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Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Canto Classics)

4.18  ·  Rating details ·  618 ratings  ·  50 reviews
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 uniformly successful in solving common pool resource problems. After critiquing the foundations of policy analysis as applied to nat ...more
Kindle Edition, 294 pages
Published September 23rd 2015 by Cambridge University Press (first published 1990)
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4.18  · 
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 ·  618 ratings  ·  50 reviews

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In 1968 (already a crowded and frantic year), an ecologist named Garret Hardin published "The Tragedy of the Commons" in the journal Science. The 'tragedy' comes from when a shared resource is used so many individuals that demand accelerates past supply. Although each individual is aware of the shortage, they will continue to consume out of individual self-interest, to the detriment of the group. Eventually, as the resource is exhausted, leading to shortages, and in the case of food stocks, a Ma ...more
Nick Klagge
Jul 27, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Michael Nielsen
Jan 06, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Dec 31, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Otto Lehto
Nov 04, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Sean Rosenthal
Nov 24, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Athan Tolis
Oct 29, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Aug 15, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Dec 13, 2017 rated it liked it
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
Dylan Groves
Apr 15, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

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
Jun 26, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Dec 31, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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 to of organization 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 behavio ...more
Brian Cloutier
Jan 23, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Mar 11, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Josh Reid
Jul 15, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-2017
Reminder for scholars to be more specific when working with models of the commons. Appreciate the emphasis on individual (and institutional) agency in extricating ourselves from various environmental/commons dilemmas. Would have liked some engagement with Indigenous models -- these offer some intriguing alternatives to the case studies she analyzed.
Nov 19, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Extremely interesting and thought provoking, it will challenge your perceptions of how and why people work together when they are faced with a common resource.
Jan 14, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a work I'll probably have to revisit if the topic becomes more relevant to my own research. It's interesting and well-constructed, but at times repetitive.
Jan 03, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Great, but not my fav econ work. She has a lot of valuable insights, but I felt she got bogged down in details. That may say more about me than her, though.
Lauren Levitt
Aug 15, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: quals, dissertation
I thought this book was going to be kind of dry, but I actually really enjoyed reading all of the case studies. Even the more theoretical chapters were interesting and fairly easy to read.
Joe Lyons
Jun 22, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Strong research that produced clear guidelines for effectively governing commons. Exceptional and important work!
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
Although short, this is heavy on the theory and fairly intricate details of specific case studies (largely involving water management), which ended up not grabbing me as fully as I had hoped. Might have to revisit this again later. The overarching message — warning against over-reliance on analytical models that discount local actors' potential ability to resolve collective action problems for themselves, and policy approaches that assume central state intervention is the only way in which these ...more
Aug 28, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Elinor Ostrom's work is the most fantastic political scientist to date. Not just that, her best work isn't even in political science, it's economics. This book challenges the dichotomy of private/public property. That is to say, that public goods should be privatized or that market failures necessarily require government assistance. She offers a third alternative. I don't think there is a specific name to it, but I will call it co-operatives for the sake of simplicity. This book goes through spe ...more
Kresna Navarro
Feb 12, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Very insightful
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 20, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
El manejo de recursos de uso común que tienen una definición poco clara en sus derechos de propiedad es la temática central del libro de Ostrom.

En este trabajo analiza distintos modelos de acción colectiva y pone en duda las conclusiones tradicionales sobre el manejo de dichos recursos, sea la privatización o el control por parte del Estado. Para Ostrom existen otros mecanismos en las comunidades que permiten que estas se auto gestionen sin necesitar de la supervisión y regulación absoluta del
La estructura que mantiene el libro me parece perfecta para introducir al lector en la problemática que se presenta, la teorización que se realiza en la primera parte del libro aunque resulta un poco tediosa es sin duda fundamental para comprender el contexto, la presentación de ejemplos y la forma en la que se demuestra que la centralización de los Recursos de uso común no es la manera más eficaz de realizarse como tampoco lo es la privatización como único medio de explotación eficiente de los ...more
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  • Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance
  • The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups
  • The Evolution of Cooperation
  • A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution
  • The Firm, the Market, and the Law
  • Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy
  • The Sources of Social Power: Volume 1, a History of Power from the Beginning to Ad 1760
  • Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy
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  • Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences
  • The Penguin and the Leviathan: The Triumph of Cooperation Over Self-Interest
  • Behavioral Game Theory: Experiments in Strategic Interaction
  • Golden Fetters: The Gold Standard and the Great Depression, 1919-1939
  • Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior
  • Social Systems
  • Choice and Consequence
  • Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts
  • America Beyond Capitalism: Reclaiming Our Wealth, Our Liberty, and Our Democracy
Elinor Ostrom won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics.
“The power of a theory is exactly proportional to the diversity of situations it can explain.” 16 likes
“Scientific knowledge is as much an understanding of the diversity of situations for which a theory or its models are relevant as an understanding of its limits.” 6 likes
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