Ideas for Change: Making Meaning Out of Economic and Institutional Diversity

Ryan T. Conway

The ideas and theories of Elinor Ostrom, one of the world’s leading economic scholars studying the way people in communities cooperate (or don’t), have inspired their own collective action hub. It includes students and scholars of many disciplines as well as people actively involved in managing community water use, organizing fishing industries, delivering urban services, and operating coop­eratives. This “hub” is known as the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, and is located at IndianaUniversity in Bloomington.

As a graduate student, I sought out the Workshop in 2010, drawn by the practicality and real-world impact of its “toolkit as well as the diverse group of scholars and practitioners who make use of it. And this is no small team. Over the years the Workshop has hosted almost 260 visiting scholars, with 18 more on the way for the 2011–2012 academic year. Such international and interdisciplinary diversity – which has endured and grown since the Workshop’s creation in 1973 – is a true inspiration and a rarity in the academic world.

In this chapter, I sketch out the basics of the Workshop and offer my own perspective on how Workshop tools can be translated in a way that both practi­tioners and researchers can find useful. My perspective is simple: shared ideas and common understandings are essential for creating institutions and for analyzing them.

Questioning conventional wisdom: Ostrom’s unique insight

At the Workshop, we’re often warned that “there are no panaceas,” which is to say that there’s no “one size fits all” solution for problematic situations and no one, final model for the social world, since behaviors and circumstances are constantly changing. Our job, as researchers, is to continually update our models of the social world so that we can explain it more accurately and, hopefully, offer helpful insights to anyone faced with tough choices in a complex, social world. This is important, not just as a practice, but as a way of thinking. Specifically, a way of thinking about how everyday people bring some order to their ever-changing activities.

For example, to devise and apply strategies of how “best” to use the resources around us is to practice “economy” with the least ideological baggage in tow. Every kind of “economy”– whether it’s an international capitalist market, a centrally planned national system of production and exchange, or a neighborhood bartering community – comes with its own understanding of the world and notion of what’s “best.” Hence, when a group of people settles on some common assumptions about the world, like how an economy should operate, things become more orderly. Even better, once they have such a common model of the world, they then can try to clarify specific items, attributes and relationships that exist, adding even more layers of order.

But what’s a model of the world without the people in it?1 Adding ourselves into the equation requires an act of self-reflection in which we must acknowledge that our rational, intentional and meaning-making abilities all conspire to help us – and our future generations – to survive. Here, though, is where problems can arise: when everyone in a situation seeks to use available resources individually, the benefits don’t always add up for the group as a whole and can, instead, hurt everyone. This happens when people can’t agree on a story about what’s going on, or on ideas of what should be done about it. When we have a problem coordinating our ideas, we often have a problem cooperating. We call this kind of situation a social dilemma.

One of the nastier social dilemmas is the tragedy of the commons. The commons could be any type of shared resources and their respective management regimes, but much of Ostrom’s work has revolved around resources such as land, water, etc., that communities use to sustain their livelihood. These kinds of resources – like fisheries or irrigation systems – are often “common pool resources” (CPRs), which means that they are limited resources that are hard to manage with property rights.

For a long time, many researchers and policymakers believed that the only way to avoid tragedy was to privatize the commons or place them under government control. But Ostrom wasn’t convinced. She had a fairly radical idea that broke with conventional wisdom: the survival of communities’ resources does not depend upon the state to make laws and impose punishments, nor does it depend on assigning a dollar value to every fish, chunk of grass, or drop of water. Rather, people, when they come together, can share understandings and manage their resources by enforcing norms and rules of their own design! The unconventional idea in many quarters was that people could cooperate “beyond markets and states.”

The workshop toolkit

Through many years and countless studies of commons successes and tragedies, Ostrom and the Workshoppers developed a toolkit for analyzing these situations. Its use has led to discoveries that have aided practitioners and inspired academics. Each tool can be used to help map out the different ways a community organizes its actions through instances of decision making, e.g., agreeing on a type of economy and how to run it. In this section, I’ll take you through some of the major analytical tools developed at the Workshop.

The grammar of institutions is something of a master tool: it allows the analyst to break any social norm or rule down into smaller, more easily understood components, or what I would call the building blocks of social relationships. And, though this is adequate for analyzing any single social proscription, most people make decisions in situations where they face multiple and sometimes conflicting social norms and rules. To help analyze such complex situations, another tool has been developed: Workshopper’s call it the IAD, which stands for Institutional Analysis and Development framework.If the grammar of institutions is best suited for analyzing any single social norm or rule, then the IAD is best suited for analyzing any collection of them that occur simultaneously around a single decision. As such, the basic relational building blocks of multiple social proscriptions can be analyzed, simultaneously, using the IAD. Lastly, just as the IAD is adequate for analyzing a collection of social proscriptions that relate to the management of a single, community resource, the social-ecological systems framework (SES)allows the researcher to catalogue all of the critical variables related to the management of an entire social-ecological system. Though this framework is somewhat more general than the other two tools, it can still integrate both of them. Just as one can use the IAD to analyze how choices are made about governing a single community resource, the SES can allow the researcher to classify and make comparisons about how multiple resources – within a larger ecosystem – are managed.

Ostrom’s Eight Design Principles of Successful Commons

In Governing the Commons (1990), Elinor Ostrom identified seven basic design principles of successful commons that are now regarded as a default framework for discussion, plus an eighth principle applicable to CPRs that are part of larger systems. In her 2009 Nobel Prize Lecture, Ostrom cited a brief update on that list as developed by Cox, Arnold and Villamayor-Tomás (2009).

1a. User Boundaries: Clear and locally understood boundaries between legitimate users and nonusers are present.

1b. Resource Boundaries: Clear boundaries that separate a specific common- pool resource from a larger social-ecological system are present.

2a. Congruence with local social and environmental conditions.

2b. Appropriation and provision: Appropriation rules are congruent with provision rules; the distribution of costs is proportional to the distribution of benefits.

3. Collective-Choice Arrangements: Most individuals affected by a resource regime are authorized to participate in making and modifying its rules.

4a. Monitoring Users: Individuals who are accountable to or are the users monitor the appropriation and provision levels of the users.

4b. Monitoring the Resource: Individuals who are accountable to or are the users monitor the condition of the resource.

5. Graduated Sanctions: Sanctions for rule violations start very low but become stronger if a user repeatedly violates a rule.

6. Conflict-Resolution Mechanisms: Rapid, low-cost, local arenas exist for resolving conflicts among users or with officials.

7. Minimal Recognition of Rights: The rights of local users to make their own rules are recognized by the government.

8. Nested Enterprises: When a common-pool resource is closely connected to a larger social-ecological system, governance activities are organized in multiple nested layers.

The grammar of institutions

One strength of the Workshop toolkit is that all of its tools are compatible. This has been possible because they have all evolved from one master tool: the grammar of institutions (Crawford and Ostrom 1995).This is the tool that identifies the basic building blocks of social relationships, and the Workshop has special terms for them. As a simplified illustration, consider a housing cooperative where housemates share and rotate roles, one of which is “waste manager.” In this role, one of the duties is compost consolidation: on the second Friday of every month, the member must empty all the compost containers into the main bin, without opening the container lids inside and without spilling any of the compost. And there is a rule: if the member fails to complete this duty in the manner specified, that member will have to retain this duty for two additional months.

Using the five relational building blocks – which fit the acronym ADICO – one could analyze the waste-manager example in the following way:

  • Attributes (to whom does this norm/rule apply): the house waste manager
  • Deontics (may, must not, or must be done): must execute the compost consolidation duty, must not open container lids inside and must not spill any compost)
  • Aims (designated actions): empties all compost containers into the main bin
  • Conditions (when, where and how does it apply): on the second Friday of every month, in the main house
  • “Or Else” (agreed upon, specific punishments to be applied when a person acts in violation of the agreed-upon definitions of the other four parts): or else she will remain the waste manager for the next two months.

Through this example, one can see how we combine these basic relational building blocks to produce a norm or rule that guides people’s behavior in a collective action situation. The Workshop refers to these combinations of basic building blocks as institutional statements,which can take the form of rules, norms, or shared strategies. When a group organizes its behavior through a statement that includes all five of these parts, this is a rule.If the group has not specified a punishment – no “Or Else” – this is a norm.When members of the group only have common knowledge about “attributes,” “aims” and “conditions” – who, what, when, where and how one must act – the Workshop approach2 assumes that each person will see the same situation and each, on their own, will come up with the same solution: this is a shared strategy.

The easiest way to picture the relationship between the grammar of institutions and the other Workshop tools – the Institutional Analysis and Development framework (IAD) or Socio-Ecological Systems framework (SES) – is to think about the study of DNA (Ostrom 2009). Just as nucleobases and amino acids can combine in various ways to create many different types of proteins, there are basic building blocks of social relationships that can combine in various ways to create many different types of group behaviors. Life scientists needed specific tools to identify genetic building blocks and still other tools for mapping the biological structures these genetic building blocks create. Social scientists are no different: we needed specific tools to identify the building blocks of social relationships and still others to map out the larger social structures they create.

The Institutional Analysis and Development framework (IAD)

Let’s return to the example of the waste-manager role in the housing coop. If you think about it, the compost consolidation duty might include three levels of decision making: (1) a full house meeting decides to add the role of waste manager to the list of house roles and appoints a subcommittee to determine the specifics of the waste manager role; (2) the subcommittee decides the duties of that role and how they are to be carried out; (3) the member acting in the waste manager role has to choose whether and how to execute it.

Level 1 is a “constitutional-choice situation”: members choose how some rules are to be made. Level 2 is a “collective-choice situation”: members in the sub­committee make the rules, given the “how” guidelines of Level 1. Level 3 is an “operational-choice situation”: the member decides how to execute their waste-manager duties, given the guidelines of Level 2.

The choice made at each of these three levels represents what Workshoppers call an action situation.To explain this, I’ll refer to Figure 1, below. Within the box, notice the seven major elements: Actors, Positions, Actions, Information, Control, Net Costs and Benefits, and Potential Outcomes. Around the outside of the box, notice that a certain rule points toward each of the seven major elements. For example, look at the bottom left corner: a “choice rule” determines what kind of actions a person can take.

Now, recalling that the grammar of institutions is able to analyze each of these rules, one can see that the grammar of institutions and the IAD can be used together, depending on how specific one wants to be in her analysis. And the relationship between the IAD and the SES is quite similar.

The social-ecological systems framework(SES) is a framework that presents a comprehensive list of important objects, relationships, and variables that are necessary for understanding how social arrangements – like norms and rules – overlap with the natural relationships in an ecosystem (Ostrom 2007). Just as our last example showed how the IAD can be used for analyzing the management of one community resource – organic compost – the SES allows a researcher to identify several resources within a larger ecosystem and, further, to compare how the different resources are managed, using the IAD to look at each resource, respectively.

If each use of the IAD contains three levels of analysis and each level of analysis contains seven rules, you can see how this can all become very complicated, very quickly. The advantage of the Workshop toolkit is that, when used carefully, it can bring some consistency and order to how one thinks about these incredibly complex situations. What’s more, the tools can be used independently: using the SES does not require using the IAD which, in turn, does not require using the grammar of institutions. One chooses which tools to use, depending on how specific they need to be.

If getting through all this “jargon” may not yet seem worth your while, it’s worth considering that this is a powerful approach to understanding how people work together, and it has been used by collective action practitioners and scholars around the globe. And, in this case, the payoff is clear: if we can all work from a common understanding – in this case, of Workshop vocabulary analytical tools – we enhance our ability to work together. If you’re still not convinced, this next section might change your mind.

A missing variable: how ideas and our words matter

“But,” you might ask, “do we really need all this new vocabulary to describe common experience?” I would say yes, for a very simple reason: our thinking and talking structures and in part determines how we behave, whether we are practicing collective action or researching it. So learning to share ideas and refer to them with the same words will keep us on the same page. More than this, I am convinced that both the research and practice of collective action are grounded in what Tomasello calls “shared intentionality” (Tomasello et al. 2005), or what some political scientists call collective ideation.

In other words, effective collective action may, in practice, rely on shared vision – both of our world and of the goals we seek within it. In a neighborhood bartering system, this may be an idea of what constitutes the neighborhood, who qualifies as a neighbor, what goods can be exchanged, and a stated or tacit goal for beginning the system in the first place. In the Workshop, this is a collective acceptance of the toolkit itself as a baseline of shared concepts and models that help us to explain social behavior. Without the shared ideas, it would be hard to organize a barter system; without the shared ideas, we wouldn’t be a Workshop.

This claim is controversial for some complex reasons.3 But herein lies the beauty of the Workshop: the boundaries of our tools are continually contested, expanded and revised in ways as diverse as the network of Workshoppers itself. So, let’s jump into the fray.

Whether looking at mainstream or alternative economies, one will always run into some kind of social dilemma, like the tragedy of the commons, mentioned above. Many academics say that beating social dilemmas is a matter of solving the collective action problem. This is a generic way of saying that, in order to achieve a benefit that helps the members of a group, some portion of these people must accept a risk of paying extra for a benefit shared by all. Here is where the Workshop applies its ideas. Such groups can, sometimes, solve the collective action problem using the rules, norms and shared strategies, noted above. However, none of those institutional statements, nor their relational building blocks, just spring from thin air. A shared intentionality must be developed – that is, a collective ideation problem must be overcome – before groups can effectively work together.

The collective ideation problem is a problem of finding and agreeing on common definitions, knowledge, and understandings of a situation, all of which are necessary for creating institutions. Indeed, it’s hard to make sense of the “institutional grammar” without them. Crawford and Ostrom note: By focusing on mutually understood actor expectations, preferences, and “behavior,” one avoids the trap of treating institutions as things that exist apart from the shared understandings and resulting behavior of participants (Crawford and Ostrom 1995). Other economic scholars would agree. Denzau and North wrote a widely received article explaining the importance of sharing understandings, or what they call “mental models” (Denzau and North 1994). And, further, Diana Richards, Whitman Richards, and Brendan McKay have contributed to our understanding of how mental models affect choice, modeling how shared knowledge structures affect how people behave in social dilemmas (Richards 2001 and Richards et al 2002).

Mental models are how we organize and make sense of the world. Mental models are useful, simplified versions of the social and ecological worlds we live in, just like a map is a useful, simplified version of a territory, or a blueprint is a useful, simplified version of a building. Now, if we don’t talk through our differing mental models of, say, a fishery, there is a collective ideation problem, because we hold conflicting understandings of our resource.

So how can we move forward from acknowledging that shared ideas and language are important for developing effective institutions? Some research has shown that work within an organization improves through breaking jargon barriers and sharing mental models. Further, we all know how difficult it is to start up, expand, or replicate grassroots collective action projects, such as community supported agriculture programs, neighborhood barter systems, producer and consumer cooperatives, etc. Success in such ventures may very well depend on how much effort is put into resolving the collective ideation problem before working out a scalable solution to the collective action problem. Forging common ground with groups that have different mental models and vocabularies would make it easier for all involved to act collectively. If we then forge common ground with groups that have different mental models and vocabularies, we make it easier for all involved to act collectively.


  • Clemente, Floriane. 2010. “Analysing Decentralised Natural Resource Governance: Proposition for a ‘Politicised’ Institutional Analysis and Development Framework.” Policy Sciences 43(2) (June): 129–156.
  • Cox, Michael, Gwen Arnold and Sergio Villamayoro-Tomás. 2009. “A Review and Reassessment of Design Principles for Community-Based Natural Resource Management, Ecology and Society 15(4): 38.
  • Crawford, Suees and Elinor Ostrom. 1995. “A Grammar of Institutions.” American Political Science Review 89(3): 582–600.
  • Denzau, Arthur and Douglass North. 1994. “Shared Mental Models: Ideologies and Institutions.” Kyklos 47(1): 3–31.
  • Ostrom, Elinor. 2010. “Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems.” American Economic Review. (100)3 (June): 641–672.
  • —————. 2009. “A General Framework for Analyzing Sustainability of Social-Ecological Systems.” Science 325(5939) (24 July): 419–422.
  • —————. 2007. “A Diagnostic Approach for Going Beyond Panaceas.” PNAS 104(39) (September 25): 15181–15187.
  • —————. 2005. Understanding Institutional Diversity. Princeton: Princeton University Press: 189.
  • Tomasello, Michael, Malinda Carpenter, Josep Call, Tanya Behne, and Henrike Moll. 2005. “Understanding and Sharing Intentions: The Origins of Cultural Cognition.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 28, 675–735.
  • Richards, Diane. 2001. “Coordination and Shared Mental Models.” American Journal of Political Science 45(2): 259–276.
  • Richards, Whitman, Brendan D. McKay, and Diana Richards. 2002. “The Probability of Collective Choice with Shared Knowledge Structures.” Journal of Mathematical Psychology. 46: 338–351.

This chapter is adapted from an essay originally published by the Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO) Newsletter, (2)9, devoted to “Collective Action: Research, Practice and Theory.” The full essay is available at

  • 1. Issues of power disparities, race, class, gender have not been formally integrated into the frameworks, but some Workshoppers have pursued such issues, for instance, Clemente 2010.
  • 2. This assumption isn’t unique to Workshop thinking, but stems from a large body of research in “game theory,” an approach to analysis that assumes people make decisions by calculating the costs and benefits of each option in a choice. This approach has created many powerful, mathematical models, but it assumes that the way each person makes choices is, essentially, the same and, of course, this is a hotly contested assumption.
  • 3. Few have directly addressed the tension between game-theoretic and ideational approaches. Though it was left relatively undeveloped, Diana Richards broke interesting ground when crafting some elegant formal models that sought to integrate and understand the effects of shared, empirical mental models on performance in coordination dilemmas. See Richards 2001.