Do institutions for collective action evolve?

Abstract

In this paper I will provide an overview of our findings from studying irrigation systems in the field so that readers who are not familiar with our prior research gain at least an initial sense of these findings. I will provide a second short overview —this time of the institutional analysis and development (IAD) framework offering a general method for doing institutional analysis. I will then introduce the possibility of looking at the change of rules as an evolutionary process. The method for studying the evolution of rules will be based on the IAD framework and on our long-term study of rules related to irrigation systems. In the conclusion, I return to the question as to why it is important to authorize resource users’ relative autonomy in the development of their own rules and to learn from the resulting institutional diversity.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Readers who would like to gain an overview of the type of research undertaken at the Workshop over the years may wish to look at the 2005 special issue of the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization (vol. 57, no. 2) edited by Peter J. Boettke on “Polycentric Political Economy.”

  2. 2.

    Currently, there is considerable rebel activity in Nepal that is disrupting many activities especially in the countryside and creating many tragedies for Nepali farmers. The findings discussed in this paper are based on data, most of which was collected in earlier peaceful times.

  3. 3.

    Readers who wish to dig deeper are encouraged to read Lam (1998), Joshi et al. (2000), and Shivakoti and Ostrom (2001) and the extensive references cited therein.

  4. 4.

    See special issue, Policy Studies Journal 39(1) (2011).

  5. 5.

    Sue Crawford and I have worked hard over more than a decade to clarify the close link between these three concepts. We have developed a grammar that can be used to “parse” each of them. For example, each rule can be parsed into five components that specify: (1) the attributes of a participant (such as age, education, gender) affected by a rule; (2) the deontic modal verb of the rule, which include “may” (permitted), “must” (obliged), and “must not” (forbidden); (3) where the rule aims—at the set of potential actions or the outcomes of the situation; (4) the conditions specifying when and where an action or outcome is permitted, obligatory, or forbidden; and (5) the consequences specified for not following a rule (the “or else”) (see Crawford and Ostrom 2005).

  6. 6.

    Ganesh Shivakoti reported on visiting an irrigation system officially under “joint management” in Nepal only to find that the farmers did not know who had been selected to be on their council, whether they had ever met, and what kind of policies had been adopted.

  7. 7.

    When only a single governing authority makes decisions about rules for an entire region, policymakers have to experiment simultaneously with all of the common-pool resources within a jurisdiction with each policy change. And, once a change has been made and implemented, further changes will not be made rapidly. The process of experimentation will usually be slow, and information about results may be contradictory and difficult to interpret. Thus, an experiment that is based on erroneous data about one key structural variable or one false assumption about how actors will react, can lead to a very large disaster. In any design process where there is substantial probability of error, having redundant teams of designers has repeatedly been shown to have considerable advantage (see Landau 1969, 1973; Bendor 1985).

  8. 8.

    In a Roman-law country, the default conditions would be entirely different since Roman-law systems presume that most things are forbidden unless specifically permitted.

  9. 9.

    The proto rule statements for boundary, choice, and payoff rules are the rules that Tang (1992) identified as the most frequently observed rules in his meta-analysis of irrigation cases located in many different countries. The proto rule statements for the other rules are derived from extensive field research regarding irrigation systems in many countries—particularly Nepal. They are the rules that I have frequently encountered (see Joshi et al. 2000; Shivakoti and Ostrom 2001).

  10. 10.

    We have long relied on the symbols used in deontic logic for modal operators. For background, see Hilpinen (1981) and von Wright (1951); von Wright (1963).

  11. 11.

    The rules set for any one interaction situation are always affected by rules determined by larger regimes—such as the inheritance rules in force.

  12. 12.

    To keep this paper from growing exponentially, I will not discuss here their effort to constitute a new association and to establish a mechanism that can make collective-choice decisions regarding the rules that they will use in the future. One could be keeping an inventory of rules at a constitutional, collective choice, and operational level to keep track of the processes and changes involved.

  13. 13.

    Heterogeneity among resource users can lead to very substantial transaction costs in trying to find rules that most participants find fair and are willing to follow. Varughese and Ostrom (2001) found that when farmers with strong locational heterogeneity were able to devise unique rules for their use of a local forest, the heterogeneity did not lead to lowered performance. Of course, they would have paid somewhat higher transaction costs in working out rules that allowed some farmers to obtain wood based on labor inputs and other farmers to obtain wood based on monetary payments.

  14. 14.

    Several scholars have been studying customary law and multiple countries. Bosselman (2005) has been particularly concerned with what characteristics of the process of customary law lead to relatively resilient systems. Bosselman asks this question in Chap. 6 of a book with Peter Ørebech. He reviews a large number of cases and identifies five characteristics of those systems that he thinks have demonstrated a capacity to adapt in sustainable ways. These are:

    1. 1.

      Does the system have a good historical record, oral or written, of the way the system has worked in the past under different environmental conditions?

    1. 2.

      Is an effective procedural mechanism for making rule changes built into the system?

    2. 3.

      Does the system feed back the right information on current operations into the rule modification process?

    3. 4.

      Are the rules sufficiently finely detailed that they can be “tweaked” without wholesale revision?

    4. 5.

      Do the rules facilitate negotiation of modifications by providing for a balance of rights and responsibilities relating to a wide range of ecosystem functions? (Bosselman 2005, p. 176).

    In our effort to code rule change processes, we will add some of these questions to our coding forms as well as the seven characteristics that I have identified in the text.

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Correspondence to Elinor Ostrom.

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This paper draws sections from the annual Neale Wheeler Watson Lecture presented at the Nobel Museum, Stockholm, Sweden, April 12, 2008, and “Crafting Analytical Tools to Study Institutional Change” (with Xavier Basurto), 2011. I am appreciative of support from the National Science Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and a current project with David Sloan Wilson supported by the Templeton Foundation. Thanks also to the colleagues who have given me excellent feedback on earlier drafts—Sue Crawford, Nicolas Faysse, Robert Holahan, Marco Janssen, and Brian Steed—and to Patty Lezotte for all of her great spirit and editing skills.

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Ostrom, E. Do institutions for collective action evolve?. J Bioecon 16, 3–30 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10818-013-9154-8

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Keywords

  • Institutions
  • Institutional change
  • Rule diversity
  • Evolution
  • Irrigation systems