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Organisational practice between a modernizing State, international development cooperation and inner-directedness. The case of Local Organisations in Velasco Province in the Eastern Lowlands of Bolivia

Start of the project: 2001

Ph.D. student: Gabriele Beckmann

External partners: Deutscher Entwicklungsdienst (DED)

Contact data

Telephone: 0921-55-4116
Fax: 0921-55-4118

Project description

The relevance of organisations in Bolivia

Bolivia is generally known as a country of weak institutions and precarious rule of law at a local as well as a national level over long periods. Notwithstanding this apparently generalized “anomy” (Waldmann, 2002), Bolivia has a history of longstanding structures of formal civil organisations, beginning in the 1930s with the work union sector and more recently continuing with the movement of indigenous people that achieved a fairly established organisational network from local level across much of the country up to international level (Albó 2008). A high proportion of the Bolivian rural population are members of established ancient types of local organisation such as comunidad, sindicato, allyu and several other, more recent types of organisation like co-operatives and the various formally organized entities of local participation and self-governance at municipal level (juntas vecinales, organizaciones territoriales de base etc). To call Bolivia a “society of organisations” (Perrow) is not exaggerated.

The scope of this study are social (non-profit) organisations on local level which are often called and characterized as self-help organisations. Civil organisations in Bolivia from the national to the local level are in many cases powerful entities. Many of the Bolivian local social organisations have significant impact on the livelihoods of their members and on their acting (Albó; Albó & Quispe). The range of official purposes and assignments to which local organisations are dedicated is quite wide including, e. g. fostering small scale production and family income; organising the maintenance of local commons (infrastructure, resources); guaranteeing local public order; watch-dog functions regarding local public funds and investments; co-ordinating events of social life and cultural activities; safeguarding traditions and collective local knowledge and forming cultural identities; exerting political pressure and articulating local interest towards public entities or other social groups (e.g. settler versus local indigenous or peasant interest, indigenous peasant, landowner etc.) in the local arena or at a higher level.

Organisation, generally, can be understood as “objective-orientated and co-ordinated interaction of human beings in order to achieve a common material or immaterial product” (Müller-Jentsch 2003:12). Not surprisingly, local organisations differ significantly from each other according to their service capability and general achievement potential. But there are other differences which can be revealed looking closer at the internal practice level: local social organisations in Bolivia show significant differences in their internal practice, even if they derive and depend from the same initiative of organisation and/or belong to the same institutionalized associations and networks. There are quite some organisations with an internal practice that seem to remain institutionally “weak”, with unclear regulations and high level of “informality” while in other organisations rules and norms seem to more binding guidelines for action and decision. Some of the organisations seem to be “permanently failing” while other reach their goals. Some organisations appear to be inert or “stubborn” while others are open to formal innovation. Formal innovations in organisation practice can be oriented by local norms and principals and ways of to organize or by external models of organisation.

Research questions

Seeing local organisation and its internal practice under the perspective of knowledge the study tries to answer the following questions: How do prevailing local and external ideas about organisation influence the internal practice of local social organisations? How are theses ideas related to local power in organisations? How do historical experiences and collective memory enable or inhibit the modification and appropriation of organisational models according to the dynamics of local organisations? Does it matter, whether a certain type of organisation is “proper” or “not part of the local culture”?

Theoretical framework

For the discussion of the internal practice in local social organisations the study uses six theoretical statements allowing for a better understanding of the interplay between actors and structures (Barley & Tolbert) and internal and external institutions.

  1. The general approach to organisations and their internal practice is to consider them as open social systems with five features: social structure, participants and members, goals and purposes, technology, environment (Scott 1986). The area of social structure comprises power-relations and interest in organisations.
  2. The structural elements of organisation (e. g. formal division, roles and role-scripts, habits and routines) are understood as internal institutions (Barley) for which of Scott suggests in his research concept: “Institutions are comprised of regulative, normative and cultural-cognitive elements …” (Scott 2008: 48)
  3. Institutions are based on different kinds of dynamic knowledge (Berger & Luckmann) like external, professional knowledge (DiMaggio& Powell) and local knowledge (Neubert & Macamo). Institutions are based on internal cognitive patterns and symbolic structures (Alford & Friedland)
  4. There is a certain tendency that local organization adapts to generalized, and almost universal models or templates of (supposedly rationalized) organization (Meyer & Rowan). These models of organisation are transmitted from different environments to local organisations. These external models pass through a process of local filter of interpretation (Czarniawska & Sevón) and/or appropriation (Spittler; Beck) or rejection (some authors call it resistance).
  5. Local context conditions are independent from generalized external models of organization. A micro-level analysis of local institutions (Zucker; Douglas) is applied in order to understand the specific local historical and cultural fundaments of internal institutions of the organisation. The evolution of internal practice is seen as a dynamic process of institutionalization and de-institutionalization.
  6. Institutions and agency are not opposed; they rather limit and enable each other (Giddens; Barley; Jepperson). Members might act as organisational entrepreneurs according to their interest or particular strategies (Beckert) or as organisational border-crossers (Holtgrewe) bringing in new ideas they learned to know in other organisations.

Methodological proceeding and features

The sample of examined local organisations is located in Velasco Province of the rural Chiquitania region, in the eastern lowlands of Bolivia. The role of organisation in Velasco has changed a lot over the last 500 years. From supposedly typically fluid lowland-amazonian forms of social cooperation in pre-spanish times to an almost military like system of organisation during the time of Jesuit Mission (reducciones). Afterwards from very low levels of formal organisation during most of the republican era to a new rise of importance of local Organisations since the last 15 years by processes of state decentralisation, colonisation projects, increasing development programmes and political processes like the extension of social and indigenous movements (Ströbele-Gregor 2010).

The investigation has two levels of analysis: (i) The level of internal practice of local organisations. This level can not be analysed as a whole. Internal practice is composed of infinite interactions that can be related to the organisation, its goals and purposes as well as its resources. Therefore the analysis has to be selectively and focusses on two areas (i) planning and (ii) leadership/social control. The analysis includes case studies of a sample of local organisations of different age and official purposes. Tools used are: participating observation of internal practice (mostly during assemblies, workshops and meetings) and analysis of internal documents (minutes, reports). The case-studies are complemented with data about the general situation of each organisation and its formal structures. Materials used are: documents about constitution and regulations, publications, reports). (ii) The second level of analysis is focussed on relevant external and local knowledge and perceptions about organisation. Tools are: Secondary analysis of historical studies and expert and biographical interviews of local organisation leaders. The results are reconstructed concepts of organisation in external and local knowledge that influence the way of acting in local organisation.


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