RESOURCE USERS, RESOURCE SYSTEMS, AND BEHAVIOR IN THE DRAMA OF THE COMMONS
The chapters in Part I of the book illustrate some qualitatively different approaches to the question of how characteristics of the users of common-pool resources affect the way in which the drama of the commons unfolds and is resolved. These approaches include predictions derived in a top-down fashion from formal (game) theory (Chapter 5) and predictions induced in a more bottom-up fashion from observed behavioral regularities in controlled laboratory studies (Chapter 4) or in field studies (Chapter 3). The conclusions reached by these investigations add a level of complexity or contingency to the picture of behavior in commons situations drawn in this volume. In particular, they show the need to consider the effects of user characteristics (e.g., inequity aversion or economic heterogeneity) in conjunction with resource system characteristics (e.g., size, definition of boundaries) and task characteristics (e.g., the possibility of communication and sanctioning institutions). Chapter 2 makes a strong case for the need to study not just main effects but also the interactions between the classes of variables that have been identified as bearing a causal relationship with successful commons management and sustainability.
In their analyses of the effects of user characteristics, the chapters in Part I illustrate the relative strengths and complementary contributions that different academic disciplines bring to the table. Falk, Fehr, and Fischbacher (Chapter 5) demonstrate the power of the optimization framework of economic modeling that provides equilibrium predictions of behavior under a range of assumptions about user and task characteristics, which are operationalized as parameters in the optimization function. Falk et al. show that, in skillful hands, such models can account for a broad range of stylized facts obtained in carefully controlled laboratory experiments with a small number of parameters. Although elegant and
mathematically tractable, the top-down modeling of economics focuses solely on the prediction of behavior.
Theory building in other social sciences and particularly in psychology, on the other hand, is a more data-driven and less elegant enterprise, which has as its goal not only prediction but also explanation of observed behavior. Theory and research thus focus on the processes that give rise to observed behavior. It is this focus on explanation and process that leads psychologists to study a broader range of dependent measures (e.g., not just the magnitude of withdrawals from common-pool resources, but also users’ justifications of such withdrawals as well as judgments of fairness). Kopelman, Weber, and Messick (Chapter 4) provide a very useful classification and road map to the effects of a large number of user and user group characteristics and situational variables that have been shown to affect behavior in commons dilemmas. Agrawal’s critical analysis and synthesis of political science field studies of commons management regimes (Chapter 2) includes user group characteristics as well as resource system characteristics, institutional arrangements, and characteristics of the external environment. In all instances, he finds that the effect of these variables on sustainability of the commons is configural. The effect of even a basic characteristic such as user group size or heterogeneity depends on a range of other contextual and mediating factors. Closed-form solutions for models that would attempt to incorporate all of these variables into a prediction equation would be hard to come by. Nevertheless, awareness of these effects and causal explanations of their origin are of both theoretical and practical importance to researchers, resource users, and policy makers.
In their review of the effects of economic heterogeneity among water resource users on commons dilemma outcomes, Bardhan and Dayton-Johnson (Chapter 3) illustrate the utility of focusing on process-level explanations of behavior and the importance of checking the predictions of economic theory against observed regularities (in their case, regularities observed in large-n field studies). The authors draw some careful distinctions between different processes by which economic heterogeneity might affect the resolution of common-pool resource management dilemmas (e.g., effects on incentives for cooperation versus effects on social norms and sanctions; effects on choice of institutions versus effects on their implementation and enforcement). Such distinctions allow them to reconcile apparently contradictory predictions about the effect of economic heterogeneity made by different theories. In their evaluation of the explanatory potential of these alternative process explanations for behavior observed in several international field studies, Bardhan and Dayton-Johnson show that some mechanisms (e.g., “Olson effects”) may have greater theoretical plausibility than practical reality.
Agrawal (Chapter 2) explicitly addresses the relationship between theory-driven and data-driven research approaches. He argues that the two are not just synergistic in the insights they provide, but that they require each other at an
operational level. In particular, given the large number of variables that have been identified as affecting sustainability in some form and their even more numerous potential interactions, a top-down approach driven by theory seems to be necessary to guide the design, execution, and analysis of field studies in ways that make maximal use of scarce empirical research resources.
In summary, the following four chapters provide us with a rich account of the way in which user and user group characteristics interact with resource system characteristics and affect the processes by which institutions are crafted, the types of institutions that emerge, the degree to which they are implemented successfully, and the way in which resulting conflicts are resolved. In combination, they show us that much has been learned over the past 15 years, with some substantive insights and—perhaps more importantly—significant methodological and metatheoretical insights. They also provide us with a road map to yet unresolved questions of commons management design and with an appreciation that complex problems have highly contingent solutions which, in turn, require cross-disciplinary cooperation.