What do we mean by Common-Pool Resource Theory?

I have frequently seen people use the term common-pool resource (CPR) theory, and I’ve often been  confused by what they mean beyond that they are concerned with the tragedy of the commons and related ideas.  However, some add in a great deal of collective action theory, concepts from resilience, and ideas about social-ecological systems.  In this text, I won’t try to defend a particular set of hypotheses, theories, or other constructs about what should be counted and what shouldn’t.  Instead, I’d like to talk about a nice public good regarding our understanding of CPRs that springs from the Social-Ecological Systems Meta-Analysis Database (SESMAD) project that I’ve written about before.

At the end of October, ASU hosted the most recent SESMAD meeting.  We met to put the culminating touches on a coding manual for the project database, an attempt to make sure that all project contributors would take a similar approach to diagnosing and coding a case for the database (and appeasing our concerns with inter-coder reliability).

SESMAD

 

Our first thought was that this would be a painful (soul-sucking, perhaps) but necessary activity that would help further the project and improve the internal validity of the project.  We began with all project members taking on a sub-set of the 200+ variables in the database and defining them, discuss their importance in the CPR literature, and providing relevant citations and sources.  The database, itself, could then be used to provide examples of how we coded these variables across a number of cases.  We then used our time together in Arizona to edit these variable write-ups and create our coding manual.  It turned out to be much more enjoyable than we initially thought.

This brings me to the creation of a public good.  I have personally always struggled with the idea of a single coherent and unifying theory of CPRs. However, this manual represents a nearly exhaustive listing of the variables seen to influence the sustainable governance of CPRs according to the current literature.  As our database goes online in January, scholars will have access to a thorough list of key CPR variables with definitions, an understanding of their importance, with relevant examples and citations.  This can serve as a one-stop source for students and scholars in the study of the commons.  It lacks the structure of a theory, but it enables the construction of a multitude of well-defined hypotheses and theories and provides clarity and consistency for its users.  I hope that its use goes far beyond our project.

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