Patterns of COMMONING

Patterns of COMMONING

Commons and Alternative Rationalities: Subjectivity, Emotion and the (Non)rational Commons

By Andrea J. Nightingale

When I tell people that I work on inshore fisheries management the response is inevitably disparaging. Most people continue to assume that the commons is an ecological disaster waiting to happen and that all fishermen are greedy individuals. Yet my experience on the west coast of Scotland suggests that the fishing ground is governed by a variety of rationalities and subjectivities that often override the desire to maximize individual benefit.

When I first began thinking about ideas of subjectivity and emotion in relation to fisheries most people thought I was crazy. Talk to fishermen about their feelings? But it quickly became clear that I was on the right track. As one fishermen’s advocate said to me, laughing, “People are definitely not rational, especially fishermen. They make decisions based on other factors.”1A paraphrase of an unrecorded phone interview. I became fascinated by what some of these “other” factors might be.

My project begins with the excellent work done by Ostrom2Ostrom, Elinor. 1992. “The Rudiments of a Theory of the Origins, Survival, and Performance of Common-Property Institutions.” In David Bromley, editor, Making the Commons Work: Theory, Practice, and Policy. San Francisco, ICS Press. 293-318. and others on design principles for the commons. Design principles focus on the institutional rules and norms required for effective management of collective resources. This work has been done within a rational choice framework, however, which leaves little space for understanding alternative rationalities or “nonrational” behaviors. If we simply add in perspectives on gender, kinship relations, emotional attachments to resources and land- and seascapes to our understanding of design principles, it prevents us from exploring how design principles emerge in the first place. Rather, I suggest we need to explore how institutions, resources and societies are co-emergent. This starting point shows how the “design” of a commons is a product of personal interactions, histories and relationships that need to be continually renewed.3See essay by Silke Helfrich, “Patterns of Commoning.”

Taking co-emergence as a starting point has major implications for how we understand the dynamics of the commons. It is not a question of explaining how resource use affects the commons, but rather a question of exploring how the commons, as an institution, a place and an ecosystem, is embedded within and productive of the communities that rely on commons. The two cannot be neatly separated, spatially, temporally or analytically.

My research has been on the Scottish inshore Nephrops norvegicus fishery, which is the largest fishery in Scotland in terms of landings and number of boats. Nephrops are also known as Norwegian lobster or prawns and are the main species marketed as scampi or langoustines. They are fished both by creel and by trawl net, although the creel fishery produces a higher value, live product. Skipper-owned boats, operated out of small ports on a daily basis, dominate the fishery.

The west coast is a mixed fishery with creelers (pots on the sea bed) and trawlers (nets towed across the sea bed) sharing the same fishing grounds. One community on the west coast has banned all trawl gear from its fishing grounds and operates a formal (although not legally binding) scheme to limit the number of creels fished per day per boat. They are an unusual case because the UK government sets and distributes prawn quotas, leaving limited opportunities for fishers to make their own rules for managing fish catches. The situation is rapidly changing as the government implemented inshore fisheries groups in 2009 to decentralize management. How much authority they have, however, is still quite restricted. It is in this context that I want to explore the “(non)rational commons.”

Design Principles and the (Non)rational

Much of the work done on the commons has centered on the institutions that make collective management of shared resources viable. Institutions (rules and norms) are vital to limiting and monitoring resource extraction. Yet I want to focus on the dynamics of institutions, the everyday practices through which institutions come into being and are reproduced over time and space. In particular, I want to add in a consideration of subjectivities, including gender, race, class and even identities such as “fishermen,” which I suggest are equally important to how a common-pool resource is managed. When we take into consideration alternative rationalities, then the reasons that some well-designed institutions fail becomes clearer. It is the ongoing enactment of institutions as well as their underlying rules and norms that are crucial to outcomes.

Subjectivities are important to the operation of institutions as they are integrally bound up with how people understand their relationship to others. In a fisheries context, I focus on the practices and interactions that are required for one to be considered a “fisherman” and the contradictory ways in which these interactions both promote and frustrate attempts at collaboration.

For example, when I tell inshore fishermen I am interested in how they cooperate, they laugh and say they do not. And yet, when I have been on boats with them, there is an almost constant stream of communication as skippers radio others about the sea conditions, alert them to a strange boat in their waters, or warn trawlers they are too close to someone’s creel line. When I point this out, they readily agree that they cooperate in these ways. In fact, I think most would agree that they must cooperate in order to ensure their safety and that of their gear and catch. The question then becomes whether or not these forms of cooperation help to build a foundation for more formal collaboration.4Editors’ note: The essay by Étienne Le Roy in this volume addresses this point, that the processes of commoning are not necessarily perceived or reflected upon.

The types of relationships driving cooperation can be considered “rational” in certain respects. Taking account of community obligations, the need to preserve kinship relationships and an emotive attachment to the sea can be seen as “rational,” particularly over long time scales. Kinship relationships, for example, can be vital to supporting people during times of crisis and therefore are logically considered important to maintain. This kind of rationality, however, is not the kind of “rational fisherman” that rational choice theorists have in mind. I am therefore interested in challenging the dominant idea of the greedy fisherman by highlighting the alternative or “(non)rational” relations and commitments that underpin cooperation.

Subjectivity and Cooperation

I suggest that subjectivity is an important component of the “(non)rational” relations that underpin informal and formal modes of cooperation. Subjectivity is often conflated with identity, but the two concepts are different in important ways. Subjectivity refers to the ways in which people are brought into relations of power, or subjected, as well as how they resist them. Power is at the heart of social interactions; it is impossible to conceptualize relationships that are not bound by power in some way. Power can operate in the commons in many different forms, from gender, caste, and ethnicity inequalities within commons user-groups, to the relations between fisheries policy or policy makers and fishermen, to more subtle dimensions of power such as those that arise from differences in experience and knowledge of commons resources – all of which produce different subjectivities. These serve to position people engaged in the commons differently in relation to each other and in relation to the commons itself.

In fisheries, to be “a fisherman” requires that one goes to sea and catches fish. This relationship between the resource and subjectivity is crucial for how fishers see themselves and integrate certain attitudes and behaviors into other aspects of their lives, including formal institutions to manage the fishery.

Subjectivities are not necessarily negative; they are a consequence of the multidimensional aspects of power, making it difficult to think of power as simply unidirectional or even bidirectional. Power is what gives the subject the ability to act, and any resistance to a dominating power will always have some contradictory outcomes. In order to resist power, one has to first accept that they are subject to that power.

In Scottish fisheries, the subject “fisherman” is dependent upon a large web of economic, political and social relationships wherein fishing as an historical, cultural, technological and legal activity is defined and policed. If we consider the operation of power in this context, fishers cannot contest fishing regulations without first accepting that they are subject to those regulations. This power over them also provides the power to act in a variety of ways. Similarly, fishermen cannot make claims about protecting their fishing grounds without simultaneously reinforcing the idea that fishermen exploit their fishery and that the fishing grounds belong to someone.

In most thinking on the commons, power is either something which might derail an otherwise well functioning community, or as something contained in individuals that they can use to maximize their profits by overexploiting the shared resources in defiance of the rest of the users.

For example, even though overfishing or violating quotas is a familiar phenomenon, recently some Scottish fishers have been at the forefront of voluntary schemes to create sustainable fisheries. One is a scheme for white fish boats to report and actively avoid areas where large concentrations of young cod are found. Another is the case, mentioned above, where mobile gear was banned from a creel fishery. (This is rather unusual in that part of the fishing ground is “protected” by a military zone on one side, and that combined with the topography of the coast lines serves to demarcate a relatively clear “local fishing ground” that is clearly identifiable on a map.) About fifteen years ago fishers in this area became concerned over the decline in their fishery. They engaged in a variety of legal and somewhat more dubious tactics in what is known as the “trawl wars” to exclude mobile gear from their area. One of the most notorious incidents was the sinking of a caravan to interfere with the trawl gear. This was successful in deterring the trawlers but the culprit was identified because, as one informant told me, “they forgot to take off the licence plate, so that wasn’t so smart.”

The group succeeded in getting a partial ban in the fishing ground that excludes mobile gear and limits the number of creels fished per day, per boat. They also use escape hatches to allow the smaller prawns to leave the creel before it is lifted. These agreements are voluntary, but the exclusion of mobile gear has been legally confirmed, although not permanently. The exclusion has to be renewed regularly (roughly every ten years, but it changes with changes in Scottish fisheries policy). Because this has helped produce excellent fishing ground, “there are more boats, especially in the south end of the area that aren’t signed up [to our agreement] and aren’t complying. Especially Max [pseudonym]… is not a fisherman, he’s just a businessman.” My respondent explains why some fishers are committed to limiting the fishery and others are not by invoking the difference between “fishermen” who respect the local customs and seek to limit their fishing, and a “businessman” who simply wants to catch as much profit as possible. In another area, a creeler contrasted the “businessmen” who trawl, with creeling which he described as, “days you’re out there and you’re barely making a living but you’re at sea…It’s a way of being.” He went on to complain that the large trawlers do not spend money in the village and have no commitment to the community. Not only is the trawl catch more indiscriminate, but he suggests that their emotional attachments to the sea and the community are dissimilar, and as a result, they do not have the same commitments to try to manage the fishery sustainably. Both of these schemes are constructive, pro-active attempts to protect their fishery.

Neither scheme provides short-term financial returns for the fishers although most people involved believe and hope that longer term it will ensure the viability of the fishery. Under a rational choice framework, however, these schemes are considered highly irrational. They are not seen as advancing the best interests of individual fishers because they often result in fishers earning less money from their days at sea. But my point here is that these schemes only appear as “unusual” or “innovative” because of the dominant view (fostered by rational-choice theory itself!) that fishers are only interested in self-improvement or profits. Schemes to limit the fishery are all based on the assumption that fishers will try to catch as many fish as they can when they are out on the sea. Yet the everyday practices of fishers generally do not reflect these assumptions. This is largely because the identity of being a “fisherman” emerges from the act of going to sea and living in a web of kinship, community and peer relationships that are crucial to supporting fishing as an activity and as an industry. Significantly, this identity persists regardless of the institutional rules and to a certain extent regardless of dominant theoretical paradigms. Thus attention to alternative rationalities and identities is crucial to understanding how cooperation or noncooperation emerges – and therefore how a commons can function so effectively.

Fishing produces particular kinds of bodies and emotions that are not insignificant when it comes to trying to draw up management agreements. Men who are used to coping with dangerous and physically demanding environments, find it literally uncomfortable, physically and subjectively, to situate their bodies in a meeting room. In other words, this experience changes what it means to be a fisherman. This change is as much an embodied experience as it is a political and emotional one. A fisherman working on his boat, providing food and income for his family, is often in a relatively powerful position. I have met few fishers in Scotland who are not proud of their occupation. And yet, that changes to a very different kind of subjectivity when they find themselves the target of decommissioning schemes, blamed personally for degradation of their fishing grounds, or forced to interact with policymakers. The exercise of power changes in profound ways and they end up in a more defensive position relative to their occupational identity.

Conceptualizing power and subjectivity in this way brings into focus the kinds of relationships and practices that shape how cooperation occurs within the commons, many of which are not “rational” as narrowly defined by rational choice theory.5Editors’ note: Rational choice theory is used by many conventional economists, political scientists and sociologists as a framework for analyzing individual decisionmaking and behavior. It assumes that individuals use instrumental rationality to acquire more of a given good or service in the most cost-effective way possible. Every relationship linked to the commons – from that between policymakers and resource users, to internal user-group dynamics, to those between resource users and the larger community – contain the possibility for power to produce either a resistant, uncooperative subject or a variety of subjectivities that are more conducive to working collectively.

The spaces within which these interactions occur are also important in shaping power and relationships. Therefore, we need to shift the focus in commons work from institutional design (rules and norms) to the everyday spaces, experiences and practices wherein commons management occurs. It is those elements that shape whether management rules are accepted, who accepts them, who polices them and the kinds of social and environmental transformations they produce.

Working the Sea: Everyday Practices and the Operation of Power

This discussion, however, still seems remote from the pitching fishing boats and smelly piers wherein fishers spend most of their time. I think that attention needs to be paid to the embodied experiences of fishermen in the spaces wherein they interact: the pier, on boats, in meeting halls, and in the community.

In Scotland, the inshore fishery is often the lifeblood of small, coastal villages. Many places have few other job possibilities outside of tourism, which itself is dependent on selling the idealized “fishing village” image to guests. In response to a question about what had caused the biggest changes in her west coast community, an older woman said,

Well, mainly the fishing, the prawn fishing. Years ago now, I suppose ten or fifteen years ago, there weren’t that many boats out of here and most of the young ones were really going away from the place. But now a lot of the young ones are back… They are buying houses and they are building houses…

Fishing, then, is far more than an occupation. It is one of the activities that keeps the community viable and lively. As a result, fishers are embedded in a set of relationships that support fishing in symbolic and emotional ways, even if local people buy very little fish directly off the boats. Fishers do not financially gain from the community, but the relationships bind them together – which itself enacts an alternative rationality to profit maximization. The benefits of fishing flow from these relationships and from that particular place; they provide subconscious emotional support to fishers when they may not catch any fish. This kind of support is crucial to keeping fishers rooted in place and dissuades them from moving to more productive fishing grounds, as “rational” theory suggests they should.

As more “local” boats have appeared, many fishers are concerned that there are now too many fishers. Yet none of them suggests that people should be actively excluded. Rather they highlight the ways they cooperate, as one fisherman said,

Everyone is free to go where they want but I mean basically your [fishing ground] is marked and it’s…well, it’s more of a kind of gentleman’s agreement that you don’t go and shoot over the top of someone else’s creels…I mean it does happen…basically because people think maybe somebody else is getting something better but its generally put down to a mistake with tides…but if someone was blatantly doing it, moved in here and just plastered on top of everyone there would have to be something done that maybe you wouldn’t put down on paper. [laughter]

Here, the fisher suggests that the ability to exclude someone from your fishing ground is tied up in being a legitimate member of the community. He assumes that a blatant violator of the “gentlemen’s agreement” would be an outsider. Thus being a “fisherman” in a locally understood sense is also to be part of the community.

Another fisherman spoke about how it was unpleasant to have confrontations with people, indicating that relationships are often more important than the catch. In localities where two communities’ fishing grounds overlapped, they actively tried to avoid fishing in areas that might cause conflict. People aren’t willing to risk causing an altercation just to catch a few more prawns.

These “fishermen” are very different from the “fishermen” of fisheries policy. In many respects, they act “irrationally” in the face of competition in the fishery. One would expect fishers to try to exclude new boats or to capture as much catch as they can individually, even if it meant conflict with people they do not know. While certainly the local men involved in the fishery compete with each other in a variety of ways, they are also highly valued because of the jobs and prosperity they bring into the village. They need to live up to their reputations and feel bound by certain local etiquettes that supersede some of the more blatant forms of self-interested behavior. When I speculated on some of these ideas to a fisherman’s wife she immediately broke in, “They don’t have a choice. I don’t even think it’s conscious; they have to be a part of things here. It’s part of who they are. It’s how we do things here.”6A paraphrase from an unrecorded phone interview.

Similarly, in two other west coast fisheries, the creelers know that they would have bigger and more prolific prawns if trawlers were banned from their fishing grounds. But they are acutely aware that the fishing ground has to be shared and are against trying to ban the trawlers altogether. In one place, the brother of a successful creeler is physically disabled and while he can run a trawl boat, he would be physically unable to creel. Everyone agrees that he needs to have an opportunity to fish, too. It is also common for fishers to trade in their creels for a trawler when they get older and find the physical demands of creeling to be too difficult. It is these kinds of community obligations and alternative rationalities that make all fishers in those particular areas committed to a mixed gear (creel and trawl) fishery.

Interestingly, this commitment is rapidly changing as fuel prices increase and more trawlers are converting to creeling which uses significantly less fuel. The creel fishermen also federated in late 2012 and their organization is trying to provide an alternative lobbying voice to that of the trawlers. It is also promoting creeling as a clear commitment to conservation of the fishery for the short and long term. For example, the federation issued a public statement embracing the new marine-protected areas along the Scottish coast as a welcome development in marine spatial planning. Some of these areas will allow limited fishing while others will exclude fishers entirely. The trawl-dominated federations have been adamantly against marine protected areas.

Clearly, such relations of power can also lead to noncompliance and defiance of peer pressures to be a “good community (or federation) member.” Many fishing communities have at least one such person, and indeed, at one of my field sites I was told to stay away from one man because he is considered dangerous. Yet for the vast majority of the fishers I have worked with, they are consciously and unconsciously bound within relations that make them unwilling to resist the subject “good community member.”

Fishing in Scotland is very much a masculine activity, with the work and time demands deemed inappropriate for women raising children. With a few exceptions, women (wives) do most of the paperwork and onshore fisheries-related activities but rarely go on the boats themselves. This is important because the kinds of conflicts that emerge are linked to ideas of how men should behave in a west coast fishing village. One woman vividly described for me the priorities of the men in her village: “Oh, you know these West Highland men, it’s work, pub, wife.” She held her hands up in front of her and placed “work” right in front, “pub” right next to it, and then stretched her arms all the way to the side and placed “wife” there. She continued, “I’m sure in their heads they think it’s the opposite but it isn’t.” [laughter] The notion that “good men” work hard is emphasized along with the idea that men’s and women’s places are very different. Very few women hang out in the pubs. Maintaining your reputation, providing for your family, working hard and drinking in the pub are key ways in which males become “men,” and through their activities on the sea, become “fishermen.”7Many of the skippers I know do not spend much time drinking in pubs. They are more likely to drink at parties or at home whereas crew members, who tend to be younger and unmarried, do spend a lot of time in the pub.

What makes it so difficult to understand the relationships I’ve described is that attempting to identify patterns or to associate identities with particular motivations is inappropriate. Community obligations can just as easily lead to a ban on mobile gear as it can to a mixed gear fishery – as is the case in different places on the Scottish west coast. It is important to recognize that relationships are complex, contingent and changeable. If the commons is not successful, it is more likely due to problems with these relationships than it is with the institutional design. Therefore I propose the (non)rational commons, one which takes account of how power operates in the fishery, including the kinds of relationships I’ve described here.

Meetings, Emotion and Subjectivity

In order to understand more fully the relationships relevant for cooperation in the fishery, it is also necessary to consider the meeting room. A variety of meetings occur in relation to fisheries, ranging from informal chats on the pier between skippers and other users of the sea such as tourist boat operators or port authorities, to policy meetings in Edinburgh and Brussels attended by fishers’ representatives, policymakers and scientists. The shift from their boats to the meeting room subjects fishermen in radically different ways. Here I focus on the consultation meetings that usually involve policymakers and fisheries regulators with fishermen, fishermen’s advocates, and occasionally other stakeholders such as environmental groups or local development authorities. Most often, these meetings are held in larger west coast towns or areas central to the dispersed fishing villages.

In the interviews many fishers expressed a much stronger emotion and pragmatic connection with their resources than with policy meetings. One fisherman put it poignantly, “People sitting in their office, they are not even affected by the rain.” Another said, “They are so divorced from what it’s about. We have a lot of conversations about what it’s about to live here. We are surrounded by greens and blues [i.e., nature], [policy makers] coming from the city, they don’t have that, they do not understand what that means.”8A paraphrase from an unrecorded phone interview.” These men insist that managers do not understand the realities of the act of fishing and living in a remote coastal village, and this is seen by them as a major problem for collective solutions. In other words, the fishermen and the policymakers inhabit very different relationships with the resource and this is crucial for how relations of power are exercised.

The meeting room itself produces a very different subjectivity among fishermen than time on the boat. They are clear that the meeting room is not their place. One man said, “It’s the difference between standing on the landing and jumping in the sea.” Another said, “One’s real and the other is not. Well yeah, I’m happier for one [on the boat].” Equally importantly, many fishermen pointed out that policy makers are paid to attend meetings whereas they are not. Instead, they take time away from their boats or other activities in order to have their voices heard. The space of the meeting room itself produces particular kinds of subjects for both the fishermen and policymakers that sets them literally, on opposite sides of the room.

The fishermen are well aware of these relations and how the assumptions of fisheries regulators shape meeting dynamics. One man said about a recent meeting, “The guys come with their preconceptions, it’s almost like here we go again. We threw them a surprise [when we started talking about limiting the creel fishery in addition to banning trawling]. Someone talking about their own sector, they didn’t expect that.”9A paraphrase from an unrecorded phone interview. Another man said, “You explain your point of view but they don’t want to hear it. They’ve made up their mind before they go in the meeting.”

These preconceptions emerge from the normative practices of fishing. Policymakers base their policies and their meeting agendas on ideas of “rational fishermen,” who by definition need to be policed and regulated. By this reckoning, the creel fishermen I have described here shift from being family providers, bound by “gentlemen’s agreements” and subjected by the “community,”to being an overexploiter of the sea who needs to be told about proper fisheries management. This shift in subjectivity is central to why there is so much antagonism between fishermen and policymakers.

Alternative rationalities or the “nonrational” are therefore key components of commons management. The relationships and places within which fishers interact are important components of their subjectivities, which in turn is integral to how power is exercised. My work suggests that these kinds of relations of power are central to whether fishers bond together to cooperate (sometimes to manage the fishery, sometimes to protest against rules) or fiercely resist any kind of collective action.

In terms of management of common-pool resources, then, it is crucial to examine how people’s personal relationships within a commons change with the spatial and political context, and especially the configurations of power. These embodied interactions create openings and close down others for particular kinds of cooperation. What emerges is an important difference between “managing a common-pool resource” as fisheries policy schemes try to do, and the “gentlemen’s agreements” that emerge out of community commitments and obligations I have described here. While the Scottish case shows that such gentlemen’s agreements are vulnerable to noncompliance and even to lack of support from state regulatory structures, they also point to the tremendous possibilities that arise when people bring their commitments to “commoning” into their everyday lives. Or as Silke Helfrich puts it, “If you consider yourself a commoner and if you realize and reflect upon what you’re doing in terms of commoning, then it’s likely to be a successful commons.” Emotional attachments to land and seascape and community subjectivities can help to foster such consciousness.


Andrea J. Nightingale (Sweden) is a Geographer by training and presently Chair of Rural Development in the Global South at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) in Uppsala, Sweden. Her current research interests include climate change adaptation and transformation debates; public authority, collective action and state formation; and feminist work on emotion and subjectivity in relation to theories of development, collective action and cooperation. She previously worked at the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg, Sweden and the University of Edinburgh, Geography, School of GeoSciences, Scotland.AndreaNightingale photo

I would like to give a special thanks to the people on the west coast who contributed their time, thoughts and patience to my project. They have shown a generosity in working with me that helped me to better understand the importance of the “community obligations” I discuss. I would also like to thank David Donan, Jim Atkinson, Jim Watson and Hamish Mair for discussions on the policy context and pressures facing the fishery and being open to thinking about the social science aspects of the science they do.

References   [ + ]

1. A paraphrase of an unrecorded phone interview.
2. Ostrom, Elinor. 1992. “The Rudiments of a Theory of the Origins, Survival, and Performance of Common-Property Institutions.” In David Bromley, editor, Making the Commons Work: Theory, Practice, and Policy. San Francisco, ICS Press. 293-318.
3. See essay by Silke Helfrich, “Patterns of Commoning.”
4. Editors’ note: The essay by Étienne Le Roy in this volume addresses this point, that the processes of commoning are not necessarily perceived or reflected upon.
5. Editors’ note: Rational choice theory is used by many conventional economists, political scientists and sociologists as a framework for analyzing individual decisionmaking and behavior. It assumes that individuals use instrumental rationality to acquire more of a given good or service in the most cost-effective way possible.
6, 8, 9. A paraphrase from an unrecorded phone interview.
7. Many of the skippers I know do not spend much time drinking in pubs. They are more likely to drink at parties or at home whereas crew members, who tend to be younger and unmarried, do spend a lot of time in the pub.
Patterns of Commoning