The proposed research will investigate some of the most basic puzzles in the social sciences: How and to what extent do institutions affect individual attitudes and behavior? Specifically, this project will examine how individuals' exposure to and involvement in a new local resource governance program affects their environmental attitudes and behaviors. The geographic location of the research is the Indian Himalaya. The research will use changes in community-level environmental institutions in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh as the causal variable of interest. These new institutions were introduced as part of the Mid-Himalayan Watershed Development Project by the Himachal Pradesh state government with support from the World Bank in late 2006. The Project created Village Watershed Development Committees to design and enforce new rules for using and managing village forests. This research will attempt to explain how the implementation of and participation in the program's new institutions changed villagers' attitudes about and activities related to forests and the environment. The proposed research will compare pre- and post-treatment measures of institutions, attitudes, and behavior between people in treatment villages (i.e., those part of the Project) and comparison villages (i.e., similar villages that were not part of the treatment). The project's data collection efforts involve surveys of villagers in treatment and comparison villages in two time periods, questionnaires completed by village officials, and collection of available official information about the study sites. The resulting dataset will include information about respondent characteristics (demographics, household location, economic circumstances, network ties, environmental attitudes, institutional participation, activities in forests) and village characteristics (population size, market penetration, forest conditions, civic institutions, spatial data). The research design involves interviewing the same individuals at two points in time. The investigators conducted baseline surveys in early 2006 for 2224 respondents across 60 villages before the Project was implemented in 30 of these villages. The current project will collect and analyze a second wave of data to measure (changes in) post-treatment institutions, attitudes and behavior. Collectively, these data will permit make powerful inferences about the extent to which new institutions caused attitudes and behavior to change, and about what factors were most important in bringing about those changes.
Questions about how and whether institutions affect individual attitudes and the relationship between attitudes and behavior have deep theoretical implications that divide many scholars in the social sciences. Whereas some believe attitudes to be largely fixed and determined by structural context, others see attitudes as highly malleable. Each view implies a very different causal mechanism relating to political behavior. How attitudes and behavior are connected is another question on which scholars are divided. Within political science, there is a healthy debate on the related question of preference formation and change. The proposed research will contribute to these theoretical discussions by empirically demonstrating the extent to which a particular set of institutions change an important class of attitudes and related behaviors.
Individuals' views about the environment and variations in their willingness to protect and conserve natural resources can have a significant impact on the success of conservation policies and the enforcement costs related to institutions for environmental management. In a global context where numerous developing countries claim they are decentralizing decision making and enforcement institutions related to environmental resources such as forests and water, as well as development domains such as health and education, knowledge about the drivers of individual attitudes and behavior is crucial to the success of decentralization policies. The study will also address policy issues such as how to design and target institutions to produce significant impacts on attitudes and behavior; generate a panel dataset that can be used to test a range of hypotheses about the efficacy of policy interventions, attitude change and the political economy of development and environmental conservation; and produce substantive knowledge about a common and increasingly popular class of local governance institutions. Finally, the research project will strengthen collaborations between scholars and organizations in India and the United States and will contribute to the training of graduate students through their participation in the research project at the University of Michigan, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and the KLB DAV College for Women, Palampur, India.