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Research Review: Network Governance of the Commons

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By Bethany Cutts - Posted on 21 February 2011

To kick off the new year, the Center for Environmental Policy and Behavior lab group discussed Lars Carlsson and Annica Sandström’s article, “Network Governance of the Commons”. The article overviews co-management literature and network approaches to understanding natural resource governance. It includes an in-depth review of social network measures that have been associated with social capital. The authors give a brief overview of both co-management and network approaches, noting that the traditional approach to understanding co-management focused on a linear axes of power sharing between “the state” and private actors. They argue that poor alignment between political boundaries and resource geographies-as well as the numerous scales of social and ecological processes involved in managing natural resources - challenge this approach (watersheds are a classic example). The paper presents social network analysis as a conceptual framework that allows for a flexible understanding of the governance structure. Echoing one of the core sentiments of the group, Mark later wrote that he “liked how the paper recognized the nuances of how social networks might affect environmental outcomes, such as the tradeoffs between different types of network structures.” And that he “thought they did a good job of connecting to some of the most important basic research in social networks, in particular Burt and Granovetter, and talked about the difference between more open and closed networks.” The article presents a call for further case studies comparing divergent outcomes, which is always nice for our lab (since that is one of the things we do – see the Schneider et al. reference in Carlsson and Sandstrom’s paper for proof!).

Below is a play-by-play account of the themes in the article we discussed at length. We hope it provides a) a good summary for people who missed the meeting, b) feedback to the authors and people who may use the article as a teaching tool, c) a reminder to ourselves about how this article informs and relates to some of the other scholarly work with which we are familiar. In the comments after to post, feel free to post citation information for references relevant to any of these points.

1. Governance. The idea of governance was new to some of the lab members and we discussed it as a way to include diverse formal and informal decision-making or rule-enforcing bodies in conceptualizations of management. It seemed the author's perspective was one of "redundancy," if one management unit fails than another will step in to take its place. As we discussed on Friday, a key assumption of this perspective is that all the organizational units communicate well (e.g., they would notice if/when there was a failure) and aren't confused by vague or overlapping jurisdiction or responsibilities. It would be interesting to see some concrete examples of organization structures for which this worked (or didn't) and what type of common pool resource is being governed. Though not included in the scope of the paper (and the discussion we had in an hour), Kelly noted that she continued to think about the paper in terms of it relation to cultural ecology literature. She is interested in exploring the potential for the biophysical characteristics of natural resources to influence the extent to which social networks span geographically diverse interests and scales of governance. She found herself wondering if the constraints of a resource (including the environment in which it is found) -beyond just scarcity - likely influence behaviors and are a significant player in resource management.

2. Social network measures indicative of governance structures. Next we discussed the network measures reviewed as relating to social capital. The author’s cite Coleman (1990) and Burt (2000) and the concepts of network closure, and structural holes. The article states that this network closure can be quantified through whole network ties density and network centralization. In discussion, we weren’t sure that centralization was necessarily a good measure of closure. High centralization indicates a hierarchical structure. It seems that this would be beneficial for the diffusion of innovation only if network density was otherwise low. Network closure is akin to “bonding” social capital (for people who like Putnam) or “strong ties” (for people who like Granovetter). As a follow-up, Bethany found that Christina Prell (2009) describes network closure as a useful metric of social capital when considering three outcomes: (a) trust among actors, (b) accomplishing complex tasks, and (c) sharing, getting by and help in crises. Prell’s work seems to support Mark’s comment that network transitivity might be a more useful metric than centralization in relation to collective action coordination problems. For example, structural holes, or the existence of ties between otherwise disconnected groups are likely to take more effort to maintain, but yield higher payoff for the investors. This accumulation of a direct individual benefit is well documented in the private goods. Bethany has heard other researchers make a convincing argument that free-riding tendencies might prevent actors from making investments in establishing and maintaining ties that bridge structural hole in reference to public goods (Kapucu 2006). This would lead to a high degree of network fragmentation and potentially limit innovation and successful outcomes at the whole-network level. This is akin to several clades working independently within the “high network density and low network heterogeneity” box in Figure 3 of Carlsson and Sandtröm’s article.

3. The role of the state and distribution of responsibility in governance. Thirdly, we discussed was the role of heterogeneity among actors in effective network governance. Angee discussed the positive effect state involvement can have over resource management in when external users are an important component of a system. She gave examples from marine protected areas with large international fishing industries and foreign tourists. In these cases, especially, involvement by state actors is important. The point about network heterogeneity is one that didn’t get discussed in much detail during our meeting. Carlsson and Sandtröm’s briefly discuss the importance of linkages across scales and refer to Schneider et al.’s work (2003) indicating that federal policy can motivate (and reward) cross-scale linkages. Second, the nature (intent) of the co-management system is significant in how the resource is managed (e.g. sustainability may not be the goal; who decides and how who is invited to the table). In the conclusion the authors write that the State "might be important actors in the policy process which Kelly pointed out seems contrary to the statement they make later that the "involvement of the state should not be taken for granted" (p.49). The first paragraph on p.49 is important (as Kelly is finding in her research) and unfortunately is only briefly discussed.

The group also began an interesting discussion of the potential “dangers” associated with co-management. It seemed the authors’ perspective was one of "redundancy," if one management unit fails than another will step in to take its place. However, a key assumption of this perspective is that all the organizational units communicate well (e.g., they would notice if/when there was a failure) and aren't confused by vague or overlapping jurisdiction or responsibilities. This idea is often not considered in common pool resource management literature, though the psychological concept of “cross-perceptions” may be a useful entry-point into thinking about it in the future. Many lab members found this discussion worthy of further consideration.

4. Other fun facts about the meeting. We spent a substantial amount of time disucussing Elinor Ostrom’s 1990 “Governing the Commons”, which inspired Matthew to purchase it on online during the meeting…twice (oops!).

5. Literature and links of interest.
Burt, R.S. (2000). The network structure of social capital. Research in Organizational Behavior 22:345-423. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

Burt, R. (2005) Brokerage and Closure: An Introduction to Social Capital. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Burt, R. (2001) Structure Holes versus Network Closure as Social Capital, in, K. Cook N. Lin, and R. Burt (eds.) Social Capital: Theory and Research. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Carlsson, L. and Sandtröm, A. (2008). Network governance of the commons. International Journal of the Commons. 2(1): 33-54.

Coleman, J.S. (1990). Foundations of Social Theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Granovetter, M. (1973). The strength of weak ties. American Journal of Sociology 78:1360-1380

Henry, A. D., M. N. Lubell, M. McCoy. (online, July 2010). Belief Systems and Social Capital as Drivers of Policy Network Structure: The Case of California Regional Planning. Journal of Public Administration Research & Theory doi: 10.1093/jopart/muq042

Kapucu, N. (2006). Public-nonprofit partnerships for collective action in dynamic contexts of emergencies. Public Administration, 84(1), 205-220.

Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990)

Prell, C. (2009). Linking Social Capital to Small-worlds: A look at local and network-level processes and structure. Methodological Innovations Online 4: 8-17.

Putnam, R. D. (2001) Bowling Alone: the collapse and revival of American community. London: Simon & Schuster.

Putnam, R.D. (1993) Making democracy work: Civic traditions in modern Italy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

Schneider, M., J. Scholz, M. Lubell, D. Mindruta, and M. Edwardsen. (2003). Building Consensual Institutions: Networks and the National Estuary Program. American Journal of Political Science 47:143-158.

Transitivity. http://www.faculty.ucr.edu/~hanneman/nettext/C8_Embedding.html#transitivity

Brief description of Structural Holes versus Network Closure as Social Capital by Ronald Burt. http://valuenetworks.com/public/item/214650