PGS Authors: Elinor Ostrom, Amy R. Poteete, and Marco A. Janssen reflect on Working Together

In this exclusive Princeton Global Science article, Elinor Ostrom, Marco A. Janssen, and Amy R. Poteete reflect on the research that they conducted prior to writing Working Together: Collective Action, the Commons, and Multiple Methods in Practice. What becomes apparent is that Working Together is an essential text for scientists across a broad spectrum of disciplines precisely because it addresses research issues that cross disciplinary boundaries. Nobel Prize-winning economist Kenneth J. Arrow calls the book, “a landmark work which crosses boundaries in the social sciences.”

He that is good with a hammer tends to think everything is a nail.

Abraham Maslow

Working Together examines how different methods have promoted various theoretical developments related to collective action and the commons since the mid 1980s, and demonstrates the importance of cross-fertilization involving multimethod research across traditional disciplinary boundaries. The conventional theory in the 1980s argued that actors who share common resources are trapped in a state of overexploitation unless the common resource is privatized or put under control of the government. The research program on the commons focused initially on bringing together individual case studies in a common data base that provided evidence of many cases that contrasted conventional theory. These cases showed how communities are able to self organize ingenious institutional arrangements to maintain common resources for hundreds of years. Collaborative research projects were set up to derive more systematic information by using the same research protocol in many case studies.

The increasing efforts devoted to studying social-ecological systems (SESs) is a challenging endeavor because SESs feature complex temporal and spatial dynamics at multiple levels and scales. No one approach or method seems to be best suited to this inquiry. Scholars are typically trained in one or at best a few research methodologies. Each of these methodologies has limitations. Earlier battles between rival methods have largely given way to the recognition of trade-offs and complementarities across methods and a growing interest in multiple method research. In order to benefit from different insights from combining different methods in research projects, scholars need to be aware of the pros and cons of various methods. Furthermore, scholars need to share research findings in a more systematic way such that insights are accumulated and the importance of contextual variables can be examined across a large number of case studies. In the book, we provide numerous examples of collaborative, multimethod research related to collective action and the commons. We examine the pros and cons of case studies, meta-analyses, large-N field research, experiments and modeling, and empirically grounded agent-based models, and consider how these methods contribute to research on collective action for the management of natural resources.

The field research not only challenged conventional theory, they also provided hypotheses on mechanisms that are important for self-governance to occur. Observations from field research inspired novel experimental work in the field and the laboratory that confirmed that communication and costly punishment are effective mechanisms to increase cooperation in small groups. Agent-based models have subsequently demonstrated that these results are robust for a wide spectrum of assumptions.

Using these findings, we outline a revised theory of collective action that includes three elements: individual decision making, microsituational conditions, and features of the broader social-ecological context. This new theoretical framework can act as a starting point for future collaborative effort to study collective action of social-ecological systems.

In the book, we also look at why cross-fertilization is difficult to achieve, and show ways to overcome these challenges through collaboration. The collective action problem among scholarly research can be traced back to academic incentives that influence and constrain how research is conducted. In Working Together a number of practical solutions for researchers and students across a spectrum of disciplines are provided.

  • You can learn more about Elinor Ostrom, cowinner of 2009 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, via this Q&A.