Lisa Francesca Rail, Universität Wien

Nested commons. An ethnography on the diversity, persistence, and administrative embeddedness of collective pastures in the Austrian Alps

My research project is an ethnographic study on two valleys in Austria with different forms of collectively owned, managed, and used alpine pastures: the Kaunertal in the Tyrolean Oberland and the Ausseerland - the Styrian part of the Salzkammergut. In that, it is guided by the central research question: How and in which ways does the legal and administrative nestedness of alpine commons within the Austrian state and EU policies co-constitute and shape their collective and continued running?

Cadastral surveys, monitoring by state agents, the written documentation of use rights, and their contestation in court are deeply implicated in the running of collective alps in. This shapes procedures of common rights holders’ collective self-organization, whereas, vice versa, the commons’ organization requires state agencies to find categories and bureaucratic protocols that can accommodate their working. While commons theory is rich in explanations for the patterns of (un)successful internal coordination among commoners, it lacks theoretical frameworks to grasp the constitutive interleaving of agrarian commons and state administration in practice - in other words, to grasp the empirical phenomenon I want to capture with my working concept of commons’ ‘nestedness’.

On the theoretical level of my dissertation project, I combine commons theory with insights from anthropological writing on statehood and bureaucracy as well as from legal anthropology and critical agrarian studies in order to address the above-mentioned conceptual gap. Thereby, I aim to ethnographically describe and analyze the diversity of ways in which alpine agrarian commons are embedded in state and EU legislation and how this manifests in the everyday practice of working on and caring for the respective collective pastures.

Methodologically, I will conduct twelve to sixteen months of ethnographic fieldwork covering two full alpine summer seasons. I will combine participant observation in both agrarian and bureaucratic settings with semi-structured interviews, as well as with following and working with documents and maps that are mobilized in common pasture administration.