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Becoming a Contender: Legitimacy, Authority and the Power of Making Do in Nepal’s Permanent Transition

Author Sarah Byrne
Director of thesis Benedikt Korf
Co-director of thesis
Summary of thesis This thesis is about the production of authority - the messy political work of contestation, negotiation and compromise, with always contingent outcomes. The analysis is empirically grounded in Nepal’s mid-Western hills and is based on ethnographic research methods. The thesis asks how the authority to govern is established and maintained - how particular actors create the conditions that allow them the possibility to control resources. Specifically, the thesis explores the micro-political dynamics of negotiations over the use and distribution of local public resources (forest resources and local government budgets) in a context in which local governance authority is contested not only in the frame of post-war transition but through iterations of “transitional” governance arrangements going back several decades. The thesis argues that in order to understand the production of authority, we should look to processes of legitimation, both of authority claimants themselves and of institutions and processes through which decisions are made. Authority emerges from contestations over legitimacy, a processes in which the employment of repertoires of legitimation make it possible to become a decision-maker. In other words, legitimacy is empowering. However, the authority constituted through these processes requires constant renewal, thus the repertoires have to be continuously reproduced and updated or adapted. This implies both building consensus on the basis of legitimacy and successfully elaborating claims in those terms. In this process, “making do” is an important skills for authority claimants. Not only are repertoires of legitimation constantly being developed and adapted, the processes and institutions through which decisions are taken are themselves in a constant process of establishing themselves. Thus the legitimations of both authority claimants and decision-making processes/institutions are engaged in a mutual constitution that produces forms of governance. However, the nature of governance thus produced is unclear: legitimations can both reinforce and challenging existing patterns of rule, can either prop up or overturn existing orders. This mediating role is part of what makes legitimation such a significant social and political process, and so relevant a subject of study. In conclusion, the thesis suggests that while the preponderance of the “post-war” transition label suggests a period of exceptionality, putting this in historical context paints quite a different picture. Continuity and change are not mutually exclusive experiences, but rather are deeply interconnected. This is captured by the notion of “permanent transition” (Wydra, 2000), which highlights how repeated and continued transition is part of on-going political, social and economic processes in contexts like Nepal. Furthermore, when it comes to the very fundamental questions of access to resources, there is remarkable consistency. The PhD was funded through the SNSF research project “Living with Violence: Rural Livelihoods in Mid-Western Nepal.”
Status finished
Administrative delay for the defence 2015
URL http://www.geo.uzh.ch/en/units/political-geography/about-us/staff/byrne-sarah