Collective action for small-scale irrigation facilities in Northwest China

Shanshan Miao

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


Collective action for small-scale irrigation facilities is crucial for smallholder farmers’ livelihood and welfare improvement in the Loess Plateau Areas of Northwest China. However, under the challenge of China’s increasing economic heterogeneity and social transformation, understanding what influences the initiation of collective action and how to sustain it is the key for common pool resource management. This thesis starts with how to initiate collective action by addressing the social dilemma of farmers’ attitude-behaviour paradox. After finding that relative income position and social network heterogeneity are the main factors for the occurrence of this social dilemma, we develop a theoretical framework to identify how social capital components contribute to the realisation of collective action. Then, we study how economic heterogeneity particularly farmers’ income levels influence their willingness to cooperate in sustaining collective action. Finally, given the different organisational forms in the management of collective action, we study how organisational heterogeneity influences commons governance for small-scale irrigation facilities based on the trust and control mechanisms. In Chapter 1, we draw a blueprint of the whole thesis, propose research questions and introduce the study areas as well as methodologies employed in the following four chapters.

Chapter 2 explores why farmers, who have a positive attitude towards small-scale irrigation collective action, do not transform into real participative behaviour or who do not have the attitude, yet have real participative behaviour, that is, the attitude-behaviour paradox. We use data from household survey with farmers in Shaanxi Province of Northwest China. Given the potential endogeneity of the social network in estimating farmers’ attitude-behaviour paradox, an instrumental variable probit model is used to investigate how social network heterogeneity and relative income position affect farmers’ social dilemmas. The results show that social network heterogeneity, decomposed into ‘weak ties’ and ‘strong ties’, combined with relative income position, reduced farmers’ attitude-behaviour paradox. Moreover, after dividing farmers’ paradox into “having attitude but no behaviour” and “having behaviour but no attitude”, different mechanisms are revealed to understand further the role of socio-economic heterogeneity in addressing social dilemmas of farmers’ attitude-behaviour paradox.

The effects of social capital components on farmers’ participative behaviour in collective action are examined in Chapter 3. A theoretical framework is developed to reflect the relationship between social capital and collective action. Based on household survey data with farmers in Shaanxi Province of Northwest China, we derive four components of social capital by employing exploratory factor analysis, namely, social network, social reciprocity, social trust and social participation. Then, the logit model is used to estimate the influence of social capital components on farmers’ participative behaviours in the realisation of collective action. It is found that social trust and social participation have positive effects on farmers’ participative behaviour, whereas social reciprocity will reduce the possibility of initiating collective action. Other factors, such as education levels, cultivated area, cropping patterns and grain subsidies also have significant positive effects.

Chapter 4 examines whether the relationship between social capital components and farmers’ willingness to cooperate is moderated by income levels. Based on the theoretical framework to link social capital, economic heterogeneity and collective action, a structural equation model is estimated to analyse the influence of social capital components on the willingness of farmers to cooperate. The analysis is complemented by a multi-group analysis to measure the variance effects across income groups. The results show that low- and middle-income farmers attach importance to the components of social network, social reciprocity and social participation, while high-income farmers emphasize interpersonal trust and social participation. Our research reveals that the success of collective action largely relies on how farmers’ align certain components of social capital with social structures to get benefits based on their economic endowments.

Chapter 5 studies how group size influences commons governance for small-scale irrigation facilities through trust and control mechanisms. The analysis is also performed by a structural equation model with farmers who participated in the collective action for small-scale irrigation facilities in Shaanxi, Gansu and Ningxia Province of China. The findings demonstrate that trust-based and control-based management mechanisms have different impacts on sustaining commons governance. Specifically, trust positively, whereas control negatively affects participation degree as well as cooperative performance. Both trust-based and control-based modes of management are effective in small groups, whereas only a control-based mode of management effective in big groups. Group size exerted contrasting force on trust and control mechanisms that directly and indirectly influence commons governance. Our study reveals that selective incentives should be discretionarily chosen based on the group size to sustain commons governance.

Finally, Chapter 6 presents the main conclusions of the four previous chapters, proposes insights from collective action for small-scale irrigation facilities, generalises the main contributions and presents policy implications as well as limitations and suggestions for future research.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Heijman, Wim, Promotor
  • Zhu, Xueqin, Promotor
Award date2 Jul 2019
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789463439879
Publication statusPublished - 2 Jul 2019


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