Today there is a pervasive policy consensus in favour of ‘community management’ approaches to common property resources such as forests and water. This is endorsed and legitimized by theories of collective action which, this article argues, produce distinctively ahistorical and apolitical constructions of ‘locality’, and impose a narrow definition of resources and economic interest. Through an historical and ethnographic exploration of indigenous tank irrigation systems in Tamil Nadu, the article challenges the economic‐institutional modelling of common property systems in terms of sets of rules and co‐operative equilibrium outcomes internally sustained by a structure of incentives. The article argues for a more historically and politically grounded understanding of resources, rights and entitlements and, using Bourdieu's notion of ‘symbolic capital’, argues for a reconception of common property which recognizes symbolic as well as material interests and resources. Tamil tank systems are viewed not only as sources of irrigation water, but as forming part of a village ‘public domain’ through which social relations are articulated, reproduced and challenged. But the symbolic ‘production of locality’ to which water systems contribute is also shaped by local ecology. The paper examines the historical and cultural production of two distinctive ‘cultural ecologies’. This serves to illustrate the fusion of ecology and social identity, place and person, in local conceptions, and to challenge a currently influential thesis on the ecological‐economic determinants of collective action. In short, development discourse and local actors are seen to have very different methods and purposes in the ‘production of locality’. Finally, the article points to some practical implications of this for strategies of ‘local institutional development’ in irrigation.
Development and Change – Wiley
Published: Jul 1, 1997
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