Operationalizing Research on the Role of Power in Social-Ecological Systems

Building on Adock and Collier (2001), this section explicates a four-step process for operationalizing studies of power using the SES framework (Fig. 6.2). This process is designed to help quantitative and qualitative researchers avoid or at least be more aware of threats to validity that emerge in the transition from theory to measurement and on to evaluation or causal inference. While these insights are not exclusively relevant to the current endeavor, they are worth highlighting here given the historic lack of attention to these important issues in the study of SESs.

The first step is to explicitly adopt particular definitions or theories of power relevant to an SES puzzle. The critique that “power matters” is an authoritative comment regarding a relationship between a condition and an outcome. However, it is also quite vague given the diverse ways in which power has been defined. Although a few studies of SESs have attempted to bring power-centered and institutioncentered theories into constructive dialogue (e.g., Clement 2010; Gruby and Basurto 2013), these initial efforts reflect a small subset of the diverse ways in which social scientists have thought about, defined, and studied power. Without explicit agreement on what power is, it seems unlikely that any one test of a theory that “power matters” can produce the types of evidence required to support or reject such a general hypothesis. The challenge then for scholars seeking to bridge these two approaches is to answer which of the many conceptualizations of power matter and under which conditions.

The second step in this process is to either classify the chosen definition in terms of one or more attributes of the SES framework, or add attributes that appear to be missing. In cases where definitions directly map onto attributes, this process is straightforward; in others (i.e., definitions of power); the classification process typically involves a number of assumptions that must be made explicit. For example,

Fig. 6.2 Steps in testing the effects of power with the social-ecological system framework.

Source: Elaborated from Adcock and Collier (2001)

Clement (2010) attempts to explain variations between policy intentions and outcomes by “politicizing” the IAD framework and adding two classes of attributes, namely “discourse” and “political-economic context.” While she develops a convincing argument that “power matters” and illustrates its effect through a qualitative case study, her addition of “discourse” to the IAD framework reflects only one of many possible classifications of this concept. In fact, one of the core goals of the SES framework is to systematically organize concepts and their definitions such that results are driven by empirical relationships rather than competing definitions or measures (Ostrom 2007).

Upon classification of a definition, the third step is to choose how to operationalize or measure that attribute for empirical analysis. This can be as simple as establishing the presence or absence of some attribute, or involve more complex multivariate measures or qualitative descriptions. Finally, the fourth step is to analyze the effects of measured attributes on the outcomes of interest. Qualitative researchers might analyze these effects by using process tracing to bring together multiple pieces of evidence in order to systematically evaluate the claims of competing hypotheses (George and Bennett 2005; Collier 2011). Quantitative researchers may examine data by using some form of significance test and statistical model.

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