How far does evolution take us? Comment on Elinor Ostrom’s: do institutions for collective action evolve?


Elinor Ostrom’s article in this issue suggests that institutions for collective action evolve, highlights parallels between biological and institutional evolution, and describes an hypothetical example of institutional evolution related to an irrigation system. The article is provocative but not definitive in that it does not demonstrate that evolution is more than a metaphor for institutional change and that institutions actually evolve. This commentary unpacks the concept of evolutionary change and evaluates how well various aspects of institutional change fit within this model of change. The analysis supports Ostrom’s contention that evolution is not just a metaphor for institutional change, but also suggests that not all institutional change can be classified as evolutionary. The commentary highlights the need for further conceptual and theoretical development to delineate various forms and processes of institutional change, distinguish between evolutionary and non-evolutionary change, and draw out the consequences of various forms of change.

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  1. 1.

    For reviews of the most common types, see Hall and Taylor (1996); Immergut (1998), and Schmidt (2008).

  2. 2.

    Ostrom does recognize the role of the state in either facilitating or hindering the development and survival of institutions developed by local communities. See, for example, her treatment of this issue in the conclusion of Ostrom (1990).

  3. 3.

    Thelen and colleagues present these ideas in slightly different formulations across the publications cited. My discussion represents a synthesis.


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I gratefully acknowledge the support of Concordia University, Montreal, and the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

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Correspondence to Amy R. Poteete.

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Poteete, A.R. How far does evolution take us? Comment on Elinor Ostrom’s: do institutions for collective action evolve?. J Bioecon 16, 91–98 (2014).

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  • Collective action
  • Evolution
  • Institutions
  • Institutional change
  • Elinor Ostrom

JEL Classifications

  • D710
  • Q200