ABSTRACT

The question of the commons Arguably, the most influential perspective on the ‘commons’ has been the institutional approach to managing ‘common-pool resources’ (CPR), a field of research that garnered Elinor Ostrom, one of its best-known proponents, a Nobel prize in 2008 (Acheson and McCay 1990; Hanna et al. 1996; Ostrom and Schlager 1992; Ostrom 2000). In the introduction to her seminal text, Governing the Commons, Ostrom makes it clear where the motivation for researching different rules, norms and institutions for collective action lay: in the power of certain dominant metaphors for explaining the causes of resource degradation and the limited choice of management strategies that emerged from such explanations.1 Ostrom’s great contribution is in challenging such metaphors. Rather than being helpless in the face of resource problems, Ostrom describes how individuals in very different parts of the world have come together to collectively devise and implement rules that have proven successful in terms of sustainably managing CPR, such as forests, fisheries and land. Based on these examples, certain principles and conditions favourable for producing institutions of community-managed resources have been identified and incorporated into management policies; throughout the 1990s and 2000s, models of community-based resource management have proliferated as an important policy instrument for the governance of natural resources (Agrawal 2003; Leach 2008; Li 2006).