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Common Pool Resource (CPR) Theory

Theories, as opposed to frameworks, establish more specific relationships among the variables identified in the research framework.  Much of the theoretical and empirical work within the IAD framework has occurred under the rubric of common-pool resource (CPR) theory.  The theory of Common Pool Resources (CPR) helps researchers understand both why individuals engage in collective action arrangements to devise institutions to cope with CPR problems, as well as what types of rules make such institutions successful (Ostrom, 1990, xv).

In assessing the conditions that foster collective action around common pool resources, scholars have identified variables that have both built upon and contributed to the IAD development.  For instance, the biophysical conditions that are relevant in fostering collective action include whether the resource can be improved, whether information is available, the predictability of resource flows and its spatial extent (Schlager, 2004).  Additionally, CPR scholars have identified the characteristics of the rules governing CPR settings (or “design principles”) that are associated with long-enduring and robust resource governance –National Research Council 1986; Ostrom 1990; Ostrom, Gardner and Walker 1994; Baland and Platteau 1996; Ostrom 2001). The design principles are largely grounded in Ostrom’s seminal work Governing the Commons (1990) include factors such as clearly defined boundaries of CPR institutions around the users and resources.  

While CPR theory is one of the most widely applied theories under the IAD framework, other theories that have been studied and applied under the IAD framework, include theories of local public economies, international development, and democratic governance.  In addition, Ostrom and colleagues have begun to blend many of the lessons from CPR studies along with the IAD framework to develop a new framework for studying “social-ecological” systems (SES’s).  Ostrom’s overview of the SES framework was recently published in Science (Ostrom 2009).

The policy tools and processes for protecting common pool resources, such as fisheries, water, grazing lands, and forests, have been of interest to many policy scholars, particularly since the publication of Garrett Hardin’s 1968 article in Science outlining the “tragedy of the commons”.  In Hardin’s article, he foresaw the overuse and degradation of CPRs as a likely outcome of human use of these resources, particularly in light of the increasing demand for these resources under growing populations, unless policymakers intervene to regulate or privatize these resources. 

Over twenty years later, Elinor Ostrom’s seminal book Governing the Commons (1990) brought together evidence from long enduring, locally managed, common pool resource settings from around the world to show that Hardin’s assumptions were, in many cases, off-base.  In fact, many communities that use common pool resources have been able to avert the “tragedy of the commons” and find ways to effectively self-govern these resources without intervention from external authorities or privatizing the commons.  One of the key theoretical contributions of this work was to identify common institutional “design principles” of these successful self-governing CPR institutions, which many other researchers have since tested and applied in a variety of CPR settings around the world (National Research Council 1986; Schlager 1990; Tang 1992; Ostrom, Gardner and Walker 1994; Baland and Platteau 1996; Ostrom 2001). 

While the CPR design principles are a key element of CPR theory, of interest to many policy process scholars is the theory of collective action around self-governing CPRs that was also articulated in Governing the Commons.  In studying the institutions that resource users devised to manage CPRs, Ostrom and others have found that a number of common conditions – tied to both the nature of the resource and resource users – that can help explain the emergence of self-governing institutions for resource management.  For instance, the conditions of the resource that have been found to be associated with the establishment of CPR institutions include: the feasibility of improving the resource, available information about the resource, predictability of resource flows, and relatively small spatial extent of the resource.  The characteristics of resource users found where self-governing CPR institutions have been devised include: the majority of appropriators dependent on the resource system, a shared understanding of the resource system, a long-term view of CPR benefits, trust and norms of reciprocity, autonomy to organize, and prior organizational experience and leadership among the community. 

Many researchers of CPR institutions have further articulated and refined the theory.  For instance, Blomquist (1992) has considered how social capital supports collective action around groundwater management in Southern California (e.g. see Blomquist 1992).  Other scholars have sought to refine the relationships between some of the key variables underlying CPR theory, such as the effects of group size on participation in collective choice activities, or the effects of economic and social heterogeneities on rule making and rule following (Tang 1992; Agrawal 1998; Lam 1998; Hackett, Schlager, & Walker, 1992; Taylor and Singleton, 1993; Varughese and Ostrom, 1998).  Schlager and Heikkila (2009) have begun to explore how collective choice processes that govern CPRs compare in resolving the conflicts that can emerge among CPR users over time.

The extensive body of CPR management theory in 2004 was compiled in an edited volume titled The Drama of the Commons.  In this book, scholars put forth the 21st century approaches to CPR theory and research. For instance, given that much of the empirical work in this field has focused on locally-managed, or small-scale common-pool resources, a few scholars of common-pool resource institutions recently have begun to acknowledge the importance of studying cross-scale institutional linkages (Berkes 2002; Stern et. al. 2002; Young 2002).  While research is being developed to better understand these linkages, the complexity of the policy processes that move beyond small scales and interact with larger governance institutions, as well as larger resource and social environments, may require moving beyond and advancing CPR theory.   Recent work by Ostrom, Janssen and others looking at social-ecological systems is one approach.  Currently this work on SES’s builds upon CPR theory and its relationship to the IAD to offer a framework to begin to more clearly assess the human-environmental relationships and interactions in such complex decision arenas.  But much work remains… | Physical Address: 1380 Lawrence St., Ste. 500  Denver, CO  80204 | Mailing Address: University of Colorado Denver, SPA, Campus Box 142, P.O. Box 173364, Denver, CO 80217-3364 | ph: 303.315.2228 | fax: 303.315.2229 | SPA Website Feedback

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