Taking social theory and communities seriously: contributions of Svein Jentoft

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In this commentary, I highlight my agreement with Jentoft about the importance of a strong grounding in the social sciences when one is engaged in fisheries social research. Further, I discuss the notion of “community failure” as it directs research toward deeper understanding of the roles of communities in the fates of small-scale fisheries.

Jentoft’s essay is rich with references to now classic ideas in sociology and related social sciences. Some might complain that these references are too old and thus somehow distracting; dismissive of more recent literature; and, worse, irrelevant to the subject, which is small-scale fisheries in a changing world. On the other hand, it is refreshing and important to recognize, as Jentoft does so well, the value of turning to Durkheim, Marx, Weber, Habermas, Etzioni, Wittgenstein, Giddens, and others as one explores the intricacies of the lives and institutions of the fishers we try to understand. Scholarship on small-scale fisheries is enriched by thorough and deep grounding in theory, especially social theory. Jentoft, fully anchored in social theory, offers a vivid lesson on how important such a heritage can be.

Beyond the lesson Jentoft offers about the significance of the deep heritage of social theory is his argument, made explicit near the end of the essay, that “fisheries social research would benefit if we are social scientists first and fisheries scientists second, rather than the other way around.” Interdisciplinarity is highly valued in the marine and fisheries science and policy arenas, as it should be. Evidence includes multi-authored articles, grant solicitations, post-doc advertisements, and even academic and research institute position openings.

Reliance on interdisciplinary training and research is wonderful, but it can also short-change the theoretical underpinnings of inquiry and explanation. Many of the bright people engaged in small-scale fisheries research in recent years come from initial training in the natural sciences, picking up and running with social science as needed once policy issues arise or funding agencies require a social science element. We need to encourage more scholars of sociology, psychology, anthropology, political science, cultural geography, and law to enter the fisheries and marine science domains—no matter how “applied” and thus suspect to some they may seem, no matter how wet and sometimes smelly the field work may be, and no matter that they may have to learn more statistics and modeling than expected. Unfortunately, some of the important interdisciplinary fisheries programs are ensconced within natural science schools and institutes, making this harder to achieve.

In the essay, Jentoft refers to a paper he and I published that used the notion of “community failure” (McCay and Jentoft 1998). Community failure was intended to juxtapose and thereby interrogate and qualify “market failure” as an explanation of tragedies of the commons. From the market failure perspective, common pool resources are vulnerable to abuse and overuse because markets cannot do their job of regulating price and thus behavior given the lack of exclusive and enforceable private property rights. Among the problems with that thesis is absence of recognition of the roles of social relationships and community in addressing governance of common pool resources. We adopted the “failure” construct to argue the equally high-level and parallel thesis that tragedies of the commons, such as decline of resources and increased poverty, conflict, and other troubles from that decline, are also due to problems that communities have in governing their relationships to common pool resources, with or without issues pertaining to property rights and markets.

The ethnographies, social and economic surveys, and other studies done of communities engaged with challenges of the commons, including the many involved in co-management arrangements, suggest that the notion of “tragedy” should be broadened to include other forms of drama, including comedy and romance. I like the notion of “comedies of the commons,” but here the point is that we social scientists, especially those of us involved in the study of small-scale fisheries, often do come off as “romantics” in our attention to more or less isolated and self-sufficient communities and evidence for their roles in managing grazing lands, fisheries, and other common pool resources (McCay 2001).

The “communitarian” view that Jentoft writes about adds to the tendency of some to brand us as hopeless romantics, inclined to produce idealized and irrelevant studies: fiction, ancient history, or exceptions. When read more carefully, it is evident that Jentoft and others of us small-scale fisheries romantics work toward an understanding of community failure as well as community success. From the economists’ market failure mind-set, inserting marketable property rights into community-based systems relying on common pool resources is the only solution apart from top-down government intervention. The community failure mind-set opens up the range and types of possibilities for improving common situations. It also underscores the importance of better research on real-life communities.

Good social research respects the difficulties people have in working together, given free rider temptations, misread messages, and differences in social class, ethnicity, and temperament. One comes to appreciate the bright but also dark sides of close ties and interdependencies, as well as their fragility in changing times. Both obstacles to and potentials for leadership and political reform can emerge from investigations. We see from our studies the ethical and political issues faced in protecting local community interests and assets while not unjustly and unfairly excluding people from the commons and the benefits it brings, and we are as careful to ask such questions about the design of exclusive community-based property rights as for private property rights.

This perspective leads us to take seriously troubles faced by communities in gaining the outside assistance they may need to promulgate and enforce regulations, weighed against potential trade-offs in the ability to make and revise those regulations, a co-management dilemma. Moreover, we see that the use of privatized property rights as a tool for commons governance can have huge effects on communities and their capacities to be effective stewards, in some cases creating the conditions for community failure. Finally, there are problems of scale, including the question of whether the scope of a particular community is commensurate with the scope of the common pool resources at stake or the immensity of the forces causing problems (ranging from markets and taxes to demagoguery and climate change), raising the need to be linked with other communities and levels of government. Tusen takk, Svein, for pointing out the multiple ways and complex trajectories of the arrows you depict!


  1. McCay, Bonnie J. 2001. Community and the commons: romantic and other views. In Communities and the environment: ethnicity, gender, and the state in community-based conservation, ed. Arun Agrawal and Clark C. Gibson, 180–191. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

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  2. McCay, Bonnie J., and Svein Jentoft. 1998. Market or community failure? Critical perspectives on common property research. Hum Organ 37 (1): 21–29.

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Correspondence to Bonnie J. McCay.

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McCay, B.J. Taking social theory and communities seriously: contributions of Svein Jentoft. Maritime Studies 19, 411–412 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40152-020-00206-x

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