1.3 Institutions and collective action

I now want to examine a different approach to the institutional level of analysis. It is based on a very influential book (reprinted 10 times!). It examines a research study in the important area of managing common pool resources (important for the sustainability of natural resources such as water, fisheries, etc). The author, Elinor Ostrom, develops an approach that is important for issues of sustainability, and also links with issues about developing policies (in this case institutions) that fit with local players and the local rule-based systems they use.

The Reading is based on several short extracts from the book. The reading serves two functions. The first is to talk to this unit’s focus on institutions. The second is to introduce you to the research process and research design issues. A research design describes the process through which research questions are explored that lead to results and conclusions. You will be exploring these issues in more depth in units 4 and 5.

It begins with a 30 year story of intellectual endeavour.

Activity 17

The following PDF contains extracts that you will be referring to over the course of this activity and the four that follow it.

Read pages xiii-xvi. of Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action.

What research design activities can you identify in this account? A research design is the approach developed to find answers to research questions. Don’t worry if you don’t understand some of the research terms mentioned. Many of them will be discussed in Units 4 and 5. For now it is more important to have an overview of how the research and the research process evolved.


I picked out the following examples of research design; note that they operate at different levels i.e. not just within a single piece of work.

  • (a) Ostrom and Weschler’s dissertations were based on parallel studies of different institutional arrangements for similar problems – presumably their supervisor(s) had developed this research design for comparative purposes.
  • (b) Blomquist’s doctoral studies built directly on Ostrom’s dissertation 15 years earlier, leading to a focus on the evolution of institutions.
  • (c) This led to a larger scale study of a set of Californian groundwater basins, exploring evolution, efficiency and equity of institutions.
  • (d) The 1985 Panel Study required a set of field researchers to adopt a common set of research questions derived from theory.
  • (e) A literature search revealed a very rich case study literature from diverse disciplines looking at CPR. The resulting bibliography drew on rural sociology, anthropology, history, economics, political science, forestry, irrigation sociology and covered many different regions.
  • (f) Scholars working in each of these disciplines rarely cited evidence from outside their disciplines. Therefore, there was a large amount of discrete discipline knowledge that had not been synthesised or more widely applied.
  • (g) The review of 1000 empirical cases involved systematic screening, coding and analysis, which allowed the development of qualitative data to a structured database amenable to quantitative analysis. (Theory informed the development of the coding form design).
  • (h) Ostrom makes an important observation about the relationship between theory and empirical evidence. She says,

    ‘It is my conviction that knowledge accrues by the continual process of moving back and forth from empirical observation to serious efforts at theoretical formulation.’

Activity 18

Ostrom develops the basis for her approach by considering the limitations of theory commonly informing policy.

Now quickly read part of Chapter 1 – pp. 1-8, to get the background to Ostrom’s study. Note the 3 main models referred to.

What dangers does Ostrom see in the use of these models in practice?


The three models referred to are ‘the tragedy of the commons,’ ‘the prisoner’s dilemma’ and ‘the logic of collective action.’ Ostrom argues that while metaphors are very powerful in capturing important aspects of a situation, first they may be taken as a model of reality (so they may misrepresent it, indicating constraints that don’t exist), and secondly policy makers may base their policies on such misrepresentations. Later in the same chapter she also argues that the simplifying effect of metaphors can lead to a neglect of detail by policy makers; thus privatisation can take many forms some of which may be disastrous, while others may be successful.

Ostrom goes on to discuss current policy prescriptions. The two main ones are central (state) regulation or privatisation. She uses game theory to examine the limitations of these approaches. Thus the policy debate is polarised:

“One set of advocates presumes that a central authority must assume a continuing responsibility to make unitary decisions for a particular resource. The other assumes a central authority should parcel out ownership rights to the resource and then allow individuals to pursue their own self-interests within a set of well-defined property rights. Both centralisation advocates and privatisation advocates accept as a central tenet that institutional change must come from outside and be imposed on the individuals affected. Despite sharing a faith in the necessity and efficacy of ‘the state’ to change institutions so as to increase efficiency, the institutional changes they recommend could hardly be further apart.”

She also notes that in practice institutions are rarely public or private, (the state or the market), but they are a mix of ‘private-like’ and ‘public like’ institutions. Her own interest is to develop a better theory of collective action that recognises that depending on circumstances individuals can be capable of collectively managing such problems themselves, through some form of self-governing institution. Thus her research question is about exploring this alternative solution – to develop an empirically supported theory of self-organisation and self-governing forms of collective action.

Activity 19

Ostrom provides an empirical example of her alternative solution.

Now read pp. 18-21.

What are the key features of this self-governing arrangement?


There are well defined and agreed rights; these are distributed/allocated in an agreed legitimate way. The monitoring and enforcing of the ‘rules of the game’ are carried out by the fishermen. This has some external support (legitimation) through government support for the co-operative’s role.

Activity 20

Ostrom describes in some detail the research approach that has informed the studies for this book.

Now read pp. 25-28.

  • (a) what does she draw from biologists research approaches?
  • (b) How does she classify her cases, and why?


  • (a) Biologists use a simplifying strategy of studying simple organisms, so she takes a similar approach of identifying and studying simpler CPR cases.
  • (b) Her sample of cases is divided between successful institutions, transforming institutions, and failing institutions; she is then able to draw out the principles behind each category, and so develop her theory.

Activity 21

Later on Ostrom describes how she goes about analysing her cases.

Now read pp. 55-56.

  • (a) what do you think is the basis for her approach, and her series of research questions?
  • (b) finally consider whether there are any lessons you can draw from her overall research approach, for your own research.


  • (a) Ostrom is clearly drawing on theory to abstract from the empirical case and explore the interactions in terms of game theory. She also refers to a previously used method of institutional analysis, which presumably helps her do this.

These short extracts from Ostrom’s book have provided a basis for examining a different approach to institutions. The emphasis has been on getting across the principles of the approach, rather than detail of theory.

This approach to the governance of common pool resources is relevant to issues of environmental sustainability, and the development of policies that work with, rather than against the grain of local arrangements. The emphasis on self-governing institutions as an alternative to privatised (market) or centrally regulated (state) solutions, clearly also has a much wider sphere of policy applications.

The reading has also provided a rich source of material for considering research design issues: about case studies, samples, research questions; as well as about the way an experienced researcher builds a line of research over an extended period of time. It is appropriate that you should begin to think about the research design and research process at this point as these will be considered in the next two units.

1.2 Institutions and knowledge production