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Addressing the alleged ahistoricity of Elinor Ostroms’ commons theory

At a seminar last December, I was told that Professor Elinor Ostrom’s commons theory (mostly outlined in her 1990 “Governing the Commons“, but also well deployed in her 2005 “Understanding Institutional Diversity” and 2010 coauthored book with Marco Janssen and Amy Poteete “Working Together“) was “ahistorical”. Obviously, I was totally taken aback. As someone who was trained by the Ostroms, and who learned from them directly, it was very clear to me that the scholars who were telling me this were not very aware of how institutional analysis from the Ostromian perspective works.

IASC 2013 Panels 1, 2 and lunch poster sessions

There are two main issues I have with this assertion of alleged ahistoricity of Ostrom’s commons theory. The first one is that the mere definition of institution (seen as the set of rules and norms that govern interactions across agents), implies that the creation of this set of rules and norms takes time. Institutions are created through the routinization and repetition of norms. This process takes place through history. Therefore, by definition, institutionalism (and in particular historical institutionalism) IS historical. Learning how institutions evolve (as seen through the work of Kathleen Thelen, for example) requires us to understand the historical processes that take place to get from where we have been to where we are right now(***).

The second issue is that the actual temporal timeline within which the Ostromian perspective has been applied (from the 1960s through the 1990s all the way to the mid 2010s) is relatively recent. This doesn’t mean that you can’ t apply current theories to historical commons (see, for example, the work of Tine De Moor and Chris Short, as well as Jose Miguel Lana Berasain et al). I think there is a badly misunderstood idea among some Mexican social scientists that the Mexican agrarian reform and land tenure patterns were so unique that they could not possibly be analyzed through the relatively recent theoretical perspectives of a commons.

Gibsons (Gibsons Landing, Sunshine Coast)

I think that most scholars who aren’t really familiar with IAD or SES argue that it provides a snapshot of a social and ecological system, where this “instant picture” is devoid of any historical context. I actually disagree, simply because of how institutions are crafted and created through time. Moreover, within the system’s characteristics’ boxes you need to provide as much context about the system as possible. This context IS historical, and thus it’s important that we remember that this automatically implies that the framework in and of itself can be used through time and in a rather dynamic form.

I think it is important to clear up the alleged ahistoricity of commons theory because not doing so leaves a lot of room for misunderstandings. In this post, I tried to make this point in a very brief form, but I would strongly recommend that those interested in commons and history look at the works I’ve linked to above.

(***) – I am grateful to Dr. Dan Cole, from Indiana University, for making this point over an email exchange we had.

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