Sustaining the Commons
* Book: Sustaining the Commons. By John M. Anderies and Marco A. Janssen. Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity, 2013.
"The book is divided in five parts. The first part introduces the theoretical foundations of commons research, from social dilemmas to the IAD framework. The second one illustrates these foundations with the help of case studies. The third part focuses on human behaviour and presents findings from experimental research, both in the lab and in the field. The fourth section is centred on rules and on their “grammar”. The final part applies the framework to some “new commons” and presents current research challenges." (https://sustainingthecommons.asu.edu/reviews/)
1. David Bollier:
"For newcomers to the commons wishing to acquaint themselves with Elinor Ostrom’s work, it can be a hard slog. Her scholarly treatises, while often quite insightful, can be quite dense in delivering their hard research results and refined insights. It is a real pleasure, therefore, to greet Sustaining the Commons, a new undergraduate textbook that has just been published. The book provides a general overview of the intellectual framework, concepts and applications of Ostrom’s research on the commons.
Best of all, in a refreshing departure from most academic publishing, the authors of the 168-page book decided to make it available for free as a downloadable pdf file. Just go to the book’s website and blog, http://sustainingthecommons.asu.edu.
Sustaining the Commons is by John M. Anderies and Marco A. Janssen, both associate professors at Arizona State University and directors of the Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity, which is the publisher of the textbook. Both authors worked with Ostrom from 2000 until her death in 2012. Although Ostrom’s name is mostly associated with Indiana University, where she co-founded and ran the Workshop on Political Theory and Policy Analysis, Ostrom was also a part-time research professor at ASU from 2006-2012.
Anderies and Janssen taught a course at ASU on Ostrom’s work, with a special focus on her books Governing the Commons (1990) and Understanding Institutional Diversity (2005). Out of that teaching arose the idea for this book. Ostrom herself saw and approved of the first draft of the book in April 2012, shortly before her death.
The book is a lucid, logically presented introduction to the key concepts of Ostrom’s research. There are chapters on “defining institutions,” “action arenas and action situations,” and “social dilemmas.” There are also a series of case studies on the management of various types of common-pool resources – water, forests, domesticated animals – and a review of “design principles to sustain the commons.”
There are a number of chapters on human behavior as it is studied by social science. How do people make decisions about collective matters and how do they develop trust? How are these behaviors studied in the laboratory? What sorts of rules and social norms matter?
These are all elements of the Institutional Analysis and Development Framework, a standard research methodology for investigating commons regimes as they exist in diverse contexts. In essence, the IAD is a meta-theoretical framework that lets researchers assess diverse variables in commons from different disciplinary perspectives.
A final section on “applying the framework” looks at how Ostrom’s framework applies to public health, the digital commons and sport. It’s a useful exercise, but I confess that I found the chapter on digital commons a bit thin. For example, it didn’t adequately differentiate corporate-owned platforms for sharing (Facebook, Google) from commons-based ones (Wikipedia, free software). The authors also seem to swallow the film industry's propaganda line about copyright theft -- that stealing a DVD is the same as using online content without permission. (Anderies and Janssen: “To illegally obtain a music recording 40 years ago, it was necessary to walk into a record store and walk out with a vinyl disc! Again, before the Internet, stealing was a more personal affair—you had to actually see the victim.”) This begs the question of whether copyright actually does prohibit unauthorized uses -- the fair use doctrine, which authorizes re-use and copying, is routinely ignored by copyright industries. Nor does this framing consider whether copyright law should continue to be as extensive and long-lived as it is, at the expense of the commons.
Still, give some credit where it is due: Sustaining the Commons is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-No Derivatives license. Despite a few lapses, Sustaining the Commons is a welcome addition to the literature that provides a succinct, clear-headed introduction to Lin Ostrom’s formidable research." (http://bollier.org/blog/sustaining-commons-textbook-overview-ostroms-research)
2. Giangiacomo Bravo:
A real handbook for commons undergraduates: this is something I have waited for, for years! It is true that Rules, Games & Common-Pool Resources (Ostrom et al. 1994) already provides a beautiful introduction to the topic. However, that book is not an easy read, and many students (along with some colleagues) had a hard time going through its more theoretical parts. Sustaining the Commons does not share this problem. It is easy to understand, clear and fairly complete: from Hardin’s herders to the presentation of all major achievements of commons research.
The book is divided in five parts. The first part introduces the theoretical foundations of commons research, from social dilemmas to the IAD framework. The second one illustrates these foundations with the help of case studies. The third part focuses on human behaviour and presents findings from experimental research, both in the lab and in the field. The fourth section is centred on rules and on their “grammar”. The final part applies the framework to some “new commons” and presents current research challenges.
The book is full of enjoyable examples. Its constant attention to linking theoretical research to practical applications is praiseworthy. Although “traditional commons”, from pastures to water management, represent an important part of the book, a remarkable effort has been made to present examples closer to the daily experiences of the average student, ranging from public health to Wikipedia. This not only facilitates the reading but also helps to overcome the widespread view that commons are an old-fashioned topic. The reader is left with the strong feeling that commons lay at the core of many challenges of the contemporary world, which is not only true but also represents a fundamental message for students.
From this point of view, it is a shame that no specific part of the volume has been devoted to the global commons or, more generally, to large-scale ones. It is easy to understand why that is the case, since this particular subject is especially difficult to handle using the commons framework, as clearly discussed in the final chapter. However, the issue is just too important to be neglected, and many readers may be disappointed in not finding a comprehensive discussion of topics such as climate change or the loss of biodiversity at the global level.
A final remark concerns the constant attention given in the volume to linking institutional analysis with people’s behaviour. This is reflected by the authors’ choice to devote the whole third part to experimental research. Although case studies represent the core of commons research, the importance of experiments for theory development has been recognized by Ostrom herself (Ostrom 2006). The fact that Sustaining the Commons explicitly supports this view represents an important contribution in shaping a future generation of commons students that will be truly able to perform interdisciplinary studies and to choose among multiple methods in the design of their research." (https://sustainingthecommons.asu.edu/reviews/)
Source: Bravo, G., (2014). Anderies, John M. and Marco A. Janssen (2013). Sustaining the Commons. Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity, Arizona State University.. International Journal of the Commons. 8(1), pp.259–260. DOI: http://doi.org/10.18352/ijc.492