Cornell Law Review Volume 95 Issue 4

Cooperative Institutions in Cultural Commons

This Response critically evaluates Elinor Ostrom’s Institutional Analysis and Development framework and points to some of the challenges of adapting it to study patent pools, open source software groups, and other “cultural” as opposed to natural commons.  Few have done more than Ostrom to advance the study of institutions, and no approach offers more insight into the structure of a common-pool resource or its management.  But beyond Ostrom’s considerable descriptive endeavor and rebuke of “thin” rational choice arguments such as
the tragedy of the commons lies a difficult and as yet unfinished enterprise: the study of institutional change.  The hazards of applying her framework to cultural commons, which include avoiding functionalist explanations, attending to the dynamic nature of commons creation, and acknowledging the role of narrative in shaping knowledge production and use, suggest the need to embrace and update Ostrom’s concern for institutional change.  I offer a few modest suggestions for how to accomplish this task.  These include adopting a broader definition of “institution,” incorporating a holistic approach to human agency, giving attention to the recursive interactions between a commons and its institutional environment, and focusing on how technologies are shaped by their interpretive and institutional context.  Each proposal recalls efforts to bridge enduring divides between “old” and “new” institutionalism in economics as well as sociology.


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