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Design Principles Are Not Blue Prints, but Are They Robust?

A Meta-Analysis of 112 Studies

Michael Cox, Gwen Arnold, and Sergio Villamayor Tomas

October 2009, English

Scholars in the social sciences are only recently recognizing and developing appropriate analytical tools to understand complex systems. The central problem is the extremely large number of variables, and their interactions, that affect how human systems operate at multiple levels. This complexity increases when social systems interact with natural systems. An example of this is the management of common-pool resources such as forests or fisheries by communities of users. Until the last several decades, many scholars have presumed that the users of such resources could not self-organize to manage that resource, and often recommended the imposition of either of two idealized property regimes—government or private ownership.

In 1985, the National Research Council established a research committee to examine the problems facing the users of common-pool resources and brought together scholars from a wide diversity of disciplines to review the existing empirical evidence about common-pool resources and the impact of diverse governance arrangements. The NRC report (1986) argued that the complexity of the diverse systems used to manage common-pool resources in the field had confused scholars into thinking that chaos prevailed unless simple government or private property systems were imposed.

In light of the NRC’s report, colleagues at the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University created a database to record key information from the growing number of case studies found in the literature related to how self-organized regimes managed common-pool resources. A core question pursued by the group was, What type of rules appeared to be most successful in sustaining the productive use of common-pool resources?

As a primary part of this effort Elinor Ostrom tried hard, but unsuccessfully, to find sets of rules that consistently enabled the sustainable management of a resource over time. It did appear that some common attributes were shared by the long surviving common-pool resource systems, but these were not in the form of specific institutional rules such as those propounded in the literature. Ostrom ultimately turned to asking whether any broad “principles” existed that appeared to characterize the sustainable systems. In Governing the Commons (1990), she posited a set of eight very general design principles that stipulated the efficacy of multiple types of rules and sets of rules.

The primary role of the design principles is to explain under what conditions trust and reciprocity can be built and maintained in order to sustain collective action in the face of collective action problems posed by common-pool resources. Given that many research papers have been written about the design principles since 1990, it seemed appropriate to conduct a meta-analysis of those studies to document their findings, and evaluate the robustness of the principles.

This paper has attempted to synthesize a surprisingly large number of studies that have been undertaken regarding the design principles that Ostrom originally formulated. The most trenchant critiques were theoretical, and not empirical. There was not one study we found that was moderately or strongly negative on the design principles based on empirical evidence of their presence or absence in a particular case or set of cases. This does not mean that they are complete, or that other factors such as the size of user groups or different types of heterogeneity within them, or the type of governmental regime they operate within, are not important. These factors likely have interaction effects with local institutional arrangements that in part determine the efficacy of these arrangements. Similarly, the efficacy of one principle may be contingent on the presence or absence of another.

As such, a probabilistic, rather than a deterministic, interpretation of the design principles is warranted. Likewise, we remain uncertain as to whether or not the principles may apply to systems at a variety of scales. Ultimately, however, the design principles are robust to empirical testing via our meta-analysis of 112 studies. In sum, future research will be needed to further disentangle these components and their interaction effects both within and across multiple environmental and social scales.