What are commons?

The original meaning of the term 'commons' comes from the way communities managed land that was held 'in common' in medieval Europe. Along with this shared land a clear set of rules was developed by the community about how it was to be used. Over time, the term 'commons' has taken on several meanings. Most generally, it can be used to refer to a broad set of resources, natural and cultural, that are shared by many people.

Traditional examples of commons include forests, fisheries, or groundwater resources, but increasingly we see the term commons used for a broader set of domains, such as knowledge commons, digital commons, urban commons, health commons, cultural commons, etc. The study of governing shared resources is therefore not restricted to the original domain of natural resources, and the IASC brings together scholars from all those different application domains to exchange experiences and solutions. More info on types of commons can be found here; also check out our page on Regions and Themes of research.

Governance of the commons

How to effectively govern the commons has been a long debate in academia. In 1968, biologist Garrett Hardin (1915-2003) wrote a famous essay in the journal Science titled 'The tragedy of the commons', arguing that when people share a resource they will over-harvest it because it is in their individual interest to take as much from the resource as possible; depletion of the commons could, according to Hardin, only be prevented via private property rights and governmental regulation. The term 'tragedy' referred to the argument that people are not able to self-govern common resources. Many other scholars however criticized Hardin for not describing a common, but in fact describing a situation of unregulated free-access use of resources.

Self-governance instead of tragedy

Since Hardin’s essay, an increasing awareness has emerged that tragedy is not the only possible outcome when people share a common resource, as there are many examples of long-lasting communities that have maintained their shared resources effectively without having to resort to market or governmental solutions. Since the early 1980s, an increasing number of anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, ecologists, and many other scholars have been documenting examples of resources shared in common that have been managed sustainably for a long time without private property rights or governmental interventions.

Elinor Ostrom and the IASC

Elinor Ostrom and others showed through comparative analysis of many case studies that communities can self-govern their shared resources. Elinor Ostrom (1933-2012) was a political scientist, and the first president of the IASC. She developed a theoretical framework to study the ability of communities to overcome the tragedy of the commons; one of her seminal works in the field is Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action, published in 1990. Elinor Ostrom's research earned her the 2009 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel (better known as the Nobel Prize in Economics).

'Must-reads' on commons issues

You will find a sample of key publications within this discours on our 'Key Literature' page on this website.

We of course you also recommend you to use the following resources

The International Journal of the Commons is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal published by the IASC at least twice a year, containing peer-reviewed academic articles from a wide range of disciplines on a broad spectrum of commons issues worldwide.

The Commons Digest is an exclusive quarterly publication for IASC-members, containing short articles, forum responses, book reviews, bibliographies, and letters to the editor. Sign up as IASC-member and get access to the Commons Digest!

The Digital Library of the Commons (DLC) is a gateway to the international literature on the commons. The DLC acts as a repository and provides free and open access to full-text articles, (conference) papers, and dissertations on commons issues.

The DLC contains:

  • an author-submission portal
  • an image database
  • a comprehensive bibliography of the commons
  • a keyword thesaurus
  • links to relevant reference sources on the study of the commons

The Digital Library of the Commons is hosted by the Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, based at the University of Indiana in Bloomington (IN), USA.