rely on more careful research design and case selection. It advocates studies that explicitly (1) postulate causal links that can be investigated through structured case comparisons, and (2) use a large number of cases that are purposively selected on the basis of causal variables.

The current stage of research on common property arrangements makes such systematic studies more possible. One means for conducting such causal tests would be to use some of the more careful case studies that already have been completed and that contain information on the critical variables related to resource systems, user groups, institutional arrangements, and external environment that I identify and present in Box 2-5 (Tang, 1992; Schlager, 1990). It is unlikely that the cases for such an enterprise could be selected randomly. But the objective of random selection of cases is unrealistic perhaps in any case. Even an intentional selection of cases that ensures variation on independent variables will allow causal inferences and relatively low levels of bias. What is exciting about studies of commons is that the collective scholarship on local institutions has made it possible for us to approach the construction of a coherent, empirically relevant theory of the commons.



Even Netting’s sterling study (1981) of the commons in Switzerland possesses the implicit assumption that as resources become more scarce (perhaps because of increasing population pressures, or for any other reasons), common property arrangements will be replaced with more precise and efficient forms of management that private property facilitates.


For a review of some of the writings around the turn of the past century, see Agrawal (1999b).


Ethnographic writings that can be located in an ancestral relationship to the current scholarship on the commons form a very large set. For some illustrative and magisterial works, see Alexander (1977, 1982), Berreman (1963), Brush (1977), Cole and Wolf (1974), Dahl (1976), and Netting (1972, 1981).


The view that community relations are undermined by the intrusion of state policies and market forces formed the basis of much familiar research in the middle of the 1970s (Dunn and Robertson, 1974; O’Brien, 1975; Scott, 1976). Earlier work, especially by Polanyi (1957), had an immense influence on progressive writings on community and market interactions.


For a review of some of this literature, see Leach and Mearns (1996) and Ostrom (1990).


A vast literature on institutions and property rights proves relevant for the study of common property. Some illustrative starting points for pursuing an interest may be Bates (1989), Eggertsson (1990), Hechter et al., (1990), Knight and Sened (1995), Libecap (1989), North (1980, 1990), and Rose (1994). Some of the early foundations of this literature can be traced back to Commons [1924 (1968)], two influential articles of Coase (1937, 1960), and contributions by scholars such as Alchian and Demsetz (1972), Cheung (1970), and Demsetz (1964). A review of some of this literature is ably presented in Ensminger’s (1992) introduction.


To say that groups and resources under consideration are situated locally is not to deny the often-intimate connections that exist between external forces and what is considered to be local. In any case, the influence of research on common property is also visible in larger arenas, such as international relations (Keohane and Ostrom, 1995).


See Schlager and Ostrom (1992) for a discussion of types of rights and the nature of incentives related to resource use and management that their different combinations create.

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