. 2018), which bring together two diverse conceptualizations of power and institutions to understand how they shape each other. I aim to build on the institutional analysis by Ostrom and others by contextualizing institutions in the micro-level power structures of caste, class, and gender. ...
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Inequities in access to water across economic classes and social groups have been aggravated by the commodification of ecosystems. Institutional governance of small freshwater bodies, like ponds, is under tremendous stress and often cannot cope with increasing pressures from market forces and state interventions. Recently conceptualized as a "composite resource", ponds are vital entities in the ecological, economic, and socio-political landscape. The central objective of this study is to understand the access and utilization patterns of rural community ponds in Kerala, India, by employing a survey method. I attempt to integrate the literature on commons and political ecology, review the institutional arrangements governing rural public ponds, assess their ecological health, and situate the empirical evidence in a theoretical framework of the commons. I find universal access to these water bodies, which cuts across social and economic groups, for domestic uses such as drinking, bathing, washing, and cleaning; this utilization has a class and gender dimension. A majority of the surveyed ponds showed signs of robust ecological health in terms of total dissolved solids and pH values, functional embankments, and the absence of any polluting economic activity in their vicinity. I also find that factors such as institutional arrangements, the ecological integrity of community ponds, and the extent of diversification of water sources determine how the pond is utilized for various domestic purposes.
... Although the IAD provides a solid basis for multi-level analysis through its conceptualisation of nested action arenas and governance levels, it does not sufficiently capture the influence of intra-and inter-level power distribution on institutional design and effectiveness (Clement, 2010). The effects of power asymmetries, which are more widespread in the less industrialised societies, are spread across multiple and interlinked social and political arenas (Kashwan, 2016). ...
The Water-Energy-Food Nexus has emerged over the past decade as a useful concept to reduce trade-offs and increase synergies in promoting goals of water, energy and food securities. While WEF scholarship substantiates the biophysical interlinkages and calls for increased and effective coordination across sectors and levels, knowledge on conditions for effective coordination is still lacking. Analysing WEF nexus governance from a polycentricity perspective may contribute to better understanding coordination. In this paper, we propose a conceptual framework for analysing WEF nexus governance based on the Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) framework and the concept of Networks of Adjacent Action Situations (NAAS). The interdependence among transactions for pursuing WEF securities by actors in different action situations generates the need for coordination for changing or sustaining institutions, policy goals and policy instruments that guide actions leading to sustainable outcomes. Coordination is attained through arrangements based on cooperation, coercion or competition. Coordination in complex social-ecological systems is unlikely to be achieved by a single governance mode but rather by synergistic combinations of governance modes. Particular coordination arrangements that emerge in a context depend on the distribution of authority, information and resources within and across interlinked decision-making centres. Further, integrating the political ecology based conceptualisations of power into the analytical framework extends the governance analysis to include the influence of power relations on coordination. Methodological innovation in delineating action situations and identifying the unit of analysis as well as integrating different sources and types of data is required to operationalise the conceptual framework.
... On one hand, institutions affect power distribution, which, in turn, determine who is involved in adaptation efforts and in which manner. On the other hand, power distribution directly affects institutional design and reform (Clement, 2012;Kashwan, 2016;Nightingale, 2017). In this context, addressing power asymmetry in collaborative governance would involve, to some extent, reviewing those institutional rules that may contribute to creating and reinforcing such asymmetry (e.g. ...
... The topic model does, however, reaffirm some concerns that have been expressed concerning the lack of historical perspectives (Johnson 2004), attention to issues of power and inequality (Clement 2010) and general neglect of the mechanisms and processes that underlie sustainable common-pool resource management. Although there have been several attempts to address these gaps, including long-term studies of the development and decline of common-property governance (De Moor 2008, 2015, theoretical and empirical examinations of the relationship between power and common property governance (Epstein et al. 2014, Kashwan 2015, 2016, Bennett et al. 2018, and development and application of approaches for examining governance dynamics across networks of action situations (McGinnis 2011, McCord et al. 2017, Cole et al. 2019, Epstein et al. 2020; none of these appeared among the top 25 topics in the literature. ...
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The rapid growth of the literature on the commons poses an immense challenge for the synthesis and advancement of knowledge. While it may have been reasonable for previous generations of scholars to keep up to date with a literature adding thirty to fifty papers each year, there are now hundreds of papers on the commons published each year in addition to those that might be relevant to researchers on the basis of particular sectors, methods, disciplines or theories. This paper exploits recent advances in natural language processing to identify topics and trends in the literature on the commons over the past thirty years using a dynamic topic model. The results highlight the centrality of key themes concerning resources, property rights and local management, alongside growing interest in the topics of conservation and local management. The results also demonstrate the diversity of the field with topics ranging from forests, fisheries and land to urban areas and software. Overall the dynamic topic model appears to provide a useful approach for synthesizing high-level features of the literature.
Scholars are increasingly paying much attention on institutions and process of institutional change to find ways to improve environmental governance across the globe. This article tests the existing framework of studying the process of institutional change, particularly in the context of valued resources like forests, and argues for broader framework for improved understanding. Based on intensive field work during the implementation process of the Forest Rights Act 2006 in West Bengal state of India, this article examines the patterns of institutional reform in forestry sector. It shows how ambiguities while framing rules under the central Act helped the states to craft a new institutional structure during the implementation, serving their political interests. It also demonstrates how state agency is working to disrupt legal institutions and maintain pre-existing institutional structure to continue internal culture of forestry and ideology of the forest department. I argue for a broader perspective that not only includes political context and institutional characteristics, but also activities of actors who intentionally adopt informal institutions to resist change, and thereby maintain political power and / or reinforce the bureaucratic ‘command and control’ approach. This approach provides an improved understanding on institutional change and stability, particularly in the context of complex, multi-actor and multi-layered federal structure of forest governance in India.
Power dynamics in local governance have profound implications for the outcomes of processes of political decentralisation within developing countries. Attempts to improve participation and service delivery through strengthened local and regional governance have been frustrated by the inability to understand and transform the relationship between power and formal and informal institutions. Through a theoretically informed empirical study of the relationship between power and institutions within local governance, this paper addresses this challenge through developing the notion of ‘power within’. Analysis of Batkhela Bazaar in the Malakand district in Pakistan reveals distinct fields of power relating to the market, political representation and local administration, and the evolving interactions between institutions within and across these fields. Results demonstrate how these fields of power, and the agents operating within them, actively shape the interaction between formal and informal institutions of local governance in a process of contiguous evolution. Understanding of ‘power within’ prompts revised thinking on how best to harness emergent institutional forms to promote progressive and inclusionary local governance and develop more effective state decentralization programmes.
Inequalities in access are a major concern for the management of common pool resources. In the case of irrigation water, inequalities are often explained by spatial “head-ender/tail-ender” distinctions, determined by distance to the water source. However, inequalities in access are also produced by social relations and social institutions. Drawing from ethnographic research in Ağlasun, a rural town in the south-west of Turkey, we examine socio-spatial inequalities vis-à-vis water access in a small-scale, locally managed irrigation system. Our findings demonstrate that spatial “head-ender/tail-ender” differences in the irrigation system intersect with social relations. By introducing the concept of “social head-enders,” we emphasize how social and political relations may introduce a complementary asymmetry in access to water between farmers. Analyzing the socio-spatial dynamics in such asymmetric systems allows us to further explore the interaction between access and authority. This leads us to illustrate important conditions for more equitable and democratic local irrigation governance.
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In this article we build on an accompanying critique of recent writings in international biodiversity conservation (this issue). Many scholars and observers are calling for stricter enforcement of protected area boundaries given the perceived failure of integrated conservation and development projects (ICDPs) and other people-oriented approaches to safeguard biodiversity. Pointing to many ongoing, field-based efforts, we argue that this resurgent focus on authoritarian protection practices largely overlooks key aspects of social and political process including clarification of moral standpoint, legitimacy, governance, accountability, learning, and nonlocal forces. Following a discussion of these six points, we off er a series of recommendations aimed at highlighting existing work and encouraging dialogue and constructive debate on the ways in which biodiversity protection interventions are carried out in developing countries.
This excerpt describes the intellectual journey that I have taken the last half-century from when I began graduate studies in the late 1950s. The early efforts to understand the polycentric water industry in California were formative for me. In addition to working with Vincent Ostrom and Charles Tiebout as they formulated the concept of polycentric systems for governing metropolitan areas, I studied the efforts of a large group of private and public water producers facing the problem of an overdrafted groundwater basin on the coast and watching saltwater intrusion threaten the possibility of long-term use. Then, in the 1970s, I participated with colleagues in the study of polycentric police industries serving U.S. metropolitan areas to find that the dominant theory underlying massive reform proposals was incorrect. Metropolitan areas served by a combination of large and small producers could achieve economies of scale in the production of some police services and avoid diseconomies of scale in the production of others.
Social dilemmas characterize decision environments in which individuals' exclusive pursuit of their own material self-interest can produce inefficient allocations. Social dilemmas are most commonly studied in provision games, such as public goods games and trust games, in which the social dilemma can be manifested in foregone opportunities to create surplus. Appropriation games are sometimes used to study social dilemmas that can be manifested in destruction of surplus, as is typical in common-pool resource extraction games. A central question is whether social dilemmas are more serious for inhibiting creation of surplus or in promoting its destruction. This question is addressed in this study with an experiment involving three pairs of payoff-equivalent provision and appropriation games. Some game pairs are symmetric, whereas others involve asymmetric power relationships. We find that play of symmetric provision and appropriation games produces comparable efficiency. In contrast, power asymmetry leads to significantly lower efficiency in an appropriation game than in a payoff-equivalent provision game. This outcome can be rationalized by reciprocal preference theory but not by models of unconditional social preferences.