Theoretical Angle: Structuration Theory

Orlikowski (2000) is usually associated with the translation of structuration theory into information system research (see also Orlikowski and Barley, 2001). This stance, which moves the traditional dichotomy between structures and agencies to an analytical (rather than empirical) level, can help in understanding if and how a land management system reproduces existing structures by facilitating established courses of action, or, conversely, if and how new patterns of action become possible. Conceptualizing technology in use as a process of enactment opens up a better understanding of how practices change technology through their adoption.

Puri’s (2006) concept, relying on Orlikowski and Gash (1994), of technological frames as sensemaking devices, puts stakeholders’ frames at the center of attention. Puri argues that an overemphasis on technological and economic resources tends to overlook organizational and institutional dimensions. With the intention of accounting for the relation between structures and agencies, the case of the Indian National SDI is depicted through a variety of stakeholders’ perspectives, with a specific emphasis on the implementation side. The account provides a rich picture of how SDI is socially constructed, and also of cases of failure. For example, he reports an excerpt of the design/ reality gap from an interview with a public officer and SDI expected user:

We have no idea what NSD1 is all about! No one has consulted us. Probably, like in the past, they [scientific institutions concerned] w'ould design something inappropriate to our needs, and then w'e would be asked to use it effectively. This has been going on. I am not sure how large volumes would be accessible online given the rather poor status of data communication infrastructure outside metros. (Puri, 2006)

Structuration theory is a relevant lens to look at blockchain and land registries, because it allows us to see how social structures are reproduced, and how they may harmonize or clash when they enter in interplay with new land registries. Symmetrically, this theoretical stance is sensitive to how agencies may change social structures.

Blockchain

Bitcoin served as a glaring example of the risks blockchain systems would face without functioning governance modes, at least when the need arises. For instance, never-ending conflicts about block size made it evident that technical consensus about transactions does not suffice to regulate the whole network. Organizational consensus is necessary to avoid forks when disputes cannot be reconciled. A first attempt to formalize organizational consensus “on-chain” has been carried out by TheDAO (DuPont, 2017). A DAO (decentralized autonomous organization) aims to predefine its operation in code, thus, code becomes the equivalent of law, supposedly. TheDAO, while generating a great deal of enthusiasm and mobilizing hundreds of millions USD in funding, became a victim of its own code-is-law dogma when an alleged hacker stole part of its funds through a bug in the TheDAO’s software (Siegel, 2016). The TheDAO community found itself in a dilemma: preserving the dogma of immutability, and hence losing the funds in question, or creating a precedent by reversing the transaction, thus breaking the dogma of immutability. After heated debates, the TheDAO community, also influenced by the leading figure Vitalik Buterin, opted for the latter, forking the underlying Ethereum blockchain while leaving the dissidents to continue running the original chain, which is currently called Ethereum Classic.

From an agent-structure perspective, “code is law” entails the agent’s adherence to whatever outcome is predefined by the code, which keeps the interplay between the agent and structure constricted; the agent’s influence on the structure, hence, is supposed to end after the design and development phase. As became apparent to Bitcoin and even more with TheDAO, this line of thinking (which assumes the possibility of complete/self-contained contracts) cannot handle unforeseen circumstances. Thus, there must be a means for rules to change the rules, as one cannot anticipate the unknown. “Code is law,” hence, can turn into “Code is Constitution,” i.e. rules to change the rules. And, in fact, this is what happened in more recent developments: in the time that followed, on-chain governance gained in importance with large and heavily-funded projects such as Tezos (Crunchbase, 2019), Aragon (Cuende, 2017), and D-finity (Crunchbase, 2019). These aim to preserve the benefits of immutability while allowing for changes to the system upon consensus; and by that, facilitating the interplay between agents and structures in front of unknowm circumstances.

Specificities in Ghana: Structures of Opportunity and Strategic Documentation

At a simplified level, the diverse geography of land documentation and records in Ghana derives from the dynamic tension between two forces: the force towards an ideal Weberian-type state structure to govern Ghana, on the one hand, and the forces of decentralization and fragmentation driven by the “politico-legal institutions that compete for political authority [and which] operate to legitimize their undertakings partly through territorial strategies” (Lund, 2013, p.l6) on the other. This dynamic gives rise not only to legal stipulations for the registration of land rights to be implemented variously across the country (Abubakari, Richter, and Zevenbergen, 2018), but also provides what Lund (2008, p.4) calls “structures of opportunity for the negotiation of rights and distribution of resources.” For example, in decision-making over land use and transfers, individuals and groups of agents may act as what Moore (2000) refers to as semiautonomous fields drawing on different rationales to legitimize claims to land. The choices and decisions to document land claims as a land right

(of whichever nature this may be) is contingent upon the anticipated effects of documentation on the social and economic positions of individuals and groups. Berry’s work (2001) in the southern Asante region of Ghana, for instance, illustrates that claims to land are made and legitimized through processes of re-narration and revisions of constructed histories of people-land relations. Thus, while land itself may form the immutable entity that provides family or clan lineages’ identities through time, the documentation of land may be used to break with, reshuffle, or comply with customary social structures depending on circumstances, need, and aims. The overall outcome then of a given process of negotiation and contestation may be likened to the consensus building in Blockchain systems, insofar as there is no central node with final verification and legitimation power. However, in Ghana, this production of records does not run according to programmable, mathematical rules, but entails political contestations and differs according to the problem’s context. Neither law nor code is law. What is strategically and politically deployed is the “mutability of records.”

Theoretical Highlights and Possible Research Questions

Also, in this case, a common theoretical angle does not hide the wide differences of structuration processes in relation to blockchain on the one hand, and Ghanaian land registries on the other. Nonetheless, some common central concepts can again help us in action and research: the shift from “code is law” to “code is constitution” is a salient one. Since algorithms—it does not matter how sophisticated—do not always achieve putting on track the unpredictable future, consensus-building has to move one level dowm: rather than rules (i.e. structures) to regulate people (i.e. agents), the consensus needs to be about how to change rules when the need arises. The clear analogy here is to constitutional laws that regulate how laws can be changed. This can be seen as the product of tensions between structures and agencies. Indeed, since agencies and structures cannot be always reconciled, the need to have a higher level of appeal may arise.

In relation to land registries in Ghana, this theoretical angle highlights the misalignment and frictions between rules and actors. When operationalizing structuration theory into a concrete research design, it can be useful to keep in mind that rules/actors do not necessarily correspond to algorithms/people. Rules can be humans and actors can be software agents, especially in the context of on-chain governance, which intends to enable DAOs[1]

Another recommendation for further action and research about blockchain and governance is to consider that, contrary to previous IT architectures, blockchain are relatively inflexible because of their promise to guarantee immutability. Therefore, consortia designing and developing blockchain- based land registries have to agree quite precisely on details of how their registry is going to work early on in the process. Later changes risk to undermine the credibility of the whole record, or at least to generate inconsistencies (Ziolkowski, Miscione, and Schwabe, 2018).

Finally, an interesting terrain for practitioners and researchers is to figure out if and how it is possible to design incentive schemes that make this distributed ledger scalable and self-sustainable. Indeed, making the unknowns known would certainly help in figuring out how to balance what goes into the code and what remains a matter of people’s discretion.

Possible research questions are: if the overall scene is one of validation of evidence as instruments in politics, how would blockchains play out in this context? Whose agency w'ould they support in Ghana? What new structures w'ould they create or which structures would they legitimize?

Despite its strengths, structuration theory tends to be weak in accounting for difference and radical transformations, as both of them are not necessarily produced by incremental change. The last section on actor-netw'ork theory may help in that direction.

  • [1] In principle, land governance actors in Ghana could be receptive to blockchain conceived of as another form of databaseto legitimize something already existing (e.g. statutory or a chieftaincy registry), but they would be reluctant regardingthe immutability trait of blockchain. Quite likely, they would seek to build-in what happened in TheDAO’s case: rulesto change the rules. Then, the question is: what form would such a constitution take in an instance of implementation inGhana? Would it embed practical norms implicitly ? Who would be the author of such a blockchain constitution?
 
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