Institutions really matter in social and political life – they are the rules (often implicit) and arrangements through which people organize their lives, through which they access resources and give order and meaning to their world. I am particularly interested in investigating how institutions contribute to the management of natural resources (water, land, forests). Building on insights from anthropology and social theory, supported by rich ethnographic data, I have developed the concept of institutional bricolage to explain how institutions work (Development through Bricolage, 2012). Through processes of bricolage people piece together functioning arrangements, drawing on the material to hand (traditions, everyday practices, rules, roles and relationships borrowed from other spheres of action, invented or adapted mechanisms and the authority of existing sources of power). I locate this work within a contemporary body of ‘critical institutional’ thinking (Capturing Critical Institutionalism 2014, Furthering Critical institutionalism 2015). This has broad applications for understanding governance and citizenship, and for the work of governments and NGO’s in furthering development through local level institution building and community participation (Institutions, security and pastoralim : Exploring the limits of hybridity 2013).
In this stream of work I engage with theories of governance, their interpretation in policy and various approaches to implementation in relation to water (through public, private and community action). I have developed a conceptual framework for analyzing how water governance works at different scales to produce inequitable outcomes (Water governance and poverty: A Framework for Analysis 2007) and bring into critical scrutiny the relationship between research, evidence and policy (Distilling or Diluting 2008). This work intersects with the institutional theme – for example in my detailed studies of how institutions for water management evolve in villages in Zimbabwe and Tanzania over time ( In pursuit of arrangements that work, 2015; Water governance and livelihoods 2013). Although my own research primarily concerns rural African contexts I work closely with colleagues exploring similar issues in urban situations in a variety of countries in the global South (Informal space in the urban waterscape 2014).
A crosscutting theme in my work is a concern for the gendered dynamics of resource governance (Engendering Water Governance 2010). This leads to an investigation of the politics of everyday livelihoods, which shape the capacities for women and men to influence governance arrangements. I see a need for more contextualized understandings of human behaviour, agency and power to inform development interventions aimed at achieving social and environmental justice (Rethinking agency in collective action: poverty, participation and politics’ 2009; Agency and collective action; poverty, gender and the missing social world in water resource management’,2012).
Currently I am leading the social science elements of a multi-partner UPGRO consortium project ‘Hidden Crisis: unraveling current failures for future success in rural groundwater supply’ which is being implemented in Malawi, Uganda and Ethiopia along with a range of partners (the British Geological Survey; Wateraid; the Overseas Development Institute; Cambridge, Flinders, Malawi, Addis Ababa, and Makerere universities.
For me one of the really interesting aspects of this project relates to how social scientists truly work together and generate insights with the other disciplines involved (hydrologists, systems modellers, engineers), rather than just working alongside them.