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Addressing the alleged ahistoricity of Elinor Ostroms’ commons theory

At a seminar last December, I was told that Professor Elinor Ostrom’s commons theory (mostly outlined in her 1990 “Governing the Commons“, but also well deployed in her 2005 “Understanding Institutional Diversity” and 2010 coauthored book with Marco Janssen and Amy Poteete “Working Together“) was “ahistorical”. Obviously, I was totally taken aback. As someone who was trained by the Ostroms, and who learned from them directly, it was very clear to me that the scholars who were telling me this were not very aware of how institutional analysis from the Ostromian perspective works.

IASC 2013 Panels 1, 2 and lunch poster sessions

There are two main issues I have with this assertion of alleged ahistoricity of Ostrom’s commons theory. The first one is that the mere definition of institution (seen as the set of rules and norms that govern interactions across agents), implies that the creation of this set of rules and norms takes time. Institutions are created through the routinization and repetition of norms. This process takes place through history. Therefore, by definition, institutionalism (and in particular historical institutionalism) IS historical. Learning how institutions evolve (as seen through the work of Kathleen Thelen, for example) requires us to understand the historical processes that take place to get from where we have been to where we are right now(***).

The second issue is that the actual temporal timeline within which the Ostromian perspective has been applied (from the 1960s through the 1990s all the way to the mid 2010s) is relatively recent. This doesn’t mean that you can’ t apply current theories to historical commons (see, for example, the work of Tine De Moor and Chris Short, as well as Jose Miguel Lana Berasain et al). I think there is a badly misunderstood idea among some Mexican social scientists that the Mexican agrarian reform and land tenure patterns were so unique that they could not possibly be analyzed through the relatively recent theoretical perspectives of a commons.

Gibsons (Gibsons Landing, Sunshine Coast)

I think that most scholars who aren’t really familiar with IAD or SES argue that it provides a snapshot of a social and ecological system, where this “instant picture” is devoid of any historical context. I actually disagree, simply because of how institutions are crafted and created through time. Moreover, within the system’s characteristics’ boxes you need to provide as much context about the system as possible. This context IS historical, and thus it’s important that we remember that this automatically implies that the framework in and of itself can be used through time and in a rather dynamic form.

I think it is important to clear up the alleged ahistoricity of commons theory because not doing so leaves a lot of room for misunderstandings. In this post, I tried to make this point in a very brief form, but I would strongly recommend that those interested in commons and history look at the works I’ve linked to above.

(***) – I am grateful to Dr. Dan Cole, from Indiana University, for making this point over an email exchange we had.

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Studying policy change vs policy creation – policy cycle theories vs policy regime framework

Whenever anybody asks me what does a double-major in political science and human geography do in a public administration department, I tell them that I study comparative public policy and use cases of environment and resource governance to explore differences across national jurisdictions.

I am also interested in the governance of non-traditional common-pool resources (CPRs) and in the spatial, political and human dimensions of public service delivery. Potable water supply, wastewater treatment and solid waste management are all public services that need to be provided, which are regularly the responsibility of local governments and therefore an integral part of the public administration literature. But at the core, I have always studied policy change, more so than policy creation.

My first really important, empirical paper (Pacheco-Vega, 2005, “Democracy by Proxy”) examines the role of non-state actors and their coalition-building in influencing and changing domestic toxics policy. I showed how environmental non-governmental organizations, forming transnational coalitions of activists, changed the voluntary nature of the Mexican toxics release inventory from voluntary to mandatory. This was a contribution to the policy change literature.

But even before then, I had explained (with Peter Nemetz, 2001) the role of information-based voluntary programs in designing effective pollution control strategies. Voluntary or suasive policy instruments such as the toxics release inventory are considered some of the least effective, but gained a lot of prominence in the early 2000s as an alternative to regulatory, command-and-control instruments. This is a contribution to the policy creation (policy cycle) body of scholarship. These works were, as Dr. Debora VanNijnatten, what positioned me as “the policy instruments guy”. Further work I did with Dr. Kathryn Harrison and Dr. Mark Winfield looked at the role of policy transfer in disseminating ideas on how toxic release inventories should work, which is more again, on the policy cycle/policy instruments realm.

My doctoral work looked at industry responses to environmental regulatory pressure, which is also part of the policy change field (e.g. Pacheco-Vega and Dowlatabadi 2005, Pacheco-Vega 2008). And my wastewater governance research has examined and evaluated water and wastewater policies, so these contributions are definitely part of the policy cycle body of works. But even my transnational environmental activism in North America analyses (Pacheco-Vega 2015) focus on the role of policy change. I think overall my research trajectory is primarily focused on policy change.

I really love the versatility of doing interdisciplinary work, but if anybody asked me what is my specialty and wanted to peg me, I think I’d say that I am a specialist in the study of factors that drive policy changes. The policy regime literature (particularly those works which examine the impact of ideas, interests and institutions on how policies are adopted or shift goals/strategies/implementation) is particularly useful in understanding change in policies.

I’d rather be known as someone who understands how policies evolve, shift, and can fail, than someone who is an expert on agenda-setting or implementation (even though I’ve done work on both). A conversation with a current student of mine on Twitter reminded me that, to me, teaching policy analysis is relevant because it allows my students to learn how policies change, how they can fail, and what factors can be used to prevent failure. I don’t diss the policy cycle literature, I still love agenda-setting theory, and I am definitely keen on furthering my work on policy implementation (in particular, for example, what I am currently doing with the human right to water literature).

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Paris as a site of field research on water governance

I was in Paris last week for an EGAP (Evidence in Politics and Governance) meeting and workshop, EGAP19. I am a member of EGAP and was invited to participate in this workshop, hosted by Dr. Daniel Rubenson (Ryerson University, on sabbatical at Sciences Po) on field experiments (though the main focus for this meeting was policy interventions). As I always do when I travel somewhere for a conference or a workshop, I also scheduled some meetings and did a bit of fieldwork.


Whenever I mention that I have been doing fieldwork in Paris, I get a mixed bag of reactions, ranging from “wow, how interesting to study Paris” and “well, isn’t that lucky, you get to do fieldwork in Paris” (almost implying some degree of ‘academic tourism’).

I won’t deny that I absolutely love Paris, as it is a beautiful museum in and of its own. I have spent a lot of time in Paris, and done extensive fieldwork in the city, and I definitely wouldn’t mind living there for a while. But there are actual, real, research-based reasons to study Paris and its water history. In particular, for the topics I study (the governance of non-traditional common pool resources and the comparative politics of public service delivery), Paris is the perfect site for field research on water governance.

Paris offers an interesting research puzzle for those of us interested in the politics of water privatization, remunicipalization and alternative service delivery models: its water supply has been remunicipalized despite the fact that the two biggest water privatizing companies worldwide (Veolia and Suez Environnement) have their headquarters in Paris. France itself has been a pioneer in remunicipalization practices, as documented by Lobina, Hall and others.

Paris also has a very long history of public water provision in the form of drinking water fountains (including some historical ones of the Wallace model). The photo below is taken from the Water Pavilion (”Le Pavillon de L’eau“), a water-focused museum maintained by Eau de Paris, the local water municipality. This photo showcases a “Millenial Fountain”, one of the newest models of water fountains. From my conversations with Paris residents, there is very little interest in bottled water in Paris, given that the tap water quality is quite good.

Pavilion De L'Eau (Paris, France)

I am particularly interested in Paris not only because of the remunicipalization of its water utility (which in and of itself is an interesting case study), but also because there is some scholarship about the history of bottled water within France, which is relevant to my current research on the politics of bottled water. Some brands of premium bottled water are French (for example, Perrier’s sparking water is quite popular worldwide) and while individual adoption of bottled water consumption practices doesn’t seem prevalent nor occurring nation-wide, there’s definitely a chance that it may happen in the future.

Overall, Paris is an excellent site for field research on water governance, and French scholars (as well as France-based) have produced a lot of really relevant work in the French language that also should be read by everyone who is interested in the topic.

Posted in academia, water governance, water policy.

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International Womens Day 2017: On the structural barriers that women face in academia

Given my field of research (the governance of non-traditional common pool resources), it’s often easy to write about the negative effects of lack of access to water and sanitation can have on women. For previous International Women’s Days, I’ve written about the disproportionately negative impact that open defecation and lack of menstrual hygiene management strategies can have on women and girls, including the very real threat of sexual violence. I also have written about how women often share the biggest burden of home-based work and informal work, specifically in waste picking (which is the activity I’ve studied).

But this year, I wanted to write about a different topic. I think it is important that we reflect on the fact that women still face structural barriers to their development in academia. This is not something I am making up, it is something I have witnessed since my childhood, and now as a professor I am even more keenly aware of it. I have heard horror stories of hiring committees where female candidates have been asked about prospects for children-bearing, and for getting married. At a few conferences, I have heard snarky comments on whether female students and/or professors are quantitative enough (or how their only trick is doing statistical analysis). I have been asked (seriously) why do I push so much for the inclusion of female scholars’ writing in syllabi, not only in mine (where I can proudly boast I have 67% of female scholars’ works), but in other professors’ too.

I am the son of a professor of political science. My Mom faced structural challenges to career development, even when she decided to do her PhD (apparently, she was too old to do it in France, so she decided to go to one of the best schools in Europe for political science, the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, where she was welcomed with open arms). I am the uncle of a political science and international relations major (who, by the way, studied with some of the most awesome political scientists at University of Pittsburgh, who also happen to be good friends of mine). So whenever I hear the notion that “not everything is about gender”, I cringe.

Honestly, everyone should push for gender equality in academia even if their Moms or nieces aren’t political scientists. But apparently this is a topic that is still hotly debated, because some people seem to think that women haven’t faced structural barriers (the so-called glass ceiling). Even though there’s serious scholarship on how female scholars are cited less than their male counterparts, how their work isn’t used as often in syllabi as male scholars, how stopping the tenure clock for parental leave benefits male academics more than female ones. This frustrates me to no end.

But in closing on a positive note, I wanted to celebrate the women in my life, especially those scholars who help me learn and grow every day, those students and research assistants of mine who keep pushing me to be a better scholar every day as well. As far as the day goes, International Women’s Day doesn’t feel as much a celebration but more as a recognition of the fact that we have come a long way, but we still have a lot more to go.

Posted in academia, research.

Using prompts to motivate writing: Five strategies to get some words out

I just came back from a week in Paris attending a meeting of field experiments’ scholars, and I took the opportunity to do some fieldwork. There are perfectly good reasons why I study French water governance, specifically in Paris, but that discussion is reserved for another post.

#AcWri at the SFO airport

When I do fieldwork or when I am at conferences, I am often constrained by how intense the workshops are, and therefore I sometimes don’t have the time to write 2 hours per day, as I have on my schedule. I need to be more flexible and take care of my own physique. So I write when I can, often times, on planes or trains or buses during my commutes.

But when I travel for conferences, workshops and fieldwork (obviously becoming quite exhausted) what I also face sometimes is the dreaded blank page. Sometimes I don’t know how to start writing something, despite the fact that when I am editing I always have my Drafts Review Matrix in front of me. So, what I do to motivate me to write is that I use prompts. And coincidentally, as I was researching my own Twitter account, came across this excellent blog post by Nicole Cesare on turning your notes into prompts.

When I see these prompts, these physical cues, these calls to action, I feel prompted to start writing. It’s like I have an opportunity to capture some thoughts and I shouldn’t let it slide. In examining my own workflow, I have identified four different types of prompts.

Prompt 1: A PDF of an article or book or book chapter (external or on Mendeley)

If I feel like I can’t write anything, because I am facing writers’ block (it does happen to me from time to time) I open a PDF of an article or a book chapter. I feel even more compelled to write notes when I am writing on my Everything Notebook or when I have the PDF open on Mendeley. Having Mendeley open alongside Word usually prompts me to write a memorandum.

iPod March 2017 038

Having Mendeley and Word open simultaneously basically forces me to write some words, because if I don’t, I would feel like this travel time would be wasted (I only write on a plane when I’ve actually already had a good, solid nap – my health comes first).

Prompt 2: A data table or textual dataset (on Excel, or a .CSV file)

Datasets are one of the easiest sources for written material, and act as fantastic prompts to inspire me to write, because I need to, at the very least, describe how I assemble the dataset, what it contains, what it means for my research, for the paper I am writing, data sources, etc. Even just describing the dataset will prompt me to write.

Also, as Dr. Adam Wellstead mentioned in response to my tweet, datasets can allow you to use them and reuse them for multiple papers, using different theoretical and empirical strategies.

Prompt 3: A newspaper article or news clipping (from Evernote)

I almost always keep at least 2 or 3 programs open at all times: Evernote, if I am surfing the web or doing a Google Scholar search, or a Google News search when I am looking for specific news clippings related to my research. Mendeley, and Word/Excel. Having Mendeley open at almost all times reduces the excuse that I often give myself to avoid writing “well, I’ll find that reference later“. My good angel brain tells my evil angel brain “NO YOU WON’T. You have Mendeley RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU. Search for the damn reference and insert it RIGHT NOW.”

Prompt 4: A results table

Results are also some of the best prompts to write when you have writers’ block, at least for me, because I know that I already have something that I have analyzed and I need to make sense of them. That’s why having STATA or Atlas.Ti open in front of me helps me feel compelled to start writing those results, to understand why they came out the way they did.

Handwritten notes in academic research

Also, assembling tables of results by hand, as I show above, is one of the ways in which I feel the most energized and compelled to write. Moreover, tables really help me clarify my mind.

Prompt 5: Scribbles on the margins of an article or my Everything Notebook

Because I do a lot of things the analog way, I often need to transcribe notes from the margins of my articles or my Everything Notebook on to a Word file (often combining the literature into a nice, in-depth memorandum). Having handwritten notes acts as one of the strongest prompts for me to write.

iPod March 2017 015

For example, in the case above, my own scribbles on the margins of the paper act as prompts, because I am leaving a note to myself saying that I should check Dr. Arn Keeling (a dear friend of mine who is an urban historical and environmental geographer and who studied the governance of wastewater in Vancouver in the late 1800s and early 1900s)’s PhD dissertation. This is EXACTLY the strategy Nicole Cesare mentions in her excellent blog post here.

These are, as I have mentioned with all my other blog posts, hacks I use to motivate myself. I get distracted, like any other human being, but I use these techniques to bring me back on track. Hopefully they’ll be useful to you if you are facing writers’ block!

Posted in academia, writing.

#SA42 – Moving Beyond Work-Life Balance: Self-Care and Well-Being in the Academia #ISA2017

I was invited by Dr. Christina Fattore (West Virginia University) to participate in a round table on the challenges of self-care and well-being in academia, and how we need to move past the work-life balance discourse. As someone who has strongly advocated for a more human, humane academia, I was really excited to participate. Unfortunately, our panel was scheduled for Saturday morning at 8:15am, resulting on exactly what you could have expected: basically no audience, but we were fortunate to have 3 people show up in the end, and they found it valuable. Besides, my co-panelists and I really had a fantastic experience and a wonderful discussion. I live-blogged the entire thing, and made it available here as a Twitter stream using the hashtags of the conference and session code. Hopefully some of the discussions we have permeate globally.

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TC04: Online Media Caucus – Live Tweets for (Political) Science #ISA2017 #TC04

My dear friend and coauthor Dr. Amanda Murdie (University of Georgia) is chairing the Live Tweets for (Political) Science session at the 2017 International Studies Association meeting (starting 1:45pm Baltimore time). You should join us! This blog post will keep the tweets specific to this session as a tweetstream.

Live tweets for political science

IF you would like to join us, please come to the room, or join us remotely using both the #ISA2017 and #TC04 hashtags.

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International Studies Association 2017: A Quantitative Test of the Double Grid Framework #ISA2017

I’m at the 2017 meeting of the International Studies Association conference where Dr. Amanda Murdie (University of Georgia) and I will be presenting our coauthored paper “Environmental NGO influence on domestic policy change: A quantitative test of the Double Grid Framework”. It will take place on Thursday morning at 8:15am. Thursday, February 23, 8:15 AM – 10:00 AM at Room 348, Baltimore Convention Center. Our paper is part of the panel TA37: Environmental NGOs: Influence and Representation, Conflicts and Restrictions.

The role of organized civil society in effecting change in domestic environmental policy can no longer be denied, particularly in a context of global rapid environmental change. Non-state actors’ effectiveness in pressuring national governments may be affected by a number of factors. In this paper, we test the Double Grid Framework as posited by Pacheco-Vega (2005). We follow Murdie and Urpelainen (2015)’s model to evaluate the degree to which varying political contexts and organizational models affect how much pressure can transnational ENGOs put on domestic governments. We use a global dataset of environmental NGOs and countries, and we model governmental response to NGO pressure using regulatory pressure indicators. Finally, we posit hypotheses about which factors lead ENGOs to have a stronger influence on domestic policies of the global South.

If you are at ISA 2017, come to our panel!

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Different reading strategies III: Deep engagement

I’ve written before about reading strategies: how to extract relevant information from a journal article or a book chapter (the AIC method); I’ve also discussed how I engage when I can only skim a paper, and a meso-level type of engagement when I have *some* time to read (or I’m doing a preliminary survey of the literature). But there are times when you literally MUST engage with the readings on a very deep level. That’s what I call deep engagement (and what most professors and PhD supervisors expect from their students, be it undergraduate or graduate). In this post I’ll describe a little bit of the process that I use when I have to engage deeply with a specific set of scholarship.

Writing a rhetorical precis

Right now I’m writing a literature review on Elinor Ostrom and Sue Crawford’s grammar of institutions. This is a topic I know it’s relatively unexplored and I also know the authors who have used the grammar itself. So, I chose five articles (including the main one, Ostrom and Crawford 1995) and a few of those who have referenced that article. I knew I needed to really engage with the readings because this is a method that, while I’m very familiar with it, I have still yet to apply in a more systematic way in my own research.

The way I approach articles that I need to engage with rather deeply uses a three-pronged strategy: I book time to read (usually a couple of hours, but there are times when I book an entire day), open a Word file to write an in-depth memorandum, and open Excel so I can simultaneously dump quotations on my Conceptual Synthesis spreadsheet. Since I know I’ll be writing text that I will be using for a paper anyways, I do count this time as part of my 2-hours-per-day block.

Deep engagement (reading)

I also keep related papers on a similar topic physically close to me so that I can write on the connections that each one has. For example, in my reading on applications of the institutional grammar tool, I know four of the authors who have ran codifications of specific pieces of legislation (David P. Carter, Christopher Weible, Xavier Basurto and Saba Siddiki). So I printed out the papers where these authors applied the tool, and read them all within the same session. That way I am able to (a) discern the contributions of each one of the papers they wrote, (b) connect the different pieces of work that are associated with the core concept (Crawford and Ostrom’s institutional grammar tool) and (c) write an in-depth, detailed memorandum that can serve as one of the core components of the main body of a paper I am writing. I also keep Mendeley open as I often need to insert citations into the text of a memorandum, where I use Mendeley’s Cite-O-Matic function.

Highlighting and writing by hand

When I read, I use colour-coded highlighting techniques, where I mark the main ideas in a specific colour and I associate them with their corresponding concept. That way, I can recall, understand and memorize more easily. For example, the method uses a grammar with five different codes (ADICO). So I used five different colours for highlighting each one of the operators AND to scribble notes on the margins (and on my Everything Notebook) that would be cross-linked.

Reading Strategies and Colegio de Mexico and FLACSO Jan 2017 127

The example I show below isn’t specific to the grammar of institutions, but it shows how I cross-link my scribbles and highlighted sections with notes on my Everything Notebook. What I find hardest when engaging deeply with the literature is controlling the urge of jumping to a different topic or another paper (I’ve written before about how hard it is for me to concentrate and why I use a few strategies to regain focus). So when I know I need to engage deeply with the literature, I try to do it during my buffer day (the day I use to catch up on reading). That way, I don’t have any urgent meetings to attend to, any must-do administrative chores, or lectures to prepare. Engaging deeply requires, for better or worse, that we make the time to read, and that we also invest in writing memoranda, dumping quotations on the Conceptual Synthesis Excel Worksheet, and (if necessary) clean up references on Mendeley (as I normally do on a regular basis, as it’s part of the academic grunt work).

Following my three-pronged strategy to engage deeply with the literature generates 3 things, for me: A set of memorandums that I can use as input for a specific paper draft; a set of entries on my Excel Conceptual Synthesis worksheet that also include specific quotations that can help me with the literature review and with drafting the paper, and a set of handwritten notes on my Everything Notebook that I can also use for the paper I am writing. So I do not find engaging deeply with the literature to be a problem or a waste of time, but it is an investment that will pay off as it will be easier (and faster) for me to write a paper since I already have read in-depth and understood the literature that is associated with said paper.

Engaging deeply with readings is a time investment, that IS why I do it.

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Should you bring your Everything Notebook to conferences with you?

The short answer: NO, you shouldn’t.

Well, let me adjust that answer – no, you shouldn’t if you are planning on buying more books and adding weight to your backpack. I did, and it was PAINFUL. But I’ve also taken my Everything Notebook everywhere without any problems (I just need to control my desire to acquire books all the time).

Those of you who have adopted my “only use one single notebook for everything associated with research, students, fieldwork, To-Do lists, weekly plans, yearly plans” approach (aka The Everything Notebook) know that I carry it EVERYWHERE. As in, everywhere. I’ve taken it to conferences, workshops, to the beach (during my holidays). But this week, after travelling to Bloomington and Indiana for a full week, I have decided that I will no longer be recommending that my fellow academics bring their Everything Notebooks everywhere. I’ll explain why in the paragraphs below.

I’ve been thoroughly impressed that many fellow academics (students, professors, practitioners, folks who are adjacent to academia) have taken to adopt my Everything Notebook approach.

I am both grateful and excited that my method works for them. As a result, I have taken to analyzing my own behaviour with respect to how I use it and what changes need to be made to make it more efficient. I wrote this post in response to my own assessment of how I felt about bringing a rather heavy Everything Notebook everywhere. I noted on Twitter recently that I travel everywhere with my Everything Notebook and my writing kit (a set of 10 colours’ Staedtler 0.3mm fine liners and a set of plastic hard tabs).

Everything Notebook and travel kit

But this week, I got five books, and I brought along my stainless steel travel mug and water bottle. Obviously, as you add more weight to your laptop bag, it starts creating a strain in your back. I am EXHAUSTED. It’s Saturday (I flew into Indianapolis on Monday, was in Bloomington Monday night, Tuesday and Wednesday and went to Indianapolis on Wednesday night, where I presented at a workshop Thursday and Friday, until I flew back today).


I wondered why this would be the case, and then I realized as I removed my travel mug, water bottle AND Everything Notebook, that my laptop bag all of a sudden felt MUCH lighter. This is one of the reasons why people seem to be unable to take up the Everything Notebook. If, like me, they chose a very thick notebook to assemble their Everything Notebook, with hard covers and all, it will become VERY cumbersome when bringing it along EVERYWHERE. And their back may suffer, as mine has, all this week.

I figured out something that might help.

As I suggested in this post, on the rare occasions when I have taken notes at conferences and I did not bring my Everything Notebook, I take the following approach: I staple the pages to a blank page within the section of my Everything Notebook where I have filed ideas about a specific project.

For example, as noted in the tweet above, last year I took notes when I was presenting at the Public Management Research Conference, and what I ended up doing was bringing those notes along with me and stapling them to my Bottled Water section in the 2016 Everything Notebook. I explained this idea in more detail in this post.

I still will try to carry my Everything Notebook everywhere if the travel doesn’t become too cumbersome. But right now I’m carrying 5 heavy books in my laptop bag, plus stainless steel water bottle and coffee travel mug, so my back is in pain. Thus, I’ll leave my Everything Notebook at home when I travel to conferences and workshops (where it’s likely that I will buy books) and then just staple the pages to the specific section where they go.

Posted in academia.

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