Managing without formal institutions: the role of communication networks

in marine resource management.


Anthony King


United Kingdom



A case study of a community dependent on a coral reef related fishery in southern coastal Kenya investigated three situations in which access to or control over community resources were threatened. Social network analysis was used to identify how community members solved the kinds of problems which resource managers also seek to tackle. The analysis showed that people who were ‘suffering’ from resource access or control problems had to pursue many different paths to find a solution, and that this appeared to be due to problems associated with relying on institutions.

The three issues investigated were the attempted implementation of a marine protected area, a conflict between local and migrant fishers, and the illegal subdivision of seafront state land used by the community to access the sea and to carry out fishing related activities. The initial phases of each issue showed that the organisations with a statutory mandate to resolve the problems were influential, primarily through local or district level representation. However, reliance on these organisations did not solve the problems of the local people. The analysis showed that formal organisations maintained the status quo, actually hindering problem resolution, through their statutory authority, resources or political constituency.

Analysis of the final phases of each issue showed a break in the status quo through the involvement of different actors. These actors did not have statutory authority to resolve the issues, thereby reflecting local people’s acknowledgement that the time-tried processes of established institutions were of no avail. Political actors or privileged actors with access to senior members of the administration were key for local people to break the status quo. The role of traditional institutions was not important in the determining the outcome of the issues, and the principal stakeholders (fishers) were also found to be relatively low powered. As a result local people relied on more powerful actors to raise the profile of their concerns.

The analysis showed that formal institutions can prevent the feedback between people’s resource claims and practices, and the processes that determine them. In time, this lack of feedback means that institutions cease to be relevant to the actual situation of the people depending on local resources and this can cause difficulties for local people. Fortunately people dependent on local resources are able to pursue different courses of action. This suggests that institutions are not solely responsible for determining people’s resource claims and practices.

The findings suggest that a socio-political environment in which solutions to problems can be found through a variety of processes, rather than depending on institutions to solve problems, may improve resource management. This is principally because many problems arise before there are rules to deal with them. Management on the other hand often tries to fit problems into predetermined rules. Not only must the rules be responsive to the problems – adaptive management, but the socio-political environment must also facilitate problem solving. Understanding the social relations associated with resource access or control issues could well help to facilitate the problem solving process.