Common Property Theory, Elinor Ostrom & the IFRI Network

Founded in 1992 at Indiana University and with its current home at the University of Michigan, the International Forestry Resources and Institutions (IFRI) research network addresses one of the pervasive gaps in research on the commons—the lack of systematic data that can be analyzed, using coherent conceptual frameworks and advanced quantitative and qualitative analytical approaches. Focusing on forest commons, and finding inspiration in the research of Elinor Ostrom and other scholars of the commons, IFRI researchers and scientists have implemented common data collection protocols and approaches across a variety of cultural, social, biophysical, and national contexts, in order to improve the understanding, of how forests are collectively used and governed, and with what effects.

At the time the IFRI network came into being nearly twenty years ago, there were few studies of the commons that used statistical, quantitative, or modeling methods and approaches, to examine social and ecological outcomes, across a large number of cases or across different contexts. The preponderance of case-based approaches meant that the scholarship on the commons had a plethora of potential explanations, derived from specific cases, but limited means to test, whether explanations that appeared reasonable and persuasive in a given case, were also relevant to other cases and contexts. For example, high levels of participation and collective action in a given case study could well explain the effectiveness of local resource management institutions and positive resource outcomes. But, did high participation lead to improved management institutions and positive resource outcomes in other contexts as well? In that early period of research on the commons, different case studies collectively highlighted scores of potential theoretical explanations of commons outcomes. Scholars of common property and those interested in resource governance did not have the data that could be used to test explanations. The IFRI initiative has helped address this major gap in research on the commons.

The IFRI Network
The IFRI network has 11 collaborative research centers (CRCs) in 10 countries and has collected data from 17 countries in all. The 10 CRCs are located in East Africa—in Kenya (Kenya Forestry Research Institute), Tanzania (Department of Forest Mensuration at Sokoine University of Agriculture), and Uganda (Uganda Forestry Resources and Institutions Center at Makerere University); in Latin America—in Bolivia (CERES), Guatemala (Universidad del Valle de Guatemala), and Mexico (Instituto de Investigaciones Sociales Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico); in Asia—in India (SHODH, The Institute for Research and Development), Nepal (Forest- Action Nepal), and Thailand (School of Environment, Resources and Development at the Asian Institute of Technology); and in the United States—at Indiana University and at the University of Michigan. The  University of Michigan coordinates the research relationships among these centers.

The IFRI Approach
Researchers associated with IFRI program developed their research methods in 1992–1993, based on the Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) framework advanced by Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues at Indiana University. With the IAD framework providing an over-arching set of principles to guide research, IFRI scholars have created a standardized methodology for fieldwork, based on 700 questions organized in 11 data collection instruments (instruments and an instruction manual for conducting fieldwork are available at IFRI researchers are currently developing a more streamlined set of questions and variables, that they have found useful to address resource governance and institution-related questions.

This article is from issue


2010 Sep