Common Pool Resource Theory introduction

The object of this series of posts on common pool resource theory is to generate discussion in the context of knowledge commons. Raising awareness about works on the commons is the ultimate intent.

Sharing resources as a group, is that possible without a catastrophe happening? Is the concept of knowledge commons viable?

Yes, and yes. In fact it is more or less how we function as human beings. We have tendencies to be selfish, of course, and we also hate each other. Despite our slightly narcissistic and xenophobic tendencies, through thousand of years we have always benefited from functioning as a group. How else would language, being cool or bravery mean anything to you?

  • You are able to read this, provided I do a good enough job at being intelligible (communication, information exchange).
  • You understand the social values of the society you live in (institutions).
  • You know people can be valued or ostracized based on their actions in relation to these values (regulation).

You already understand the basics of sharing a common pool resource.

Dare we explore it some more? We, as human beings, rely heavily on communication, information exchange, institutions, governance and rules to function as a group. How exactly do we successfully run a common pool resource (CPR) and how does that apply to a knowledge commons? This is what we will see in this entry.

The study of CPRs started gathering interest in California a few decades ago when Elinor Ostrom began work on her PhD dissertation through a case study on ground water basin management. She, along with her husband and workgroup went on to collect data for decades, culminating with a Nobel laureate a few years before her death. Some of these CPRs have endured for centuries, thus surviving generations of users while providing resources for hundreds of groups and countless number of people.

Ostrom’s studies were so large she and her colleagues had to devise a whole analysis model to incorporate the numerous case studies they were gathering. Once it was all done they were able to craft seven characteristics of a successful CPR, with an added eight in complex circumstances. In the process, they also helped redefine the notion of goods, now usually seen as four types instead of the common two that previously populated the economics literature.

We will explore some of these findings in other posts, but for the mean time let’s stay focused on the pervasive nature of the commons. While Ostrom may have been labeled a pure liberal, she was not providing an anti-government or anti-privatization discourse. The characteristics of the commons she constructed through inductive research, over several decades, are allowing groups to function aside and within governmental or private logics.

These groups preserve their common pool resource and have been for a very long time. This notion of enduring occurrence is important for people wishing to understand the extend at which CPRs exist around us.

Now that we know we have all the required knowledge to form a commons, and there is no waiting for government or private interests to form one, what about knowledge commons?

Though some of the characteristics of a successful commons are transferable to a knowledge commons, some adjustment are needed to apply commons logic to a knowledge commons. The zero cost of knowledge transfer (copying or sharing an idea for example) makes the idea of knowledge commons interesting to conceptualize. Motions of prestige for participation may help us understand how it may work. Ostrom expanded on this in a book on knowledge as a commons.

This is what we will see in future posts, and more, such as a more detailed review of successful commons characteristics, and a brief review of good types.

Cite as:

Calvé-Genest, A. (2014). Common Pool Resource Theory introduction. Sustaining the Knowledge Commons / Soutenir Les Savoirs Communs. Retrieved from

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.