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Social-Ecological Systems Meta-Analysis Database: Theory

External recognition and local autonomy

Variable relationship:

Ostrom (1990) and several other authors have noted that local level management can suffer from resource degradation (Commons Condition Trend) as a result of low compliance (Compliance) and social-ecological fit (Social-ecological Fit) when national governments and their agents fail to recognize the rights of communities to self-organize (External Recognition).

Such resource degradation represents a failure to fulfill the seventh of Ostrom's (1990) design principles. "In some cases, local-level management efforts fail because of factors outside the community. High on this list of factors includes interference by government officials who are reluctant to give power to locals (Pinkerton and Weinstein 1995). There are many cases in the literature where rules were established by local communities that then went out of existence. In the developing world, Western colonial governments may undermine the power of local political authorities and the resource-management rules they had enforced (Johannes 1978; Pradhan and Parks 1995)" (Quote from Acheson 2006).

Scientific Field
Component Type(s)


VariableRoleRole ExplanationValue
External recognitionProximate independent variableWhen the rights of resource users to self-organize are not formally or informally recognized by external authorities; incentives to invest in the management of natural resources is low. Low
ComplianceModerating independent variableWhen local commons users' rules are overridden, they are unlikely to follow the rules that replace their own.No
Social-ecological fitIntermediate outcomeWhen centralized rules are imposed on local contexts and replace local rules, they may not fit well with the contexts that these local rules were adapted to.Low
Commons condition trendFinal outcomeWhen groups fail to self-organize it often leads to depletion of natural resources.Worsened

Related Theories

TheoryRelationshipCharacterizing Variables
CBNRM design principlesnested
Polycentric comanagementnested
Failure of centralized controlrelated
Social-ecological fit theorycontains

Related Studies


Johannes, Robert E. 1978. “Traditional Marine Conservation Methods in Oceania and Their Demise.” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics: 349–364.


Ostrom, Elinor. 1990. Governing the Commons. New York: Cambridge University Press.


Acheson, James M. 2006. Institutional Failure in Resource Management. Annual Review of Anthropology 35 (1): 117-134.


Ribot, Jesse C., Arun Agrawal, and Anne M. Larson. 2006. Recentralizing While Decentralizing: How National Governments Reappropriate Forest Resources. World Development 34 (11): 1864-1886.


Pinkerton, Evelyn W, and Martin Weinstein. 1995. Fisheries That Work: Sustainability through Community-Based Management. Vancouver, Canada: The David Suzuki Foundation.


Pradhan, A S, and P J Parks. 1995. “Environmental and Socioeconomic Linkages of Deforestation and Forest Land Use Change in the Nepal Himalaya.” Property Rights in a Social and Ecological Context. The World Bank, Washington DC, USA: 167–179.