Human Ecology

, Volume 47, Issue 3, pp 331–340 | Cite as

What Do We Mean by “the Commons?” An Examination of Conceptual Blurring Over Time

  • Ismael VaccaroEmail author
  • Oriol Beltran


Over the last 20 years the theoretical concept of the commons has come to be used not only in the field of natural resources management, but also as a key notion in domains as diverse as the digital economy and alternative politics. The wide use of the term has, however, led to a loss of specificity in the way it is used. Across several disciplines the commons is often used almost interchangeably with terms such as open access, common property, public domain, public goods, or common pool resources. We examine the reasons for the increasing conflation of these concepts over time. The field emerged as the result of the collaboration of two types of theoretical work: a) the study of common pool resources which focused on the characteristics of the resources in order to predict social behaviour, and b) research on the analysis of common property regimes that focused on the structural characteristics of the institutions devised to manage those resources. This difference in emphasis resulted in the development of two sets of concepts to refer to the same processes but from slightly different perspectives. With increasing interest in research focussed on the commons, these concepts are often used uncritically and their original designations are conflated across a suite of categories.


Common pool resources Open access Public goods Public property Common property 


Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Anthropology and McGill School of EnvironmentMcGill UniversityMontrealCanada
  2. 2.Department d’Antropologia Social, Facultat de Geografia i HistòriaUniversitat de BarcelonaBarcelonaSpain

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