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Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Political Economy of Institutions and Decisions)

25 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0521405997
ISBN-10: 0521405998
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Editorial Reviews


"In this ambitious, provocative, and very useful book Ostrom combines a lucid theoretical framework with a series of diverse and richly detailed case studies...she tightly reviews and critiques extant models of cooperation and collective action and argues powerfully that communities of actors are sometimes able to maintain a common resource for long periods of time without outside intervention." Contemporary Sociology

"Ostrom's book is an important contribution to the problems of Commom Property Resources that is, the lack of well-defined property rights over a certain resource. Elinor Ostrom convincingly shows that there are many different viable mixtures between public and private, in particular self-organization and self-governance by the users of the common property resource. The book makes fascinating reading, particularly as it is well written." Bruno S. Frey, Kyklos

"This is an important book that deserves to be read widely in the policy community as well as the scholarly community....this analysis leaves us with provocative questions whose examination promises to broaden and deepen our understanding of human/environment relationships at many levels." Oran R. Young, International Environmental Affairs

"Cambridge University Press has published an impressive series called 'The Political Economy of Institutions and Decisions.' Elinor Ostrom, Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, has made an important contribution to the series with Governing the Commons....In large part, the book is a fascinating and detailed examination of common ownership of various natural resources." Dean Lueck, Constitutional Political Economy

"Students of common-property resource regimes will find much of great interest in the volume." Barry C. Field, Land Economics

"...timely, well-written, and a useful addition to our understanding of the challenges of natural resource management....useful for undergraduate and graduate students as well as field practitioners interested in the development of scientifically based research. It provides a firm grounding in the theoretical underpinnings that should guide empirical investigations....Ostrom offers a unique source of information on the realities of resource management institutions coupled with the challenge for continued examination of institutions in order to develop better ways to address the CPR challenge." Gordon L. Brady, Southern Economic Journal

"Ostrom's book makes an important contribution to the emerging literature on analytical institutional economics. Her work reminds us that analysis of institutions and institutional change is an important aspect of a broader political economy that underlies meaningful economic policy advice." Daniel W. Bromley, Journal of Economic Literature

"This is the most influential book in the last decade on thinking about the commons. For those involved with small communities...located in one nation, whose lives depend on a common pool of renewable resources....Governing the Commons has been the intellectual field guide." Whole Earth

"A classic by one of the best-known thinkers on communities and commons." Yes! A Journal of Positive Futures

Book Description

Neither the state nor the market have been successful in solving common pool resource problems. This study accordingly analyzes communal interests in land, irrigation communities, fisheries, etc. and proposes alternative solutions.

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Product Details

  • Series: Political Economy of Institutions and Decisions
  • Paperback: 298 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press (November 30, 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0521405998
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521405997
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #67,424 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

95 of 98 people found the following review helpful By A.G. on November 13, 2008
Format: Paperback
Elinor Ostrom's Governing the Commons is a wonderful introduction to the world of "common pool resources," a.k.a. CPRs. Technicalities aside, a CPR is a resource that grows over time but can be harvested by more than one person. The classic example of a CPR is the English grazing commons, popularized in Hardin's "The Tragedy of the Commons." Forests, fisheries, and smog-free air are also good examples.

In her book, Ostrom takes an ethnographic approach to studying the management and mismanagement of CPRs. The key question for managing such commons is sustainability. Without some kind of enforceable agreement among those who would harvest a CPR, the resource will rapidly be depleted and possibly destroyed. Ostrom argues that good collective management can arise naturally from communities of people with a mutual interest in the sustainability of commons. In a series of detailed case studies, she lays out conditions ("design principles") that seem to allow -- or prevent -- the good governance of the CPR in question.

Once you've seen these design principles, they seem to pop up everywhere. "Congruence between appropriation and provision rules and local conditions" sounds a lot like the idea of local adaptation in the diffusion of innovations literature. "Monitoring" sounds like the role middle managers play in corporations. "Minimal rights to organize" sounds like the First Amendment.

Overall, Ostrom's book is an open-ended classic. It provides a great description of common pool resources through the lens of ethnographic case studies, plus a framework for looking at CPR problems in general. Ostrom never advances of specific theory of governance. Instead, she lays out many interesting and suggestive examples and principles.
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42 of 44 people found the following review helpful By Matthew P. Arsenault on August 2, 2007
Format: Paperback
Ostrom attempts to refute the belief that only through state and or market-centered controls can commonly pooled resources (CPRs) be effectively governed. Ostrom writes, "Communities of individuals have relied on institutions resembling neither the state nor the market to govern some resource systems with reasonable degrees of success over long periods of time" (p. 1). Governing the Commons sets out to discover why some groups are able to effectively govern and manage CPRs and other groups fail. She tries to identify both the internal and external factors "that can impede or enhance the capabilities of individuals to use and govern CPRs."

The first section of the book examines both state-controlled and privatization property rights regimes, and illustrates failures in both regimes; namely, that central authorities often fail to have complete accuracy of information, have only limited monitoring capabilities, and possess a weak sanctioning reliability. As such, a centralized governing body may actually govern the commons inaccurately and make a bad situation worse. In the case of privatized property rights regimes, Ostrom illustrates two main points: 1) it assumes that property is homogenous and any division of property will be equitable; and 2) privatization will not work with non-stationary property (fisheries, for example).

After discussing the state-controlled and privatization property rights regimes, Ostrom attempts examine the causes of successful CPR governance, and the catalysts which lead to failure. Being part of the "new institutionalist" school, Ostrom seeks to examine the rules, structures, and frameworks within the various CPR governance structures. Ostrom has discovered a number of "design principles" within the successful CPR governance cases.
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29 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Daniel H. Cole on December 29, 2006
Format: Paperback
"Governing the Commons" has become a classic, not only within the literature of political science, but more broadly throughout the social sciences. In the book, Elinor Ostrom argues brilliantly and compelling for a third way of avoiding Garrett Hardin's "tragedy of the commons," in addition to privatization (conversion of the commons to private property) or government regulation (conversion of the commons to public property). Though numerous examples, Ostrom demonstrates how users of common property resources have managed, in various places around the world, to sustainably manage those resources through local, self-regulation. In other words, common property regimes can avoid the "tragedy of the commons."

Ostrom recognizes that common property management regimes do not always work. Indeed, the seem to fail as often as they succeed. To explain why this is the case, and to help predict the likelihood of success or failure, Ostrom develops an elaborate and very useful model of common property success/failure. In the 15 years since she published "Governing the Commons," that model has not been significantly improved by other scholars. Her book remains as current and important today, as it was when she first published it in 1990. It is required reading for all social scientists, indeed anyone, interested in resource conservation and property systems.
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26 of 29 people found the following review helpful By D. W. MacKenzie on May 21, 2002
Format: Paperback
Ostroms' book covers a variety of cases where allocational difficulties arise. She employs sound economic reasoning in analyzing a number of cases where ordinary property rights enforcment is difficult. This book illustrates how vital institutional arrangements are in managing natural resources. Self-described environmentalists should read this book to see how many of the problems that concern them can actually get solved. The history in this book is made interesting through the application of economic concepts. This is not light reading, but it surely is interesting- for serious readers.
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