Modulating contingency in explanations of path-dependent maladaptive traps in social-ecological systems – The case of Doñana

“…or a second iteration into a theoretical, empirical and transdisciplinary exploration of the policy and institutional conditions needed for successful sustainability transitions in social-ecological systems…with an abstract focus on the significance of randomness, time and history in neoclassical economics and institutional path dependence studies.”

[The following content is not original, it has been extracted and slightly modified from our most recent publication. Comments are open in Medium]

Sustainability transitions must be guided by a sound understanding of the architecture of the policy and institutional designs of both the process of change and the target outcome. Our most recent article contributes to current research on the institutional conditions necessary for successful sustainability transitions in social-ecological systems, addressing two interrelated theoretic-analytical questions through an in-depth case study. First, we focus on the need for enhanced historical causal explanations of social-ecological systems stuck in maladaptive traps at present. Second, we focus on the explanatory potential of several factors for shaping maladaptive outcomes, at two different levels of analysis: political-economic interests, prevailing discourses and power, at a contextual level, and institutional entrepreneurship, at an endogenous level. In particular, we address that explanatory potential when the core logic of path dependence, consisting of neoclassical economics principles, fails to predict maladaptive outcomes in a historical, evolutionary perspective. Prior to describing our case, let us explain under what paradoxical conditions that failure ensues (see Fig. 1 for graphical guidance).

Figure 1. Graphical idealization of the concept of path dependence and the epistemological paradox created by the notion of contingency at its core, departing from the concept of path independence. For simplification purposes, process/outcome dynamics have been depicted using sinusoids

At a high level of abstraction, neoclassical economics works under the formalist assumption that technological and economic action always move towards increasingly efficient outcomes (i.e., solutions or designs). Inefficient outputs are envisaged as transitory phenomena and notions of dynamics are restricted to movements towards an invariant general equilibrium (Fig. 1). Negative-feedback mechanisms, e.g., decreasing returns, competitive pressures, or price signals, offset major changes and lead the setting, in a linear fashion, toward the predicted optimal equilibrium. Outcomes are path independent, i.e., they are predetermined and independent of how the initial conditions and the history of technological or economic development unfolded over past time. Hence, the role of history and evolution can be disregarded. Institutions are envisaged as arrangements exogenous to the technological or economic process; their development is driven by a constant, rational search for efficiency by actors seeking to improve their individual welfare, thereby arriving at mutually beneficial, collective outcomes.

Departing from the neoclassical-logics core, path dependence theory poses, in contrast, that institutions may become locked in alternative, suboptimal outcomes that diverge from optimal and more efficient, “superior” alternatives. These outcomes depend on the initial conditions and how the history of technological or economic development unfolds over time. Seemingly small, random events can have unexpected, disproportionate effects on the process, i.e., nonlinearity, making it unfold in a stochastic fashion. The probability of occurrence of the suboptimal outcome increases at each step of the process owing to increasing returns, whereby decisions by actors favouring certain choices, e.g., technology, increase the attractiveness of these choices for other actors, in terms of pay-off or utility. Underlying increasing returns, there are self-reinforcing mechanisms: positive feedback mechanisms that result in self-reinforcing patterns, e.g., learning and coordination effects. In path dependence studies, these outcomes and processes are assessed as random, unexpected, or, more generally, as subject to contingency, against neoclassical economics principles, hence creating an epistemological paradox (Fig. 1). 

One corollary of the paradox (Fig. 1; see full description in the published article) is that events or behaviours that are considered random or unexpected under certain epistemological devices, might be explicable or predictable by alternative devices; hence, randomness might be more properly assessed as unpredictability, at least to some degree. In other words, the outcome under analysis can be assessed as contingent by certain theoretical notions, yet be consistent with the expectations of alternative theories positing causal links accounting for such outcome. Hence the following question: Can we modulate contingency away from randomness and assess it as unpredictability in path dependence studies? 

In analyses of policy and institutional designs towards sustainability, the discussion of the contingency paradox and optimality criteria in the context of path dependence and neoclassical economics principles should be made explicit, for two main reasons. On the one hand, neoclassical economics principles obviate, by default, the complex and uncertain dynamics of coupled social-ecological systems (e.g., dealing with environmental change as an externality or market failure), as well as the role of politics, ideas, and power in the determination or application of efficiency and optimality standards. Unfortunately, such principles are still uncritically mainstreamed in current policies and institutional designs. On the other hand, path dependence brings a built-in high heuristic power for normative purposes by raising concerns with the risk of lock-in of structural components, e.g., technologies, institutions, ideas, paradigms. This is critical in the presence, for example, of large set-up, sunk or transaction costs, resulting in institutional inertia and the irreversibility of changes made to biophysical conditions in social-ecological systems. An improved understanding of current, seemingly random institutional or ecological occurrences would entail the improvement of our present scientific tools. More pragmatically, it would entail an early awareness of behaviours or events that might signal the imminent fall of a given social-ecological system into an undesirable outcome bearing high opportunity costs, e.g., lock-in traps.

In this research, we tackled all those concerns in a case of a social-ecological system stuck in a path-dependent maladaptive outcome: the Doñana region (Fig. 2). The research followed from previous work published in Méndez et al. (2012), and it is part of a long-term program of social-ecological research focused in the Doñana region that follows an iterative process of theoretical evaluation against empirical information, with both scientific and normative goals (guided by an adaptive inference procedure). 

Figure 2. Geographical location of the Doñana region

In the first research iteration (Méndez et al. 2012), working at a broad system level based on institutional resilience thinking, the adaptive cycle, and Ostrom’s Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) framework, we showed how the Doñana region was governed by a rigid institutional regime and, more generally, how it was stuck in a path-dependent “rigidity trap” (Fig. 3). We qualified that rigid outcome as unexpected or, more generally, as contingent against the efficiency and productivity baseline of neoclassical economics that lies at the core of the theory of path dependence. Our historical analyses suggested that the institutional regime followed a path-dependent dynamic characterized by the historical persistence of command-and-control policy panaceas. In a seeming paradox, command-and-control approaches failed to drive the region toward an (optimal) efficient outcome, leading it instead to system-wide inefficiencies and a rigidified outcome, highly dysfunctional for coping with social-ecological crises and unable to harmonize wetland conservation, water management, and economic development.

Figure 3. Historical development of Doñana's institutional regimes for water resource management (WRM) and wetland conservation (WC), interpreted through the adaptive-cycle heuristic, and concomitant changes in institutional resilience

In a second iteration, working at a lower meso level of analysis, we travelled “forward to the past” and re-examined, challenged, and refined our own historical explanatory pattern. For that purpose, we relied on a politicized version of the IAD framework, further emphasized the contingency paradox, and expanded on our conceptualization of path dependence drawing from economic history, historical sociology, historical institutionalism and political science in a somewhat disciplinary phylogenic fashion. Our approach allowed us to explore how to increase predictability or, as we call it, how to modulate contingency in the maladaptive Doñana outcome, by taking a richer array of causal factors into the analysis: political-economic interests, prevailing discourses and power, at a contextual level, and institutional entrepreneurship, at an endogenous level. 

Based on the insight gained through our two research iterations, we argued that three mechanisms were necessary and sufficient conditions for the emergence of the Doñana’s systemic rigid outcome: (1) a contextual political-discursive mechanism that mobilized power top-down from the constitutional level and signalled increasing returns to actors downstream at the collective-action level; (2) the operation of increasing returns and self-reinforcing mechanisms bottom-up; (3) a dual endogenous institutional entrepreneurial component that acted as a mechanism for action in an environment of extreme uncertainty at the collective-action level (Fig. 4). 

Figure 4. Graphical depiction of the mechanisms that contributed to the emergence of the Doñana’s systemic rigid outcome

These two theoretical iterations, in combination, seek to round up a comprehensive story about a complex social-ecological system from different disciplinary angles, considering a broad diversity of influencing factors, as well as to challenge neoclassical economics/path dependence standards at an abstract level of analysis. Our research shows how contingency might be turned into a property that can be modulated. In that form, contingency can be used as an instrument to help institutional analysts to avoid premature assessments of historical events as proceeding by chance or localized behavioural dynamics as subject to inherent randomness. More generally, the use of enhanced epistemological devices can warn analysts that upper, structural factors could be affecting decision and action downstream into the local level negatively, contributing to the emergence of undesirable systemic outcomes. This means that our predictive power might be further enhanced through systematic, comparative studies including contextual and local variables or indicators addressing multilevel phenomena so as to account for broader sets of outcomes. Thus, we might increase our capacity to inform future policy and institutional, transitional designs toward more sustainable outcomes in social-ecological systems, in a more comprehensive and interdisciplinary way.

Looking into the future for a third research iteration, the general questions that we seek to tackle are: how can we escape highly-resilient, historical maladaptive traps? What is the role of power and ideas in maintaining or overcoming them? Are we “in agency” of determining the future path through which we would need to move along for achieving sustainability in the use of natural resources and ecosystem services? In the more specific Doñana case, we wonder whether changes in rules architectures at the micro level or in the productive elements of discursive factors (e.g., arguments, narratives), could trigger more profound changes in institutional structures that facilitate a transition toward a more adaptive and flexible paradigm –i.e. whether innovative rules of the game, ideas and discourses can contribute bottom-up to increase the flexibility of the institutional architecture of the Doñana social-ecological system, thus opening novel paths of development for a sustainable future.

Méndez, P. F., J. M. Amezaga, and L. Santamaría. 2019. Explaining path-dependent rigidity traps: increasing returns, power, discourses, and entrepreneurship intertwined in social-ecological systems. Ecology and Society 24(2):30. https://doi.org/10.5751/ES-10898-240230