Collective Action Issue: Supplementary Information

Contributors from the Ostrom Workshop collaborated in creating supplementary information to assist readers with some of the technical language, basic tools, and key concepts they work with. They include the following four sections:

For further information contact either Seth Frey at or Ryan Conway 


ACTION SITUATION is the "black box" where policy choices are made. The action situation is the core component of the IAD Framework, in which individuals (acting on their own or as agents of organizations) observe information, select actions, engage in patterns of interaction, and realize outcomes from their interaction. Inputs include the contextual factors that encompass all aspects of the social, cultural, institutional, and physical environment that set the context within which an action situation is situated. Its framework recognizes


  in *positions*

    who must decide among diverse *actions*

      in light of the *information*

        they possess about how actions are * linked*

          to potential *outcomes*

            their *costs* and *benefits*.



Diagram of an Action Situation[1]

COLLECTIVE ACTION PROBLEM is a generic way of saying that, in order to achieve a benefit for all the members of a group, some portion of these people must accept a risk of paying extra for that benefit, which will be shared by everyone. Generally, people are wary of paying for more than what they gain, so people seek to pay as little as possible to still maintain the same gains. If these people are unable to know how much their fellows will contribute, this risk of contributing something and receiving nothing makes people reluctant to contribute at all. Thus, in situations where everyone can benefit if they each make a contribution, certain risks ? like not knowing who else will contribute or like contributing more than you receive ? make it difficult for people to work together for a shared goal.

COLLECTIVE IDEATION PROBLEM is a problem of finding and agreeing on common definitions, knowledge, and understandings of a situation. If members of a group each see the same problem in a different way, they might pursue differing or conflicting goals. If they share an idea of what a problem is ? like agreeing on its major features and how they might be dealt with - it is easier to establish complementary goals and, hence, easier to achieve a goal that is in the benefit of the whole group. This idea is somewhat similar to Tomatillo?s ?shared intentionality? in that it helps people to come together and collectively act.

COMMON POOL RESOURCES (CPRs) are resources in which

(a) consumption by one limits consumption by another, and

(b) it is difficult to exclude people from.

More briefly, CPRs are resources that are limited and hard to manage with private property rights. The lobster fisheries described in Monique Coombs article of this issue are a classic example of a common-pool resource. Lobster are a limited resource, and it is difficult to keep them from being overharvested.

The term commons is informally used to refer to public goods, common pool resources, or any area with uncertain property rights. For analytical purposes it is necessary to be more specific.

THE EIGHT (8) DESIGN PRINCIPLES for sustainable management of common-pool resources: See II. The Eight Design Principles below.

FREE RIDING, or free loading, is consuming a resource without paying costs associated with its management. Many problems of collective action are problems with free riders.

GRAMMAR OF INSTITUTIONS the Workshop's effort to develop a common framework for understanding strategies, norms, and rules as different types of institutional statements, which are governed by an underlying grammatical structure. Its parts, remembered by the pneumonic ADICO, are defined by Crawford and Ostrom (1995).

  • Attributes: specifies to whom a strategy, norm or rule applies.
  • Deontics: specifies how an action must, must not, or may be done.
  • Aims: specifies the actions toward which Deontics apply.
  • Conditions: specifies when, where, and how a strategy, norm or rule applies.
  • "Or Else?": specifies agreed-upon, specific punishments to be applied when a person acts in        violation of the agreed-upon definitions of the other four parts.
  • Institutional Statement: some valid combination of the ADICO building blocks.
  • Shared Strategy: Actors all have the same knowledge of the Attributes, Aims, and Conditions of a situation. Given that people weigh costs and benefits somewhat similarly, the actors are assumed to make the same exact choices, because they all have the same knowledge of a situation.
  • Norm: Actors share knowledge of the Attributes, Deontics, Aims, and Conditions of a situation, but they do not agree upon specific punishments to apply if someone disobeys the Deontic (the building block that specifies what they may, must or must not do).
  • Rule: Actors share knowledge of the Attributes, Deontics, Aims, and Conditions of a situation and they agree upon a specific punishment to apply to someone who disobeys the Deontic.

THE INSTITUTIONAL ANALYSIS AND DEVELOPMENT (IAD) FRAMEWORK encapsulates the collective efforts of this intellectual community to understand the ways in which institutions operate and change over time. The IAD framework assigns all relevant explanatory factors and variables to categories and locates these categories within a foundational structure of logical relationships. It consists of action situations (see above in this InfoBox) and multiple levels of analysis in the IAD (see the two figures below).


*Multiple Levels of Analysis in the IAD[2]




The IAD Levels of Analysis, Animated[3]

POLYCENTRICITY is a system of governance in which authorities from overlapping jurisdictions (or centers of authority) interact to determine the conditions under which these authorities, as well as the citizens subject to these jurisdictional units, are authorized to act as well as the constraints put upon their activities for public purposes.

PUBLIC GOODS and common-pool resources are the two kinds of resources associated with collective action problems. Public goods are not usually at risk of overharvesting, like common-pool resources, but they must be provisioned and free riders are hard to exclude. In an office kitchenette, coffee may be a public good. If employees have arranged to pool money for coffee and supplies, a free rider would drink coffee without contributing.

SES (SOCIAL-ECOLOGICAL SYSTEMS) FRAMEWORK is an ongoing effort to revise the IAD framework so as to give equal attention to the biophysical and ecological foundations of institutional systems. In its present form, it exists as a classification system that outlines all the major variables people must keep in mind when managing both group behavior and natural resources. If an ecological system contains more than one community or more than one resource, the SES provides a way to organize all of the overlapping variables involved. In principle, one can use the IAD framework to analyze each community and resource in an ecological system, separately and/or simultaneously. (See the two SES diagrams and table below.)




*Two Diagrams of the SES framework[4]




Variables in the SES[5]


SOCIAL DILEMMAS are tricky situations wherein a group shares a problem, but if they each try to solve a problem with only their own, personal interest in mind, the problem becomes worse for everyone. The "tragedy of the commons" is an example of a social dilemma, where the interests of the collective are harmed in pursuit of individual interest.

TRAGEDY OF THE COMMONS: In an open access CPR with no governance arrangements in operation, appropriators will tend to over-exploit the resource and may destroy it entirely.

DRAMA OF THE COMMONS, or struggle of the commons are more appropriate phrases that encompass the possibility that positive or negative outcomes may occur under different circumstances and practices.


THE WORKSHOP TOOLKIT is shorthand for talking about the collection of theories, analytical frameworks, and models that the Ostroms and fellow Workshoppers have developed over the years. These could be seen as a collection of tools, because each is both chosen and used carefully, when trying to diagnose and understand collective action situations. Examples include: the grammar of institutions, the IAD framework, and the SES framework. With a diversity of scholars and practitioners implementing these tools, each has continued to develop through revision, reframing, and application to new situations. It is helpful to note that these tools have emerged from as well as created a body of vocabulary, wherein colloquial words take on highly specified and context-dependent meanings. Examples of this include: CPRs, commons, institutions, norms, and social dilemmas, all of which are explained in separate InfoBoxes.



The full name is Design Principles for Sustainable Management of Common-Pool Resources. They are perhaps better described as good practices: characteristics of common-pool resource management systems that have been observed to be regularly associated with the long-term sustainability of that system. Not all principles need to be realized in all circumstances, but the prospects for sustainable governance tend to increase when more of these principles are in place. The design principles are still an area of research, but they are maturing.

1A User boundaries:
Clear boundaries between legitimate users and nonusers must be clearly defined.

1B Resource boundaries:
Clear boundaries are present that define a resource system and separate it from the larger biophysical environment.

2A Congruence with local conditions:
Appropriation and provision rules are congruent with local social and environmental conditions.

2B Appropriation and provision:
The benefits obtained by users from a common-pool resource (CPR), as determined by appropriation rules, are proportional to the amount of inputs required in the form of labor, material, or money, as determined by provision rules.

3 Collective-choice arrangements:
Most individuals affected by the operational rules can participate in modifying the operational rules.

4A Monitoring users:
Monitors who are accountable to the users monitor the appropriation and provision levels of the users.

4B Monitoring the resource:
Monitors who are accountable to the users monitor the condition of the resource.

5 Graduated sanctions:
Appropriators who violate operational rules are likely to be assessed graduated sanctions (depending on the seriousness and the context of the offense) by other appropriators, by officials accountable to the appropriators, or by both.

6 Conflict-resolution mechanisms:
Appropriators and their officials have rapid access to low-cost local arenas to resolve conflicts among appropriators or between appropriators and officials.

7 Minimal recognition of rights to organize:
The rights of appropriators to devise their own institutions are not challenged by external governmental authorities.

8 Nested enterprises:
Appropriation, provision, monitoring, enforcement, conflict resolution, and governance activities are organized in multiple layers of nested enterprises.

(From Cox, M., & Arnold, G. (2010). A review of design principles for community-based natural resource management. Ecology and Society.




  • If you read nothing else:  Governing the Commons, an early, foundational collection of papers laying out the basic themes of the Ostrom Workshop. Academic but readable. 280 pages.  Ostrom, E. (1991). Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge University Press.
  • If you watch nothing else: Elinor Ostrom's Nobel Prize Lecture
    • Also, Elinor Ostrom and the Ostrom Workshop: A published digest of Elinor Ostrom's Nobel talk.
  • Ostrom, E. (2010). "Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems." American Economic Review 100(3): 641-672.
  • Ostrom, E. (2010). "A Long Polycentric Journey." Annual Review of Political Science 13(1): 1-23.  A personal account of Elinor Ostrom's struggle to succeed as a woman in academia in the 1950s and 1960s, and the ways in which her thinking deviated from that of other political scientists in the 1970s. It is also a brief history of Indiana University's Workshop on Political Theory and Policy and Analysis.
  • Jagger, P., & Bauer, J. (2009). Artisans of political theory and empirical inquiry: Thirty-Five Years of Scholarship at the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis.


  • Poteete, A., Janssen, M., & Ostrom, E. (2010). Working Together: Collective Action, the Commons, and Multiple Methods in Practice. Princeton University Press, 1?541.  400 page book on the goals and accomplishments of the Ostrom Workshop, integrating field study, laboratory experiment, computer simulation, meta-analysis, and other research methods into theory. The book is a closer treatment suitable for insider and also outsider audiences.
  • Aligica, P. D., & Boettke, P. J. (2009). Challenging institutional analysis and development: the Bloomington school. the Bloomington school (p. 168). Routledge.  A short book about the Ostrom Workshop, in the contexts of academic political theory and philosophy, economic history, and sociology.


  • Ostrom, E. (1999). Coping with tragedies of the commons. Annual review of political science.  This is one of Ostrom's earlier works that seeks to address the fallacies behind the assumption that users of a local resource held in common will end up overexploiting that resource and create the proverbial "tragedy of the commons." This paper very clearly sets out the policy puzzle at hand, which is why some local communities actually manage their resource successfully, and why policy prescriptions that mandate state or market control of common pool resources might - contrary to traditional thought in policy circles - end up in unsuccessful management of these resources.
  • Ostrom, E. (2007). A diagnostic approach for going beyond panaceas. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(39), 15181.  A brief, high-level introduction to SES (Social-Ecological Systems) Framework, with citations for more detailed reading. About 8 pages.
  • Cox, M., & Arnold, G. (2010). A review of design principles for community-based natural resource management. Ecology and Society.  A recent revision of the Design Principles. (See II. The Eight Design Principles above.)
  • Ostrom, E., Burger, J., Field, C., & Norgaard, R. (1999). Revisiting the commons: local lessons, global challenges. Science.  his paper re-examines cases of local communities having successfully managed their local resources, and reviews the governance lessons learnt from the study of these cases over the years. It then tries to ask if these types of governance regimes can be scaled up to address resource management problems at the global or international scale. It lays out some of the unique challenges of managing resources held in common by the global - rather than local- community and examines which lessons can be most applicable to this large scale context.
  • Elinor, O. (1998). A behavioral approach to the rational choice theory of collective action. American Political Science Review.  his paper tries to link our understanding of collective action to the theories of individual and collective behavior, including theories of how individuals make choices and decisions. Many of the theories and models of collective action are predicated upon very specific assumptions of how individuals behave in social and economic contexts, but these assumptions have not necessarily been examined thoroughly within the particular context of collective action problems. This paper goes into the detail of these behavioral theories, and also addresses the gaps that still remain.
  • Crawford, S. and E. Ostrom (1995). "A Grammar of Institutions." American Political Science Review 89(3): 582-600.  Details on the institutional grammar and action situations. About 30 academic pages. Also, see Ryan Conway's piece in this issue.
  • McGinnis, Michael D. (2011) An Introduction to IAD and the Language of the Ostrom Workshop.  A 20-page glossary to the large vocabulary of the Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) Framework, with citations for more detailed reading

SOME IMPORTANT CASE STUDIES that have been influential in the development of Workshop themes:

  • Netting, R. M. (1981). Balancing on an Alp, Cambridge University Press.
  • Acheson, J. M. (1988). The Lobster Gangs of Maine. Lebanon, NH, University Press of New England.
  • Lansing, S. J. (2006). Perfect Order: Recognizing Complexity in Bali. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press.
  • Wade, R. (1988). Village Republics: Economic Conditions for Collective Action in South India. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  • Blomquist, W. A. (1992). Dividing the waters : governing groundwater in Southern California. San Francisco, Calif.; Lanham, Md., ICS Press




[1] Ostrom, Lin. 2005. Understanding Institutional Diversity. Princeton University Press: 189.


[2] Agrawal, Arun and Elinor Ostrom. 1999. Collective Action, Property Rights, and Devolution of Forest and Protected Area Management. Posted:


[3] Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis Web-Page:


[4] Ostrom, Elinor. 2009. "A General Framework for Analyzing Sustainability of Social-Ecological

Systems." Science 325(5939) (24 July): 419-422. 

Ostrom, Elinor. 2007. ?A Diagnostic Approach for Going Beyond Panaceas.? PNAS 104(39) (September 25): 15181-15187.

[5] Ibid.

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