Working Paper

IDS discussion papers;372

Exploring Understandings of Institutions and Uncertainty: New Directions in Natural Resource Management

Published on 1 January 1999

The paper examines the nexus between institutions and uncertainty in natural resources management contexts. It argues that conventional understandings of institutions fail to focus on how institutions deal with the ever-increasing forms of uncertainty impinging on rural livelihoods.

The paper outlines three different forms of uncertainty: ecological, livelihood and knowledge uncertainty. By reviewing a large literature, the paper demonstrates how conventional understandings of institutions neglect the everyday contexts within which institutions are located and the overlapping domains between different institutional arrangements.

By drawing on a wide range of theoretical approaches to understanding institutions and by exploring case studies around water, pastoralism and biotechnology, the paper argues that a sophisticated understanding of the relationship between institutions and uncertainty calls for a radical re-thinking of conventional ways of viewing resources, legal systems and, property regimes. This calls for new forms of governance, inclusionary decision-making arenas, the addressing of questions of power and the overhauling of sharp dichotomies between local and the global as well as formal and informal processes.


Image of Ian Scoones

Ian Scoones

Professorial Fellow

Image of Lyla Mehta

Lyla Mehta

Professorial Fellow

Publication details

published by
Institute of Development Studies
Mehta, L., Leach, M., Newell, P., Scoones, I., Sivaramakrishnan, K. and Way, S.A.
IDS Discussion Paper, issue 372
1 85684 285 X


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