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“Rock in Pond”: The three A’s of Institutional Bricolage
Jessica de Koning, Wageningen University
Based on PhD research on community forestry in the Bolivian and Ecuadorian
Amazon, this paper provides further thinking on institutional bricolage and the
processes of institutional reshaping. It does so by using the analogy of a rock thrown
in a pond to describe three practices of institutional bricolage.
Practices of institutional bricolage
Delineating broad characteristics of bricolage still leaves us with the question of how
are these processes combined or blended to produce hybrid institutions in particular
contexts. Building on the broad elements of bricolage defined by Cleaver (2012), de
Koning (2011) tracks three types of practice adopted by local actors, which shape the
way institutions are formed and altered at community level. These practices are
aggregation, alteration, and articulation. The practices show the different ways in
which local communities respond to institutions and help to explain the varied
evolution of institutions.
The process of institutional bricolage that happens when bureaucratic institutions are
introduced into a pre-existing socially embedded setting can be described
metaphorically as resembling a rock that is thrown into a pond. As it enters the water,
it creates a ripple on the surface that widens out. The rock, in this case, is the formally
designed institution that has been ‘thrown into a pond’ of locally embedded
institutions, knowledge, technologies, and conditions. The throwing of a rock in a
pond produces a well-known effect: the rock enters the water, sinks and produces
ripples on the water surface, in other words, affects the socially embedded institutions.
However, the comparison stops there. As it turns out, the rock does not necessarily
sink in the water nor is the rock as solid as it would normally appear.
There are at least three possible outcomes of this rock-like item being thrown into the
water that relate directly to the identified practices.
1. The rock enters the water ‘normally’ but then dissolves in the water, like
2. The water resembles soft ice and the thrown rock leaves a mark or a dent on it.
Furthermore, the rock transforms into a film on the surface, like oil.
3. The rock bounces off the water, as if thrown on thick, hard ice. In this case,
the rock does not enter the water and is forced to go in another direction.
Similarly, there are at least three consequences or outcomes of the different processes
of bricolage. Each of these outcomes relates to one of the three practices: aggregation,
alteration, and articulation.
Soft Ice
Thick Ice
Figure ‘Rock in pond’ image of institutional bricolage
Aggregation, or the recombination of different types of institutions and social-cultural
elements, often involves embedded institutions and social characteristics, such as
culture, routines, traditions, social norms, needs, expectancies, or experience. These
are recombined with formal institutions that are imposed on the community such as
forest regulations, standards, or technical norms on logging. In this recombination, the
formal institutions are given either a new meaning or a new purpose. The outcome of
this process can be described as a more or less balanced situation in which both types
of institution correspond, or are even in harmony. This process results in the necessary
correlation between the formal institutional frameworks and locally embedded
institutional, social and cultural elements. This process also often results in
multipurpose institutions.
Alteration, the adaptation of institutions, can be related to both imposed institutions
and locally embedded institutions, such as cultural beliefs or social norms. Local
actors are often found tweaking and tinkering with different institutions to make them
better fit their livelihoods or identity. This practice can vary from making small
changes to complete reinterpretations and negation of certain institutions in which it is
hard to predict the actual outcome. Necessary improvisation to ensure some level of
social applicability are important elements in practices of alteration. Alteration also
often entails the adaptation of well-worn practices to new circumstances. Not only the
introduced institutions are subject to practices of alteration, also local embedded
institutions and ideas can be altered.
Articulation, the asserting of traditional identities and culture, could be considered as
a form of alteration if it was not for the notable claim made and just as notable
rejection of formal institutions. The introduced formal institution bounces off a shield
of local perceptions of traditions and identity. Articulation is as much visible in the
actual practices as it is in discursive practices. Articulation in the cases happened
when the forest regulations were directly in conflict with local identities. In some
cases this leads to a calm but firm distancing in other it may almost lead to a revolt.
This depends on how strong the sense of identity, or the sense of the self, is. As said
before, articulation always leads to a rejection of the forest regulations. This practice
may also result in a situation of normative pluriformity and selective adherence to
different institutional features. This process of articulation results then in a situation
resembling a clash, a friction, or a discord between the different types of institutions.
Cleaver F ( 2012) Development through bricolage: rethinking institutions for natural
resource management, Abingdon, Routledge/Earthscan.
Koning, J. de 2011. Reshaping institutions – Bricolage processes in smallholder
forestry in the Amazon. PhD dissertation. Wageningen, the Netherlands: Forest and
Nature Conservation Policy, Wageningen University.
Koning, J. de, and C. Benneker. 2012. Bricolage practices in local forestry. In Forest
and nature governance: A practice based approach, eds. B. Arts, J. Behagel, S. van
Bommel, J. de Koning, and E. Turnhout. Dordrecht: Springer.
Koning, J. de, and F. Cleaver (2012). Critical institutional thinking in community
forestry – setting out an agenda for future research. In Forest people interfaces, eds. B.
Arts, S. van Bommel, M. van Ros-Tonen, G. Verschoor. Wageningen, The
Netherlands: Wageningen Academic Publishers.