Book club: "Governing the Commons - Elinor Ostrom"

@icidasset, @chadkoh and I have expressed interested in reading Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, Elinor Ostrom, 1990 together.

We’re looking at a slow reading pace - a weekly (biweekly?) meeting discussing a single chapter.

Anyone else is of course also welcome to join :slight_smile:


Breakdown is this:


So if we did weekly it would be a commitment of reading about 25-45 pages a week and we would be done in 6 weeks. We could do weekly meetings, or just post our thoughts here each week and maybe do a halfway through checkin, with a final meeting…

Also, should this be more open? Like invite others from other WGs or even just do it completely in the open?

I’d be down for that, just didn’t want to do it yet, unless everyone is on board (@icidasset ?). We can always flip the switch.

Reading 25-45 pages a week is doable for me, but more like on the upper end.

I’d love to do live meetings, but weekly would be a bit much. So perhaps a half-way and final meeting sound like great ideas?

I’m interested. I feel like I recently read another book that referenced this.

Flipping this to public :v:

Not sure whether it fits #events or #discussion better, but tentatively putting this in #discussion for now.

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Alrighty, I put out an invite to the Noosphere + Subconscious Discord. And I will do an announce in our Discord too, in case anyone else wants to join.

My proposal:

  • read a chapter each week starting next week (making Jan 20 the first “report in” day)
  • on Friday post your reflections in this thread and we have a little convo
  • schedule a Zoom meeting for around Feb 8th to discuss the first half of the book
  • final week will be Feb 24th, so book a wrap-up call around Mar 1st

What do you think? Too aggressive?

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Hi all, got the link from the Noosphere+Subconscious Discord, I’m new there (and freshly minted here :wave:). I’m a fan of Ostrom’s work, I’m mostly familiar from watching presentations and interviews, excited by the opportunity to read her book with other’s interested in her work.

The bi-weekly cadence sounds good to me

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Just saw this, I would like to subscribe to this reading club! :sweat_smile:

I’m going to read along as well. Very interested in cases where local knowledge produces effective solutions.

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Is it too early to start posting thoughts? I’ve got some from my reading of Ch1Pt1 I’ll post them below.

Ch1Pt1: Elinor beautifully describes how the “prisoners dilemma thinking” employed by colleagues limits the possibility around the commons management. The Prisoner are fixed in a context and blind folks thinking about commons management to a wide range of possibilities.

“the observer frequently wishes to invoke an image of helpless individuals caught in an inexorable process of destroying their own resources.” So we throw up our hands—gosh we need a big top down control system, eh!

In this view, herders are literally prisoners of their own rational self interest and so the resulting theory around commons management (the Tragedy of the Commons) require prison cells and a warden (fences and top down control).

“The optimal equilibrium achieved by following the advice to centralize control, however, is based on assumptions concerning the accuracy of information, monitoring capabilities, sanctioning reliability, and zero costs of administration.”

Adding context—and the idea of evolutionary participation—removes the blindfold.

Reminds of Nora Baston’s warm data.

“Information that does not take into account the full scope of internationality in a system is likely to inspire misguided decision-making, which compounds already “wicked” problems. Warm Data is not meant to replace or in any way diminish other data, but rather it is meant to keep data of certain sorts “warm” — with a nest of relations intact.”


@Joe_Mauriello Chad suggested posting our thoughts on Fridays. I’ll be doing that tomorrow! :slight_smile:

I’ve already read through the chapter though. I really like it so far! I felt a slight throwback into game theory courses from university and needed a refresher on how to read the game tree diagrams, specifically the notation for imperfect information: Extensive-form game - Wikipedia

Anyway. Will post more tomorrow! :v:

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Hi all, very late/new to the party here but would like to join in. I’ll try to knock over chapter one today (I’m Down Under so it’s already Friday here!)

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This is my first time writing a by-chapter written review, so bear with me. I’ll probably keep this very casual and informal.

I really liked all the different adaptations of the prisoner’s dilemma: What if there’s a third actor that punishes wrongdoing, skewing the rewards? What if that third actor is wrong 30% of the time?
That last variation reminds me of Nicky Case’s Explorable Explanation of the Evolution of Trust, where a repeated prisoner’s dilemma game is also induced with uncertainty.

She also throws quite a lot of shade on economic science historically (for the right reasons!), which I enjoyed :stuck_out_tongue:

Other than that it’s pretty much setting up the rest of the book (duh!). Her approach will be looking at smaller-scale communities around commons with between 50 and 15000 people participating. The reasoning here being similar to that of a biologist who studies smaller-scale organisms, which are way easier to contain and observe in a somewhat-isolated system and to learn from that to perhaps deduce some guidance on commons governing policy eventually.

I liked the examples a lot so far, so I’m looking forward to the main chapters of the book :slight_smile:

Here are a few of the notes I took whilst reading the chapter…

  • A handful early on that are summed up quite nicely by @matheus23’s…:clap:

    • She also throws quite a lot of shade on economic science historically (for the right reasons!)

  • “the only way” assertions from Hardin et al came across as particularly hubristic given how flimsy the empirical and theoretical basis of these models (metaphors) were/are. Perhaps why Ostrom included this in the Preface…

    • It is my conviction that knowledge accrues by the continual process of moving back and forth from empirical observation to serious efforts at theoretical formulation

  • the problem of “incomplete information” seems a similar (same?) phenomena as “(il)legibility” in Robin Berjon’s The Internet Transition.

  • Game 5 and other potential solutions still seemed based on an assumption (culture) of economic self-interest of individual actors, as opposed to creating a sense of collective identity, where we all contribute to a shared purpose, ie custodianship of the land for future generations

    • Ostrom hints at something like this later in the chapter when she talks about failing to break out of a commons dilemma, and one reason being there is “no sense that they must share a common future”
  • I like this perspective she is taking as a researcher and look forward to seeing how it shaped her work as it is shared in the coming chapters…

    • Instead of presuming that some individuals are incompetent, evil, or irrational, and others are omniscient, I presume that individuals have very similar limited capabilities to reason and figure out the structure of complex environments. It is my responsibility as a scientist to ascertain what problems individuals are trying to solve and what factors help or hinder them in these efforts.


Loved this quote in the preface:

“It is my conviction that knowledge accrues by the continual process of moving back and forth from empirical observation to serious efforts at theoretical formulation.”

Reminds me of the observational skills of Charles Steinmetz, an electrical engineer and mathematician. The observation followed up with the incredibly detailed theoretical formulations in his book Theory And Calculation Of Transient Electric Phenomena And Oscillations is just mind blowing (book from 1920s)

Another interesting quote was:

“Wealth that is free for all is valued by no one because he who is foolhardy enough to wait for its proper time of use will only find that it has been taken by another…”

Makes one appreciate the basic things. This could also apply to all things open-source.

Along the same lines, there’s this:

“The paradox that individually rational strategies lead to collectively irrational outcomes seems to challenge a fundamental faith that rational human beings can achieve rational results.”

Is this why we have so much standards in software engineering?

“One can, however, get trapped in one’s own intellectual web. When years have been spent in the development of a theory with considerable power and elegance, analysts obviously will want to apply this tool to as many situations as possible.”

Reminder to not eat too much of one’s own dog food and to keep an open mind?

Anyhow on the actual subject, not much to add, this is literally the first book I’m reading on the subject :sweat_smile: I liked reading about the prisoner’s dilemma, the game theory bits and of course the bashing. I also liked how she emphasised on how a theory can fail due to external factors such as stress, maintenance and other weaknesses, and how some theories didn’t take these into account.


I just finished Chapter 2.

I couldn’t quite follow the author’s explanations in this chapter. Perhaps that’s because this time I didn’t read the chapter in one go and didn’t write notes, but I also think that she’s explaining a lot of the theoretical (/abstract) model before she dived into the examples. I found myself reading the footnotes and being thankful for the handful of examples they contained.

However, maybe the book being laid out like this made more sense to Elinor Ostrom, because she approached the problems in the order of the chapters: I assume she did have “three puzzles” to solve that she likely formulated before she began investigating CPR situations in practice.

Anways. I kinda want to revisit this chapter after finishing the book, when all the examples had been introduced!

Hi All,

I am late to the game. I did not do as much reading while I was on retreat in Vancouver, so I am really behind. I have only finished the first two chapters. I will try and continue reading this weekend, but I am not sure I can be ready for a call. How is everyone else’s progress coming? Should we slow things up a bit? Or am I holding everyone back?

Let me give some thoughts on the chapters here:


  • love how she tore down policies based on “the 3 models” (The tragedy of the commons, the prisoner’s dilemma, and the logic of collective action)
  • “Policies based on metaphors can be harmful” reminds me of James Scott, and how High Modernism sees rationality everywhere there is order
  • considering she wrote this in the 1980s, it is not surprising but also brave of her to point out the false dichotomy between “a private enterprise system,” on the one hand, or “socialism," on the other

Systematic empirical studies have shown that private organization of firms dealing in goods such as electricity, transport, and medical services tends to be more efficient than governmental organization of such firms; Whether private or public forms are more efficient in industries in which certain potential beneficiaries cannot be excluded is, however, a different question.

  • in other words, there are some domains where a public or a private solution works, but there are other domains (CPRs) where this is not the case
  • Examples of self-organized enterprises abound, eg law firms [great example!]


  • she lays out the key questions of the book:
    • how a group of principals who are in an interdependent situation can organize and govern themselves to obtain continuing joint benefits
    • how to organize to avoid the adverse outcomes of independent action (free-riding, shirking, opportunism)
    • how to:
      1. increase the initial likelihood of self-organization
      2. enhance the capabilities of individuals to continue self-organized efforts over time, or
      3. exceed the capacity of self-organization to solve CPR problems without external assistance of some form.
  • she delineates the actors in a resource system:
    • appropriators
    • providers
    • producers = anyone who actually constructs, repairs, or takes actions that ensure the long-term sustenance of the resource system itself
    • (note that sometimes producers and providers are the same people)
    • ==QUESTION: which one is which in Open Source software development?==
  • some key interlinked parts to managing a resource system:
    • institutional supply
    • commitment
    • monitoring
  • two types of problems that need to be solved: appropriation problems and provision problems
  • remember: laws are different from rules. She is here to observe the rules

To solve appropriation and provision problems, for example, individuals must learn about the structure of the physical system on which they jointly rely, about their own appropriation and use patterns, about the norms…

  • Domain knowledge necessary! Remember that you silicon valley software devs! :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:
  • many of the existing models don’t account for rules changing… this is a dynamic system
    “Individuals frequently are willing to forgo immediate returns in order to gain larger joint benefits when they observe many others following the same strategy.” makes me think of HODLing as an induced form of this strategy

Anyways, as a roundup I am already very curious to see if there is a paper or article out there that adapts Governing the Commons to Open Source software. There must be a canonical piece out there that I can queue up after reading this book?


Judging from the chapter summaries so far, not only you :slight_smile: I’m through the first half of the third chapter, but totally fine with postponing the mid-way call by a week or two, so instead of Feb 8th, that’d be Feb 15th or Feb 22nd?

How are the others coming along? @mark @Joe_Mauriello @icidasset, @bentzen, @blaine and @justinjohnson?

As guessed, I’m super behind. Hoping to do some catching up this weekend.

I’ve got to be honest, I usually read before bed, but reading the second chapter is seriously sleep inducing to me, reads like a car manual :sleeping: Hopefully I can catch up and get through it this weekend.