What’s missing from Ostrom? Plural rationality and the commons

Author: Benedict Singleton

Designing and maintaining common-pool resource (CPR) institutions (often referred to as ‘the commons’) has long been a concern of social science. In this body of work the name of Elinor Ostrom has loomed large. Since 1990, her eight design principles for CPR institutions have proven influential across numerous disciplines, in part, because of its rigorous use of empirical examples drawn from around the world and because it presents an alternative to pessimistic predictions that homo economicus cannot cooperate effectively around the earth’s natural resources (Ostrom 1990). This work is not without criticism, it has been argued that Ostrom’s model is unduly hostile to macro-level intervention; is based on an overly narrow conception of rationality; and the role of power within CPR institutions remains underappreciated. This blog article summarises a recent paper (Singleton 2017) in Environmental Politics that assesses the extent that the theory of sociocultural viability (cultural theory, for short) can ameliorate criticisms of the design principles. Cultural theory argues that institutions and institutional logics can be analysed utilising a fourfold typology – individualism, egalitarianism, hierarchical and fatalism. The case of Faroese whaling (grindadráp) is utilised as site for comparison as it has been analysed utilising both Ostrom’s design principles (Kerins 2010) and cultural theory (Singleton and Fielding 2017).

Taking the criticisms in turn, this article argues that cultural theory is less hostile to macro-level interventions through its requirement that interventions match the appropriate ‘style’ and ‘scale’ of an institution. “Thus the overall hierarchical management of marine resources in the Faroe Islands does not at present conflict with the egalitarian nature of grindadráp because they are conceived of at different social scales” (Singleton 2017). Similarly, the plural perspectives integral to cultural theory necessitate a broader notion of rationality than appears within the design principles. Rationality within grindadráp is highly contextual, dependent on material-social context. Thus the inherent ‘dividuality’ of Faroese people is rendered visible within cultural theory analysis. Finally, power is ever-present within cultural theory analysis, as representatives of all solidarities strive to impose ‘their’ boundaries around a situation. Power is conceived as emergent within the actions of competing representatives of different social solidarities. Currently within grindadráp it appears that few voices are being excluded. However, this is not always the situation, with inequalities between solidarities manifesting in the quality of deliberation and numerous political ecology cases, suggesting certain voices are being shut out. Indeed, on-going conflict around grindadráp may be silencing some voices (cf. Singleton 2016).

Grindadráp by Bjarni Mikkelsen

Within this analysis, grindadráp is considered to be a ‘successful’ CPR institution according to both theories as a body of long-lasting, seemingly ‘sustainable’ practices. However, this is based upon a different epistemological basis. Within Ostrom-inspired analysis the cooperative practices of grindadráp are presumed to be a product of complex, strategizing, bounded rational actors acting in their individual self-interest. Because the rules suit users the institution continues. However, examined through the lens of cultural theory grindadráp appears successful for two reasons. Firstly, the institutional logic of grindadráp fits the socio-natural context within which it takes place. It remains popular within Faroese society, despite only a minority participating, because it maintains an egalitarian (in the language of cultural theory) logic. This egalitarianism is self-reinforcing as food produced for non-monetary exchange underpins social relations. Grindadráp is not purely egalitarian however, and as one moves up the social scale it takes on aspects of hierarchy, matching modern Faroese understandings of the North Atlantic environment. Secondly, grindadráp is ‘messy’ (Ney and Verweij 2015), despite the dominance of egalitarian and hierarchical values voices from an individualistic perspective have been respected and accepted. Grindadráp’s success is thus understood as a product of the interactions of actors with plural rationalities, allowing it to adapt alongside the changing socio-material context of the Faroes, matching patterns of social relations within Faroese society.

This paper concludes by considering the extent that cultural theory can be used alongside Ostrom’s design principles. It highlights that not only are there practical advantages (they use similar forms of data) but also that Ostrom’s later writings, attempting to develop better models of the individual, seemed to moving towards the idea of multiple forms of rationality (cf. Ostrom 2000). The overall conclusion is optimistic, with calls to see whether the insights of cultural theory can be incorporated into Ostrom’s later work on socioecological systems. Furthermore, it suggests that “Ostrom’s move towards a typology of individuals leads to her theory effectively being subsumed by cultural theory – the design principles apply to ‘special cases’ within the wider framework of cultural theory” (Singleton 2017). The article likewise highlights how the individual is not separate from the environment, thus approaches that take a bounded individual as a simple starting point will struggle to understand behaviour in anything other than simplistic terms. Indeed, when policy is implemented based on such assumptions, it may prove a self-fulfilling prophecy as resource users’ subjectivities are transformed. Ostrom’s theory is unusual in some ways, methodological individualism is a starting point, however it is the form of institution that determines whether it is a success (cf. Stoker 2004:27). In providing a typology, cultural theory gives researchers a way of processing and understanding the different rationalities inherent to human worldviews. By abandoning a commitment to bounded individual rationality a path is opened for improved analytical approaches to CPRs.

Benedict Singleton is a postdoctoral researcher at Swedish Biodiversity Centre, Swedish University of Agricultural Science. His current research project focuses upon ‘scientific voluntourism’ and biodiversity. Email: benedict.singleton@slu.se

Singleton, B.E. 2017. What’s missing from Ostrom? Combining design principles with the theory of sociocultural viability. Environmental Politics. Online.


KERINS, S. 2010. A Thousand Years of Whaling, Edmonton, CCI Press.

NEY, S. & VERWEIJ, M. 2015. Messy institutions for wicked problems: How to generate clumsy solutions? Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, 33, 1679-1696.

OSTROM, E. 1990. Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action, Cambridge, Cambridge University press.

OSTROM, E. 2000. Collective Action and the Evolution of Social Norms. The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 14, 137-158.

SINGLETON, B. E. 2016. Love-iathan, the meat-whale and hidden people: ordering Faroese pilot whaling. Journal of Political Ecology, 23, 26-48.

SINGLETON, B. E. 2017. What’s missing from Ostrom? Combining design principles with the theory of sociocultural viability. Environmental Politics. Online.

SINGLETON, B. E. & FIELDING, R. 2017. Inclusive hunting: examining Faroese whaling using the theory of socio-cultural viability. Maritime Studies, 16.

STOKER, G. 2004. Designing institutions for governance in complex environments: Normative rational choice and cultural institutional theories explored and contrasted. Economic and Social Research Council Fellowship, Paper, 1-52.

Picture by: Bjarni Mikkelsen

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