Understanding how social networks in India influence resource use

Post developed by Katie Brown and Arun Agrawal.

This semester, the University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science, and Arts is sponsoring a theme semester: India in the World. India was selected as a focus for many reasons: its vibrant economy, its middle class is the world’s largest, and its government is the world’s largest democracy. The theme semester seeks to “emphasize the ways that India is a part of everyday life in our increasingly globalized world.”

In this post, we celebrate both the theme semester and yesterday’s Earth Day by featuring the work of Center for Political Studies Faculty Associate and School of Natural Resources and Environment Professor Arun Agrawal. Agrawal studies environmental policy. A recent article in Environmental Science and Policy by Agrawal, Daniel G. Brown, Gautam Rao, Rick Riolo, Derek T. Robinson, and Michael Bommarito focuses on research in India to help us understand how we can use networks to curb resource use.

Research usually focuses on formal institutions as being the difference between successful and unsuccessful resource allocation.  But Agrawal and his colleagues argue that institutions are only important in the context of informal networks, or the social interactions between neighbors. Networks are a pervasive part of life. They also change rapidly. But they are little studied in the context of natural resources.

Agrawal and his colleagues examine how institutions and networks interact to influence natural resource use. The authors conducted extensive fieldwork in northern India to investigate how firewood harvesting was influenced by organizations and local social networks. Firewood is critical for cooking food in India so is an important resource to study.

Individual Agents and Social Networks 

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The authors created the above model to consider changes in behaviors and changes over time. Their focus was on how people make decisions – in particular, on the amount of firewood to harvest from the forest. The changes in these decisions are affected by both institutions and networks.

Based on the results of their modeling work, the authors conclude that effective organizations leverage existing social networks. Specifically, they build on existing norms and interactions to change resource use. If institutions make small investments in changing norms, this can have a disproportionately positive impact in reducing resource use, because network interactions amplify the changes across people. That is, small changes in social networks can translate into large savings in resource use.

Connecting back to the theme semester of India in the World, Agrawal’s research in northern India holds intriguing lessons for how policy making can lead to more sustainable resource use practices: institutional changes should build on local social network effects.

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