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Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action

(Political Economy of Institutions and Decisions)

4.20  ·  Rating details ·  981 ratings  ·  86 reviews
Congratulations to Elinor Ostrom, Co-Winner of The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel 2009!

The governance of natural resources used by many individuals in common is an issue of increasing concern to policy analysts. Both state control and privatization of resources have been advocated, but neither the state nor the market have been unifo
Paperback, 298 pages
Published November 30th 1990 by Cambridge University Press (first published 1990)
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Michael Nielsen
Jan 06, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
This book transformed the way I look at the world.

For many societal problems a standard dichotomy is between market-based solutions and government-based solutions. As anyone reading this review knows, much of our politics and public discourse is organized around arguments between these two basic mechanisms for solving problems.

This is especially true for management of common-pool resources: things like water, forestry, the climate, fisheries, land, and so on. Some people want to create property
Nick Klagge
Jul 27, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: economics
This work is, for me, a model of great social science work. As someone thinking of going to an economics PhD program in the not-so-distant future, I will definitely benefit from having this book in the back of my mind.

The topic of the book is common-pool resources (CPRs)--which economists define as resources that are "rival" (if I take some of it, that reduces the supply available to anyone else) but "non-excludable" (it is difficult to prevent people from making use of it). A classic example o
Eduardo Santiago
Aug 21, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The good news is, there's hope: the Tragedy of the Commons is not inevitable. Ostrom identifies factors necessary for productive and long-term use of these resources, illuminating real-world case studies and offering hope for those who sincerely want to make things work. It can happen.

This isn't a political work: Ostrom sneers at both libertarians (“The private sector will fix it!”) and statists (“the government will fix it!”) while recognizing that the real world requires good doses of both phi
Paul Ataua
Jan 12, 2021 rated it it was amazing
What a stimulating read! it’s so good find a book that tries to get to grips with how to find practical solutions to situations that share aspects of the tragedy of the commons. It's fascinating to read clear discussion of practical examples of ways to engender commitment and monitor without resorting to leviathan style control or market forces. Great read!

Otto Lehto
Nov 04, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Elinor Ostrom's quiet revolution has been an interdisciplinary hit: it has influenced economics, sociology and political science, only to name the most obvious candidates. Her 1990 book, Governing the Commons, is a breathtaking example of a scholar who has refused to bow to false idols.

The book combines powerful theoretical perspectives with relevant empirical research. The beginning and the end are more theory-heavy. The vast chunk in the middle is taken up by laboriously detailed case descript
Athan Tolis
Oct 29, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel for her work on common-pool resources, so this book represents Economics orthodoxy on the topic.

It does not disappoint.

Presumably to get us interested, the author starts backwards, taking us through three examples of simple theories that predict common-pool resources will always perish: the “prisoner’s dilemma,” the “tragedy of the commons” and the “logic of collective action.”

From there she goes on to explain how a common-pool resource differs from a public good li
Dec 31, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Just after the global financial crisis of 2008 the Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded to Elinor Ostrom for her work on Common Pool Resources (CPR). While I'm not sure if there was a correlation between the two events, it does seem that giving the award to someone who's body of work shows that people can successfully handle pooled resources without government regulation or privatization was at least a happy coincidence.

In this book Ostrom details a variety of different situations around the wor
Sean Rosenthal
Nov 24, 2015 rated it really liked it
Interesting Quotes:

"The tragedy of the commons, the prisoner's dilemma, and the logic of collective action are closely related concepts in the models that have defined the accepted way of viewing many problems that individuals face when attempting to achieve collective benefits. At the heart of each of these models is the free-rider problem. Whenever one person cannot be excluded from the benefits that others provide, each person is motivated not to contribute to the joint effort, but to free-ri
Aug 15, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: purple
In 1968, an ecologist and philosopher named Garrett Hardin wrote an essay, called "Tragedy of the Commons". It was enormously influential in a different field, economics, because it seemed to explain how individuals who all are attempting to maximize their own individual welfare can end up with a result no one wanted. He postulated a common grazing area, that anyone could graze their cows on. If each herder thought that others would overgraze the common pasture, it would make sense for them to o ...more
Laszlo Szerdahelyi
Mar 02, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: critsoc
To assert that Ostrom knocked it out of the ballpark with her study on common pool resources would be an understatement. Her empirical, detailed and meticulous research gives a nuanced and rational view on the institutional frameworks that can be developed to best manage common resources in different settings, dispels sweeping 'one size fits all' theoretical notions, sinks the battleship of the ''tragedy of the commons'' and of its white supremacist theorist, Garett Hardin, to the murky grave of ...more
Eugene Kernes
Sep 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: economics-law
Common-pool resources (CPRs) are the focus of this book. CPRs have multiple users (or appropriators of the resources). The underlying theme is creating an alternative way of organizing the use of the CPRs. Rather than the state or market (entrepreneur/firm) deciding on the fate of the resources, this book shows that local communities can organize themselves to prevent unsustainable extraction of the CPRs. Rather than an external organizing force, an internal network shaping people’s behavior.

In this book, Elinor Ostrom examines the dismal "tragedy of the commons" argument that is so widely accepted and frequently used to advocate for private ownership as a mechanism to "protect" common pool resources (and other types of resources).

For this purpose, she presents real life case studies of both successful and failed attempts to utilize common pool resources by multiple actors, and showing how they do not fit the simple theoretical models of the "rational" actor with perfect information
Dec 13, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: design, environment
Simplistic models of "the tragedy of the commons" assume privatization or centralized management are the only solutions to self-interested rational agents' over-consumption, and consequently narrow the range of available policy. The case studies presented here, covering common resources with geographic restrictions like fisheries, watersheds, and marginal forest/grazing lands, instead show that successfully managed commons (for 50 or 500 years) involve dynamic local participatory rule-making in ...more
Henry Cooksley
This is clearly a high quality piece of narrowly focused academic literature. As such, it doesn't necessarily lend itself to be read by a lay audience. My rating represents how much I would recommend it those interested in the title on its general merits. Certain sections which were more conversational and focused on the game theoretic aspects of coordination problems stuck with me the most. Other chapters which got into the fine detail of case studies of water management and fisheries managemen ...more
Thomas Ray
Ostrom's Law: Whatever works in practice must work in theory. https://www.thecommonsjournal.org/art...

Library-of-Congress HD1286 O87 1990 Memorial, College, Steenbock libraries.
Dec 05, 2020 rated it really liked it
This is an academic book, which is hard to review in the same way as more mainstream work. I was hoping it would be as accessible as Good Economics for Hard Times but it's not. Perhaps 30 years ago there was no market for research-backed, general audience economics books, perhaps she needed to establish credence in the econ community as a Serious Academic, perhaps it’s just her default.

Leaving aside jargon and obfuscatingly formal language, the ideas behind this book are extremely interesting. I
Brian Cloutier
Jan 23, 2019 rated it really liked it
Very dense, I haven't had this hard of a time reading a book in a while.

In common resources, such as underwater basins and forests and pastures and fisheries, there's a strong incentive to take more than the resource can support. If you take too much water out of a basin water levels will drop and it will eventually become incapable of holding as much water as it previously did. Once the population of a fishery collapses it's not coming back for a while.

Ideally you'd all agree to limit the amoun
Dylan Groves
Apr 15, 2013 rated it it was amazing

Communities can and do design institutions to govern the commons despite collective action challenges. Success stories are due to successful institutional design specifically tailored to the communities/resources that the institutions serve.

Three takeaways:

1 - Economic models of collective action problems do a poor job of explaining a broad range of institutions for governance of common pool resources

2 - Developing successful governance is really hard, takes a long time, and is often b
Richard Marney
Jan 03, 2020 rated it really liked it
A classic in the field, from which the author’s well deserved Nobel came in great measure. Should be on the reading list for economists and policy makers in the field.

The echoes of this seminal treatment of common pool resources and society’s approaches (both successful and not) to manage scarce resources equitably and sustainably are found throughout current theory, law and policy. The message that individual citizens and groups can and should organize themselves rather than wait for the state
Jurij Fedorov
Read this book before you die.

Ostrom is one of the greatest social scientists of the 20th century, her Nobel price supports this statement. This book is very educational, scientific and on the point. There are pages and pages of just different numbers about a certain society. She is obsessed with numbers. You can find stats for every single thing these societies produce and how they produce them. Amazing. These pages of nothing but numbers (well, numbers and points about them) could be imagi
Jun 26, 2015 rated it really liked it
The writing style of the author is amazing, simple and clear. You don't need to have a background about the subject to read the book. The author discussed new and historical cases about the commons in a great details. ...more
Dec 31, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: decentralisation
A great book for understanding and design of institutions and community management approach. This was the best book I could come across in bottom-up policy making
Quinn Dougherty
May 09, 2019 rated it liked it
Excellent book! Very empirical-- I thought it had very little theorycrafting between piles and piles of anecdotes. But perhaps that's a normal balance for a book in public econ, and I only thought it had a low amount of theorycrafting because I'm the sort of person who would've been gung ho to just read a math textbook about cooperation (which, I'll also get around to at some point).

But the theorycrafting in here is great, and so are the anecdotes! She questions what we think we know about firm
Chuck Kollars
Oct 06, 2022 rated it it was amazing
This book's subject is "The Tragedy of the Commons", which is a very widely known and memorable essay written by Garrett Hardin. That essay's subject is shared resources, such as many old New England towns' common grazing area, and why they are inevitably destroyed. Furthering that example, each person has every incentive to graze "one more cow", until there are so many cows that the grass dies. The only long term solutions are either 1] privatization: have every grazer "own" a bit of the common ...more
Mar 11, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: commons
A seminal work which is altogether pleasant to read. Mandatory reading for anyone involved in common goods management and thinking (including water, environment, cultural commons with copyright or copyleft, online communities).

Ostrom shows that there are many different ways to manage common goods (or specifically common pool resources, CPR) and various kinds of local, decentralised or custom-based governance systems have proved successful. The dychotomy between privatization and state control is
Robbe Sneyders
May 02, 2020 rated it it was ok
This book develops an important central idea. It shows that there are solutions for societal problems, specifically common-pool resources, other than the two extremes of central government and privatization. I can imagine that this idea was especially insightful during the time of writing (1990).

The book however is very technical and repetitive, and focuses on the details of niche systems. I am clearly not part of the intended audience, and unless you are working on a research study related the
Marc Menz
Nov 28, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Transformational. Ostrom is pragmatic and above the normal economic ideological battleground that dominates many other works. The book wastes no time in disseminating and piecing together how to properly manage institutions that govern common pool resources like forrests and fisheries. Ostrom is also slightly empathetic to human wants and needs which is essential to any topic of governance that wants to break out of theoretical models. It’s a short but dense read, and interesting for anyone writ ...more
Aug 25, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Noam Chomsky often cites the Mondragon corporation as an organization that has successfully brought anarchistic ideals into the work place. This book serves to fill in the gaps by providing real world examples for self-governing 'commons' or "common resource pools" as the author terms, spinning off the concept of prisoner's dilemma or the optimal behaviors for agents in a formal scenario. Incredibly dense, yet suffers from complexity in asking the reader to follow a strategic set of highly techn ...more
Incredibly important, gives us info about how long it takes the negotiation way to actually get ecological ethical governance. It's at least 30 years.

It gives us info about what successful agreements have.

The major ones according to the notes, so Elinor Ostrom has a lot of experience with the West California water governance negotiations circa 1960.

She talks about fisheries a lot in the book.

The last notes number points, give referrals. This is important because economics has proven to be more
Mohana Kumaran
Dec 04, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Great book! Presents framework for understanding collective action to avoid a common pool resource 'race to the bottom', not involving "only solutions" of State or privatization. Questions economists' over-reliance on particularized theoretical models and always seeing policy proposals as advice to an omnicompetent government that wants to maximize social welfare. Recommend esp if your current mental models regarding commons involve Prisoner's Dilemma and Tragedy of Commons, and not much else. ...more
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Elinor Ostrom won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics.

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