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Social roles and performance of social-ecological systems: evidence from behavioral lab experiments

Irene Perez, Center for Behavior, Institutions and the Environment, Arizona State University
David J Yu, Center for Behavior, Institutions and the Environment, Arizona State University; Lyles School of Civil Engineering, Purdue University; Department of Political Science, Purdue University
Marco A Janssen, Center for Behavior, Institutions and the Environment, Arizona State University; School of Sustainability, Arizona State University
John M Anderies, Center for Behavior, Institutions and the Environment, Arizona State University; School of Sustainability, Arizona State University; School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Arizona State University

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-07493-200323

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Abstract

Social roles are thought to play an important role in determining the capacity for collective action in a community regarding the use of shared resources. Here we report on the results of a study using a behavioral experimental approach regarding the relationship between social roles and the performance of social-ecological systems. The computer-based irrigation experiment that was the basis of this study mimics the decisions faced by farmers in small-scale irrigation systems. In each of 20 rounds, which are analogous to growing seasons, participants face a two-stage commons dilemma. First they must decide how much to invest in the public infrastructure, e.g., canals and water diversion structures. Second, they must decide how much to extract from the water made available by that public infrastructure. Each round begins with a 60-second communication period before the players make their investment and extraction decisions. By analyzing the chat messages exchanged among participants during the communication stage of the experiment, we coded up to three roles per participant using the scheme of seven roles known to be important in the literature: leader, knowledge generator, connector, follower, moralist, enforcer, and observer. Our study supports the importance of certain social roles (e.g., connector) previously highlighted by several case study analyses. However, using qualitative comparative analysis we found that none of the individual roles was sufficient for groups to succeed, i.e., to reach a certain level of group production. Instead, we found that a combination of at least five roles was necessary for success. In addition, in the context of upstream-downstream asymmetry, we observed a pattern in which social roles assumed by participants tended to differ by their positions. Although our work generated some interesting insights, further research is needed to determine how robust our findings are to different action situations, such as biophysical context, social network, and resource uncertainty.

Key words

behavioral experiments; communication; irrigation systems; lab experiments; qualitative comparative analysis; social-ecological networks; social-ecological systems; social roles

Copyright © 2015 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article  is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.  You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

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Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087