Handshakes and smiles: the role of social and symbolic resources in the management of a new common property

  • Bruce Lawson-McDowall

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


The thesis looks at why sustainable and equitable institutions of common property resource management take root in some socio-political environments and not others. Almost 50 jointly owned micro-hydels schemes in Pakistan and Nepal were visited. Micro-hydel's relatively low skill input, high demand for electricity from rural populations and its suitability for village wide participation suggest that it should be an economically sustainable and equitable intervention. However, the jointly owned micro-hydel schemes studied varied considerably in terms of economic sustainability and in the access poorer households had to electricity. The dominant schools of thought on common property, new institutional economics and game theory, would suggest that the answers to these variations were to be found in an analysis of material costs and benefits of action. However, these approaches were of limited use in explaining these behaviours at the majority of schemes. As a result, sociological and anthropological approaches were adopted which stressed the role of non-material resources such as trust, honour, duty and status as goals motivating action and the importance of not abstracting collective action from its historical and socio-political context. It is argued that non-material resources, such as social or symbolic capital, cannot be given content outside of the specific context in which they are employed. Joint owners applied to micro-hydel the kind of inclusive norms invariably associated with traditional common property regimes when: the new resource was viewed as essential and thus seen as something akin to a basic entitlement; electrical lighting was associated with improved education (especially where religiously sanctioned); where "progress" was understood to be progress only if inclusive of the community as a whole; facilitating agencies promoted equity and, finally, institutions such as kinship, patron-client relations or shared religion operated to encourage a sense of responsibility for the poor among better off households. It was the combination and interaction of these values and expectations that determined whether offering concessions to poor households resulted in a gain of symbolic capital for electricity committee members through an enhancement in their reputation for capable leadership. Exemption behaviour for micro-hydro electricity could not be, therefore, attributed to a single set of values, but to their interaction and mutual reinforcement. The need of actors to consider the range of social norms that apply just to the issue of concessions on electricity should gave the lie to any assumption that common property is somehow, of itself, intrinsically equitable. Regarding sustainability, the lack of trust (social capital), in the relationships between joint owners and the democratically elected local government members who sat on most Nepali schemes meant that joint-owners were not willing to let their leadership control the savings required to make hydel sustainable. This has important implications for discourses on governance that assume ‘community management of resources’ and ‘political decentralisation’ are complementary processes. Village representatives in Nepal enter a political world whose values encourage politicians to concentrate on climbing the party political hierarchy and to engage in corrupt practices. Villagers are all too aware that the norms of the political world encourage behaviour that conflicts with their interests and desire to protect the local resources they rely on.
Date of Award16 Aug 2000
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorGeof Wood (Supervisor)

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