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10 Conflicts and cooperation over the commons: A conceptual and methodological framework for assessing the role of local institutions

Jean-Paul Vanderlin

Conflict analysis

Assessing institutions




Communication networks analysis as an integrative tool for analyzing cooperation and conflict


Power relationships

Patterns of behavior

Testing the framework: property institutions, livestock mobility, and conflicts in agropastoral western Niger

The issues under scrutiny in western Niger: A short introduction

land tenure

Livestock mobility


Expected nature of the results and potential applications

Conflict management

Management of common-pool natural-resources

The case study



Common-pool natural-resources (CPNRs) are natural resources from which exclusion is not trivial (but is possible) and yield is subtractable (Ostrom, Walker, and Gardner 1992). The purpose of this chapter is to propose a conceptual framework for assessing local institutions1 in terms of their potential to foster cooperation for the management of CPNRs. A theoretical and methodological approach for the application of this framework to property-rights institutions and livestock mobility in the agropastoral zone of Niger is described.

1 Dick Scott’s definition of institutions (Jentoft 1997) is used here: “institutions consist of cognitive, normative and regulatory structures and activities that provide stability and meaning to social behaviour.” Cognitive structures and activities contribute to the existence of shared expectations, and normative structures and activities contribute to the existence of shared norms.

The interest in analyzing the relationship between cooperation and CPNR use lies at two levels. First, an increasing scarcity of resources often leads to open conflicts2 that disrupt both social and economic relations (for example, Bassett 1993; Rogers 1995). One major effect of resource-based conflicts is to shift the cost structure that the parties in conflict are facing (Ensminger and Rutten 1991; Platteau 1996). This shift of the cost structure may call for new institutional arrangements. Conflicts appear when perceived competition between parties is more important than cooperative behavior between the same parties. The outcome of conflicts are linked to the level of cooperation that can be established between the parties in conflict during the conflict. If cooperation is impeded, the outcome of these conflicts may be destructive and the adaptation of the institutional environment to the growing resource scarcity may be stalled. The purpose here is, therefore, not to belittle the well-documented positive aspects of conflicts (for example, Deutsch 1973; Jandt 1973; Mack and Snyder 1973; Filley 1975; Fisher and Ellis 1990; Folger, Poole, and Stutman 1993; Ross 1993). The ultimate purpose of this research is to try to find ways to understand how to maximize these positive aspects for CPNR-based conflicts.

2 Conflict is defined here as “the interaction of interdependent people who perceive incompatible goals and interference from each other in achieving those goals” (Hocker and Wilmot 1985).

Second, stakeholders involved in the joint exploitation of CPNRs are facing a social dilemma. They are competing for as big a share of the same “resource pie” as possible. They also have an incentive for cooperating—to manage the resource and thus ultimately increase the size of the “resource pie”—through providing a management institution. While these types of social dilemmas have been exhaustively studied, most modeling exercises focus on linking the initial conditions to the possible outcomes while neglecting the negotiation process through which these outcomes are achieved (Putnam and Folger 1988; Putnam and Roloff 1992). Conflict analysis is an important exception. A growing body of empirical evidence shows that, along with initial conditions, social-dilemma outcomes are defined by the negotiation processes and the nature of the communicative events linked with them (for example, Tutzauer and Roloff 1988). Analyzing social dilemmas through the “conflict analysis lens” may help in understanding how the negotiation process and its environment may contribute to the definition of the outcomes.

Conflict analysis

Several disciplinary fields have analyzed conflict situations. Economists and mathematicians, for example, mostly use a game-theoretic approach, focusing on the initial conditions and on the possible outcomes (for example, Gilson and Mnookin 1992; Varoufakis 1991). Political scientists, on the other hand, focus on the power relationships among parties, while psychologists focus on transactional analysis—that is, the analysis of communication framed as the parent–child–adult relationship (for example, Filley 1975). The integration of these different disciplinary fields has led to the emergence of the relatively recent interdisciplinary field of conflict analysis or resolution theory (Putnam and Folger 1988; Levinger and Rubin 1994). The purpose of this section is to present the key elements of the theory of conflict analysis that will be used hereafter.

All conflicts share some common traits (Levinger and Rubin 1994):

The ways conflict can be addressed are capitulation, withdrawal, inaction, negotiation, and third-party intervention. However, most of the debate on the impact of cultural differences (for example) on conflict theory lies more in the implementation of negotiation rather than on the conceptualization of conflict dynamic (for example, Gulliver 1979).

In the course of the present work, the focus will be on negotiation having as a goal a constructive outcome. In a conflict situation, the prerequisite for its negotiation or management, which will lead to its settlement or resolution,3 is the existence of cooperation. (It must be remembered here that conflicts are mixed-motive situations.) In this study, the analysis of conflict and the risk of conflict escalation begins with a review of some of the properties of conflict dynamics that can have an impact on conflict outcomes. The first property is linked with the significance of communication patterns in the definition of a conflict outcome. The second property, akin to the “political science” approach to conflict analysis, deals with an important initial condition, the power relationship between parties. The third property is linked with patterns of behavior that may have an impact on the dynamics of conflicts. While the distinction of these properties is important from an analytical perspective, they can interact and be redefined by the conflict dynamic itself.

3 The distinctions among negotiation, conflict management, settlement, and resolution are as follows: Negotiation is the interaction entailing two or more parties in conflict, who engage in social interaction to reach a mutually satisfactory outcome (Putnam and Roloff 1992). Conflict management is an attempt to feed learning that can make the conflict more productive and less costly into the process of conflict (Boulding 1966). Settlement (or conflict-resolution settlement) is the situation in which the outcome of negotiation is accepted by both parties (Hinde and Groebel 1991).

Conflict actions are embedded in larger interaction sequences (Folger, Poole, and Stutman 1993). Several models exist that describe the different phases of conflict (Filley 1975; Fisher and Ellis 1990; Holmes 1992). The focus in this study is on Walton’s two-phase model (Folger, Poole, and Stutman 1993). Walton divides conflicts into two phases: namely, differentiation and integration. The differentiation phase consists of the parties building a clear assessment or definition of their differences and the rationale behind these differences. The integration phase4 occurs after differentiation, and here the parties engage in the search for common ground and work toward a resolution. This distinction is more analytical than chronological (Ross 1993). During the differentiation phase, conflict may be “depersonalized” by separating the issues from the personalities. This allows the parties in conflict to focus on the issues rather than on the persons during the integration phase. Differentiation is a critical part of the conflict process because it can lead to escalation if the differentiation goes too far or it can stall through differentiation avoidance, thereby impeding the move toward integration (see Figure 10.1 for examples). The fundamental importance of these phases led Ausburger (1992) to use their descriptions to differentiate destructive conflict from constructive conflicts.

4 In the description of decision-making processes, “integration” can be seen as the equivalent of Habermas’ (1984) concepts of communicative action and communicative rationality. Integration leads the parties to reach a decision with a shared goal rather than with different goals. This again stresses the importance of communications as a central determinant of negotiated outcomes.

FIGURE 10.1  Differentiation phase and conflict outcome—examples

The risk of escalation during differentiation can be attributed to the following behavioral hypotheses that have been validated in empirical settings (Folger, Poole, and Stutman 1993):

In mediated conflicts, the mediator’s competence is often assessed in terms of being able to control communication (for example, Semlak and Jackson 1975; Donohue 1989). In successfully mediated conflicts, the mediator minimizes conflict-escalating information while highlighting integrative information. Differentiation and integration as phases are always observed in successfully managed conflicts, and the integration phase is absent in most unsuccessfully managed conflicts.

Conflict interaction is sustained by the moves and countermoves of participants, and moves and countermoves are based on the power that participants exert (Folger, Poole, and Stutman 1993). Central to this property of conflict interaction is the importance of the power relationship between the conflicting parties. Balanced power relationships may help conflicts to maintain a constructive direction (Filley 1975; Semlak and Jackson 1975; Poole, Shannon, and DeSanctis 1992; Folger, Poole, and Stutman 1993; Ross 1993). If a party believes that, because of his or her dominant position, he or she can be inflexible, there is little incentive for this party to compromise. Furthermore, in an unbalanced conflict situation, the weaker party’s needs may not be seen as legitimate. A typical example of this can be found in Niger, where, in the agropastoral zone, pastoral authorities are disadvantaged in terms of bargaining power over land issues (Ngaido [Chapter 11]). If a conflict erupts between agropastoralists and pastoralists, pastoralists have very little recourse outside of violence or conflict avoidance.

Patterns of behavior in conflict tend to perpetuate themselves (Folger, Poole, and Stutman 1993). Central to patterns of behavior having the potential to perpetuate conflict are what Folger, Poole, and Stutman (1993) call “trained incapacities.” They identify the following as trained incapacities:

An instance of goal emphasis can be found in central Niger, where most regulations regarding livestock mobility are geared toward the avoidance of livestock going astray into cultivated fields. This misidentified objective leads to a marginalization of all interactions between pastoralists and agriculturalists.

In summary, three elements of the general environment may have an impact on conflict dynamics (Figure 10.2): communication patterns, the power relationship between parties in conflict, and patterns of behaviors that predated the conflict. The purpose of the next section is to analyze how institutions as part of a dynamic environment may have a role in the definition of these three elements.

Assessing institutions

A schematic representation of the situation can be useful in the analysis of institutions and conflict stemming from natural-resource exploitation and management. Once a conflict arises (once parties are competing for the resource), it will take a path leading to a position in the continuum between total competition and total cooperation. The level of conflict management will depend on the blend of cooperation and competition between parties in conflict (Figure 10.3). The hypothesis that is the basis of the present conceptual model is that local institutions, more or less involved in CPNR exploitation and management, will play a major role in the definition of this blend. The way to analyze this impact is to assess the effect of the institution on communication, the power balance, and patterns of behavior (see Figure 10.4).

FIGURE 10.2  Determinants of a conflict outcome

FIGURE 10.3  Cooperation and competition between parties in conflict

FIGURE 10.4  Impact of the institutional environment


When analyzing the contribution of local institutions to power relationships, analysts must clearly delineate in which realm of socioeconomic activity this imbalance occurs. If an imbalance in power exists between parties, analysts must assess how exactly it manifests itself. Once this is understood, analysts must assess whether this power imbalance is part of a broader context or whether it is due solely to the institution under scrutiny. If it is part of a broader context, the analyst can assess whether the institution being considered replicates, reinforces, or diminishes the power imbalance between parties. This can, and ideally should, be analyzed at the regulatory, cognitive, and normative levels.


Through their normative and cognitive structures, institutions can engender misidentified “objective standards.” The regulatory structures of institutions can contribute to the existence of incapacitating procedures.


For the purpose of the present framework, communication patterns are characterized in terms of localization (the location of the different points or nodes where information is exchanged), in terms of quantity (how often information exchanged is exchanged), and in terms of content (how the information is transformed when it passes through a node). The assessment of an institution’s contribution to communication patterns poses a series of difficulties. First, most of the analysis on the impact that communication has on conflict is limited to face-to-face negotiation, mediated or not by a third party. Communication for resource management can take many forms and may involve an important number of actors. A first challenge lies, therefore, in applying to a “macro” event a conceptual framework dealing mostly with “micro” event analysis. Furthermore, actors competing over resource use may have a large choice of communication media (for example, face-to-face, mediated by the market, mediated by the resource). Identifying the relevant media before focusing on it is, therefore, a second challenge. The way to address this issue is to map communication by characterizing communication nodes, that is, identifying where, when, and through what communication medium parties are communicating. Once this mapping, that is, the identification of the structure (Rogers 1979, Blau 1982) of communication patterns, is realized the importance of the impact of the institution on communication between stakeholders can be assessed.

Communication networks analysis as an integrative tool for analyzing cooperation and conflict

When analyzing institutions, analysts may be tempted to use the proposed conceptual framework by assessing separately, and eventually with different approaches or methodologies, the aforementioned different elements of conflict—namely, power, behavior, and communication. While such a disjointed approach may seem tempting, it presents the risk of losing the interconnectedness of these elements as well as their possible interactions (see Figures 10.2 and 10.4). Another approach, which is proposed here, is to analyze the structure of the social relationship between parties and assess the contribution of the institutions under scrutiny to this structure. This analysis can be achieved through analyzing the communication network (Rogers 1979; Blau 1982; Weimann 1994) linking members of the parties who are interacting. The analysis of the communication network allows the assessment of the institutional environment in terms of its impact on power relationships, patterns of behavior, and communication.

From a methodological point of view, communication networks can be identified using different approaches (for a review of these and their respective characteristics, see Bernard, Shelley, and Killworth 1987; Monge and Contractor 1988; Weimann 1994). For the purpose of this analysis, the most appropriate method is the use of “name generators” (Burt 1984). Name generators are short questions having a person’s name as the answer—for example, “The last time you wanted to use manure on your fields, who is the first person you talked to about your plan?” This technique is particularly appropriate here because it allows stratification of the questions by realm of socioeconomic activity (as discussed more fully below). Finally, this approach allows the use of snowball sampling, thus giving a partial guarantee that all actors involved will be taken into account.


Communication can be analyzed in terms of the communication network as a whole. When identifying and characterizing the communication network, analysts have to be particularly careful to “dredge up” (Bernard, Johnsen, and Killworth 1987) the relevant part of the total network. Once the network as a whole is analyzed, the analyst can identify and quantify the contribution of the institutional environment to the communication structure. To identify from which realm of socioeconomic activity this communication structure stems, two analytical approaches can be combined. First, the stratification of the name generators by realm of socioeconomic activity enables the identification of the rationale behind the presence of an individual at a certain position in the network. Second, understanding the institution under scrutiny enables the design of (theoretical) subnetworks that can be compared with the actual network that is observed.

Power relationships

Power relationships can be proxied using the characterization of key individuals through which information must pass and key individuals having access to more information. This corresponds to the two principal concepts of centrality in social-network theory and is often considered as representing or being a proxy for the analysis of power distribution (Freeman, Borgatti, and While 1991). Again, the two approaches described for the analysis of communication can be combined. Furthermore, an analysis of the linkages between control over information, control over assets, and position of the family in terms of relationship to the traditional authorities can be conducted. This would allow a validation or a rejection of the use of network centrality as a proxy to power.

Patterns of behavior

Patterns of behavior can be analyzed in terms of the path that information is taking to reach different nodes and in terms of the degree of centralization of the network (Bonacich 1987). Again, the two approaches described for the analysis of communication can be combined.

Testing the framework: Property institutions, livestock mobility, and conflicts in agropastoral western Niger

The purpose of this section is to introduce a potentially enlightening case study. The focus of the case study under scrutiny is on property institutions and their impact on range-resource use in agropastoral western Niger. The relationship between transhumant herd managers or keepers and the communities having jurisdiction over the property-rights action-space5 where transhumant herds are grazing is emphasized.6 In the following sections, “herders” refers to transhumant herd managers or keepers passing through the land of a village practicing agriculture; “agriculturalists” refers to the members of the communities through which the “herders” are passing and their herds are grazing.

5 The property-rights action-space of a community is the geographical unit for which the village head has direct or indirect jurisdiction over land allocation issues. This corresponds to the French concept of terroir foncier (Le Bris 1982).

 6 This distinction, however, is not necessarily linked with any particular ethnic group. Most traditional pastoralists practice agriculture. Most agriculturalists raise livestock. While rural populations in the agropastoral zone in western Niger are therefore mainly agropastoralists, they differ in their origin and their level of crop–livestock integration. Classifications of agropastoralists can be found in Bonfiglioli (1990) and Williams (1994).

The focus on property rights and on range-resource use has several interesting characteristics. First, because land is a multiple-use resource, conflict may stem from scarcity and may also stem from different ways parties perceive how land should be used. This enables the joint analysis of scarcity-based conflicts and value-based conflicts. Second, while a majority of conflicts between transhumant herders and agriculturalists in western Niger are still resolved at the village level, the use of courts to resolve conflicts related to pastoral resource seems to be constantly on the rise (Ngaido 1993a). This seems to indicate that local conflict-resolution structures may be progressively losing the exclusivity to perform their function or that these structures may be undermined and thus rendered ineffective by forum shopping. Finally, Niger is trying to implement a new rural code that should increase the importance of local resource-management structures. Nevertheless, a lack of understanding of how these local structures function is impeding its implementation (Ngaido 1993a, 1993b; Elbow 1996; Gado 1996).

When analyzing the relationship between herders and agriculturalists, analysts need to take two key elements into account. First, land-tenure systems, governing the access and use of the range resource, must be analyzed. Secondly, the management of livestock mobility, which is a prerequisite to the existence of transhumant herds, must be analyzed. Because livestock mobility is, at least in part, a risk-management strategy (for example, Fleuret 1986; Painter, Sumberg, and Price 1992; Swallow 1994; van den Brink, Bromley, and Chavas 1995), its management can be seen as a form of social articulation of environmental risk.

The issues under scrutiny in western Niger: A short introduction

Land tenure

When analyzing the context of land-tenure systems and their associated property rights, analysts must stress the dual nature of property rights. Property rights mediate the relationships between humans (Lynch and Alcorn 1994), and between the resource and humans (Schlager and Ostrom 1992). Therefore, contextual information has to deal with the relationship between humans and resources and with the relationship between humans and humans. Land-tenure systems in Niger are facing pressure on both fronts. Environmental variability and population increase are a source of transformation for the human–resource relationship. Political changes have an impact on the transformation of the human–human relationship. There is therefore a need to stress that, when conducting an analysis of land-tenure institutions, analysts must not lose sight of its dynamic dimension. Nevertheless, the analysis that is proposed here will be limited to the static analysis of current land-tenure arrangements and their historical context.

Despite numerous attempts at land reform (Ngaido 1995), land tenure in western Niger is still mostly governed locally by customary institutions. It is based, for a majority of agricultural land users, on usufruct. A minority of agriculture land users has a tenure status approaching private property. Range land—consisting, during the rainy season, of fields left in fallow and of area uncultivable or never cultivated—is either under the authority of the village headperson, or under the authority of the chefs de canton, that is, district chiefs. During the dry season, fields are open for grazing on the residues and weeds. Access to the range resource is generally open provided that pastoral activities do not interfere with agricultural activities. Land tenure in Niger (Table 10.1) consists, therefore, of a mixed system of common and private property that is defined seasonally (see Williams 1997).

Livestock mobility

While the management of livestock mobility has been described in the past for Niger Fulani and Twareg (for example, Dupire 1972; Bellot 1980; Wilson 1984; Maliki 1981), very little exists on its recent development. Turner (1998) gives a detailed account of the impact of the changing political environment on the herd management practices of Fulanis in the Say département—the “death” of grouped herds and the changing roles of the transhumant leaders. However, very little exists on the current herd-management practices of the Fulani, Zarma, Haussa, and Bella in western Niger as a whole. Furthermore, following the two last major droughts, there is evidence from eastern Niger that Haussa herd-management practices may be evolving rapidly, relying increasingly on livestock mobility (for example, Amoukou et al. 1996; Banouin et al. 1996). Before the proposed conceptual framework can be applied to the management of livestock mobility, two key elements need to be considered here. The first is how decisions are reached on where and when to send livestock onto transhumance pastures; the second is whether the access to pasture outside the village is negotiated or not, and, if it is negotiated, on what grounds.

TABLE 10.1  A schematic description of land-tenure arrangements in the agropastoral zone of western Niger


Rainy season

Dry season


Range resources (fallow and bush)

Land for
(cultivated land)

(fallow and bush)

Land for agriculture (land cultivated the preceding rainy season)

Access right

Granted to everyone provided that pastoral activities do not interfere with agriculture (negotiation with the village chief)

Granted to the usufruct-right holder

Granted to everyone (negotiated?)

Granted to everyone (negotiated?)

Withdrawal right

Granted to everyone provided that pastoral activities do not interfere with agriculture (negotiation with the village chief)

Granted to the usufruct-right holder

Granted to everyone (negotiated?)

Granted to everyone when grazed; under the authority of the usufruct-right holder when collected for storage or sale

Management right

Under the authority of the village chief for fallows and canton chief when never cultivated

Management by the usufruct-right holder, limited to decisions relating to fertilization fallow and well digging

Under the authority of the village chief for fallows and canton chief when never cultivated

Management by the usufruct-right holder; limited to decisions relating to fertilization fallow and well digging

Alienation right

Under the authority of the village chief for fallows and canton chief when never cultivated

Under the authority of the primary- or secondary–right holder

Under the authority of the village chief for fallows and canton chief when never cultivated

Under the authority of the primary- or secondary-right holders

Note: Tree tenure is omitted.


Resource-based conflicts between herders and agriculturalists are rather common occurrences in western Niger. Table 10.2 summarizes the findings of a survey conducted in 40 villages in western Niger between November 1997 and February 1998. Two major observations are that, with one exception, no other resource-based conflicts, apart from farmer–herder conflicts, were reported; and that all resource-based conflicts between transhumant herders and agriculturalists, without exception, were settled locally. The imposition of fines on transhumant herders did not seem to be a widespread practice.

These observations seem to be contradicted by the following observations:

These apparent contradictions need to be explored.

7 One of the frequently cited instances of extremely destructive conflicts between “pastoralists” and “agriculturalists” is the killing of 2 Haussas and 102 Fulanis in Toda (Maradi) in 1991.

TABLE 10.2  Importance of land-related conflicts during the agricultural year 1996/97—from a survey conducted in 40 villages of western Niger





Conflicts with
transhumant herders

Other conflicts linked with land tenure

Number of villages reporting these conflicts as common occurrence in 1996 (n = 40)



Unsettled conflicts



Number of villages that did not fine the transhumant herders during the settlement of the conflicts (n = 40)



Number of conflicts related to land tenure where external help was needed for the settlement to go through




Note: N.a. indicates not available

Expected nature of the results and potential applications

The results will consist of the following elements: the representation of agriculturalists’ communication structure (communication networks are easily represented with matrices); the representation of agriculturalists’ communication with transhumant herders; as well as two theoretical subnetworks—one for land-tenure institutions, and one for the management of herd mobility. The comparative analysis of these networks as described earlier may lead to the following results.

Conflict management

While the literature advocating a greater reliance on local structures to manage local conflict is growing, local structures may fail to be able to achieve this because of their colonial and postcolonial transformations (see Cousins 1996). By focusing on local institutions’ role in conflict definition, the proposed framework may contribute to an understanding of the actual needs in terms of conflict resolution structure.

Often the outbreak or escalation of conflicts is explained by transformation in the natural, the socioeconomic, or the institutional environment. If these changes are known, analysts can try to assess how these changes affect the communications between the parties in conflict.

One way of assessing the impact of alternative structures is by evaluating how a proposed structure may transform the structure of inter-group communication. This may allow, through “simulations,” a better ex ante design of alternative structures for dispute resolution.

Management of common-pool natural-resources

While the regulatory structures of institutions are often assessed in terms of their ability to achieve a desired goal pertaining to resource management, the normative and cognitive structures of institutions are very rarely considered (Jentoft 1997). On the other hand, the concept of “social capital”8 is often called upon to explain differences in the ability of communities to engage in collective action (for example, Gardner, Ostrom, and Walker 1994; Ostrom 1995). When the concept of social capital is applied to that of an institution, it is often limited to the following simplistic equation:

8 Social capital is the arrangement of human resources to improve flows of future income (Ostrom 1995). The creation of institutions, networks, norms, and social beliefs are all identified in the literature as investments in social capital (Ostrom 1990, 1992, 1995; Putnam 1993) .

Institution = Social Capital = Better capacity to engage in collective action

While the first equality necessarily holds (by definition), the second equality may hold only when focusing on the regulatory structure of the institution under consideration. When the cognitive and normative structure of the institution is considered, the second equality does not necessarily hold. While the regulatory structure of an institution (through rules and their enforcement) can be an indicator of a proven capacity to engage in collective action for a specific goal, it does not give us information on how the normative and cognitive structures of the institution considered may affect future collective action (crafting of a new institution, for example). The proposed framework may give an evaluation of the potential for investment in new social capital while taking into account all aspects of institutions.

The case study

The following specific questions linked with the situation in agropastoral western Niger will be answered:


The purpose of this chapter has been to propose an approach to the conceptualization and analysis of CPNR use. Through the analysis of communication, and through the use of conflict analysis theory, the proposed framework may enable a different view on the ability of current local institutional frameworks to contribute to the management of CPNR and to the management of conflict stemming from competition over resource use.

While, a priori, this framework looks full of promise, its validity must be ultimately confirmed by testing in the “real” world. Range management in Niger, as a case study, seems to give a unique opportunity to achieve this. If validated, the proposed framework will provide a supplementary tool for the analysis of institutional environments. In a time of government withdrawal and increasing reliance on local structure, such a tool may be useful.


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