Learning how to share: principles for governing the commons

Sheep grazing in a green meadow with water and mountains in the backgroundWhat makes communities successful in managing their shared resources, such as forests and water? This was a central question addressed by the late Elinor Ostrom, the founding director of Arizona State University’s Center for Behavior, Institutions and the Environment (CBIE) and the 2009 Nobel Laureate in Economic Sciences. In her 1990 book “Governing the Commons,” Ostrom – also a distinguished sustainability scientist at ASU – proposed eight principles that contribute to success based on her experience with hundreds of case studies. The principles include, for example, the existence of clearly defined boundaries that delineate who is allowed to use the shared resource, as well as cheap, accessible conflict resolution mechanisms. A group of students and faculty affiliated with CBIE published a collection of papers in a special issue in the International Journal of the Commons that test earlier findings using new case studies and new methods of analysis. They found that not all design principles have to be present to be successful, but some combinations of design principles are more likely to contribute to success. The students found evidence to suggest that the design principles don’t act individually but, rather, act in clusters that depend on context. Thus, although successful cases need not have all design principles, they tend to have most of them. Further, the students coded the presence or absence of Ostrom’s design principles in case studies of more than 60 social-ecological systems around the globe. As a result of their experience, the group refined existing methods for collecting relevant case-study data to analyze the conditions for success. The group is now working to broaden participation in the coding of case studies to other scholars, both through a SESYNC workshop in July focused on “coding the commons” and by building scholarly networks globally – including collaborators from the U.S., Spain, The Netherlands, Sweden and Colombia.