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Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action.

Elinor Ostrom's book is based on exhaustive, detailed, and original research dealing with the management of water as a resource distinguished by use and scale of the resource. It is a scientifically grounded examination of the effects of institutions to "cope" with the "common property resource" (CPR) problem. Ostrom's book is part of a series of Cambridge University Press books on the political economy of institutions and decisions. The focus of the series is on the central questions: (1) how do institutions evolve in response to individual incentives, strategies, and choices?; and (2) how do institutions affect the performance of political and economic systems'?

The book is timely, well-written, and a useful addition to our understanding of the challenges of natural resource management. It is based on case studies which attempt to identify the elements that lead to the survivorship over time of water management institutions. Case studies incorporating extended fieldwork were selected using the following criteria: (1) the structure of the resource management system; (2) the attributes and behavior of the appropriators (defined as those who obtain the benefits) of the CPR; (3) the rules that the appropriators were using; and (4) the outcome resulting from the behavior of the appropriators.

Building on the author's 40 years of academic and applied work with institutional design, this book reports the results of a project involving the development of a structured coding form that enabled the transformation of in depth qualitative data into a data base amenable to quantitative analysis. The book is disciplined by Ostrom's conviction that knowledge accrues by the continual process of moving "back and forth" from empirical observation to serious efforts of theoretical formulation. The author describes the book as a "progress report" for an ongoing research effort to refine concepts, develop models, design instruments and experiments, and search for better variables to capture the information under review. This book meets all of the author's objectives and provides a wealth of unique perspectives on resource management. For example, the author's analysis adds the wider perspectives of credibility, commitment, mutualities, sharing, and the process of institutional change in the study of the CPR problem.

The book is divided into six chapters with an exhaustive reference section of 25 pages at the end of the book. Chapter 1, "Reflections on the Commons," provides a useful overview of the models of the commons. The challenge of CPR is outlined as to develop theories that are based on realistic assessments of human capabilities in dealing with situations sharing some aspects of the tragedy of the commons, prisoner's dilemma, and the logic of collection action. A detailed description of the different intellectual perspectives on this problem is presented and used to evaluate the policy prescriptions.

Chapter 2, "An Institutional Approach to the Study of Self-organization and Self-govenance in CPR Situations," focuses on the question of how to organize property rights to avoid the adverse outcomes of independent action while taking advantage of the benefits of collection action. Chapter 3, "Analyzing Long-enduring, Self-organized, and Self-governed CPRs," examines the field setting of institutions that have evolved to manage CPRs, appropriator behavior in those systems, and the monitoring rules that have developed. The cases discussed in this chapter provide insight regarding how groups of self-organized appropriators solve the problem of commitment and self-monitoring.

Chapter 4, "Analyzing Institutional Change," discusses the origins of institutions that have evolved to manage groundwater basins in the Los Angeles area. It examines the various procedures that govern changing the rules, and evaluates the stability and efficiency of these management rules. Chapter 5, "Analyzing Institutional Failures and Fragilities," provides useful insight by discussing the reasons for failure and the weaknesses of fisheries and groundwater management systems considered to have achieved limited success. Chapter 6, "A Framework for Analysis of Self-organizing and Self-governing CPRs," outlines the deficiencies of current theories of collective action and attempts to develop relevant theories for policy analysis of CPR.

In conclusion, this book is useful for undergraduate and graduate students as well as field practitioners interested in the development of scientifically based research. It provides a firm grounding in the theoretical underpinnings that should guide empirical investigations. A major contribution of the book is its emphasis on the development of methodology to systematically sift through institutions to find those attributes that perform well within the complex incentives of natural resource management. She concludes with a challenge to scholars in the social sciences to "appreciate the analytical power" of Hobbes, Montesquieu, Hume, Smith, Madison, Hamilton, Tocqueville while also calling for an interdisciplinary approach which takes advantage of the "theoretically informed empirical inquiries in both laboratory and field settings." Ostrom offers a unique source of information on the realities of resource management institutions coupled with the challenge for continued examination of institutions in order to develop better ways to address the CPR challenge.
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Author:Brady, Gordon L.
Publication:Southern Economic Journal
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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