To date, there have been few systematic assessments of the role of social institutions—rules, norms, and systems of authority and power—in creating and reconfiguring natural environments. In the desert grass and shrub lands of Rajasthan, India, where multiple, contending
institutions govern village resources in a state of legal pluralism, the need for such research is pressing. Here, state political interventions vie against traditional common and semiprivate rule arrangements for control of valuable pasture and forest resources. This paper introduces an authority-centered
theoretical vocabulary for such an analysis and reviews research conducted during 1993–1994 comparing four institutional forms to assess the role of institutions in configuring resource extraction decisions made by producers and in creating distinct and distinguishable biotic conditions.
The study results demonstrate that responses to authority differ along axes of gender, caste, and class and so lead to varied decisions by producers. Each institutional form gives rise to a statistically significant pattern of annual and perennial herb distribution and of tree species occurrence.
The location of enforcement, whether central or local, is shown to be less important than the breadth of authority forms controlling the resource. The results hold implications for future work in cultural/political ecology and for global change research. They also call into question any a
priori assumptions of the superiority of either state of local resource management regimes.