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Institutions and their ecological context: Ecologically embedded agents in boundary organizations
Sustainable natural resource management in social-ecological systems involves a great diversity of actors, often gathered in boundary organizations in an effort of shared governance. Nonetheless, conceptions of sustainability may vary widely among them. Institutional theory has studied differences in problem understanding from the perspective of the actors’ different institutional embeddedness. We argue that the ecological embeddedness of actors within the system might also play a dramatic role in their understanding of natural resource management issues. Yet we know little on the ways in which actors relate individually to their natural environment and how it influences their conceptualization of sustainability. Institutional research on actors’ embeddedness has not included the natural environment - or ecological materiality - conceptually yet. We offer to take a first step in that direction by tackling the following exploratory questions: what forms of ecological embeddedness exist among institutional actors of the same social-ecological system and how does that relate to their understanding of sustainable natural resource management in their organizational field? To answer that question, we pursue a longitudinal qualitative study of several French river basin committees covering a period of fifty years, gathering both meeting minutes and semi-structured interviews. The data gathered allows to dig in depth in the different forms of ecological embeddedness displayed by the river basin members and in their different interpretations of the meaning of sustainable natural resource management. While the interviews allow us to have an interpretivist approach at the individual level, the archive data collected helps us not to lose sight of their broader institutional context. Preliminary results show that actors relate in different ways to the river basin in question and to the natural environment at large, not only cognitively but also physically and emotionally. They also interpret factual knowledge about the ecological system in different ways depending on their respective belief systems. Understanding globally those different aspects of ecological embeddedness will bring conceptual insight on the relationship between institutions and their natural environment, with a broader vision of materiality, especially on concerns of institutional complexity.