Ostrom: 'Trust is key in social ecological systems'

<p>Where we have to change the theoretical groundwork behind cooperation of the commons and how trust plays a key role was the message Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom delivered before a large crowd Sept. 30 at ASU.</p><separator></separator><p>Ostrom, who shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences with Oliver E. Williamson, was the first woman to win in that category.</p><separator></separator><p>During her lecture at the North American Meeting of the <a href="http://www.iasc-commons.org/&quot; target="_blank">International Association for the Study of the Commons</a> at ASU’s Memorial Union, Ostrom assessed how social and ecological systems interact and when they prove to be “resilient.”</p><separator></separator><p>“We have to change some of our fundamental theory of human behavior, and we have to understand how the context, both micro and the broader social context, affect our decisions,” said Ostrom, founding director of ASU’s <a href="http://csid.asu.edu&quot; target="_blank">Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity</a>, and the Arthur F. Bentley Professor of Political Science at Indiana University. “We are making decisions in a context; we have to understand the structure of that context.”</p><separator></separator><p>She added if our theory says that people will cooperate with others when they have gained trust, and they will reciprocate, how does the context help that decision to jointly contribute?</p><separator></separator><p>“Understanding these systems yields important implications when scholars study lakes, forests, fisheries and other ‘commons,’” Ostrom said. “But accomplishing these goals is not easy.”</p><separator></separator><p><strong>The common pool resources debate</strong></p><separator></separator><p>The theoretical groundwork of the commons has been hotly contested over the years. The conventional theory of collective action has assumed that individuals maximize short-term material benefits for themselves. Ecologist Garrett Hardin became known for his work on the tragedy of the commons theory, which maintains that self-interested individuals are trapped in a non-cooperative state and will deplete the resources within their commons.</p><separator></separator><p>Ostrom was one of the first scholars to challenge this widely accepted theory.</p><separator></separator><p>She said people who are in a collective dilemma, such as a resource problem, are afraid of being “suckers.” If you are afraid of being a “sucker” you are going to defect because you think everyone else will defect.</p><separator></separator><p>“The problem of how we build trust was just not in collective action," Ostrom said. "We study it in the field, but we hadn’t seen it quite as central as it is. We found that broad labels like government-owned, community-owned and private-owned don’t make a difference on regeneration rates. It is how people monitor one another and how they trust each other; with trust they can cooperate and get things done. And that has not been in the theory.”</p><separator></separator><p><strong>Working together<br /></strong></p><separator></separator><p>A lot of what Ostrom presented at the meeting is highlighted in the book she co-wrote titled “Working Together: Collective Action, the Commons and Multiple Methods in Practice,” <a href="http://press.princeton.edu/titles/9209.html&quot; target="_blank">published by the Princeton University Press</a>.</p><separator></separator><p>The book examines the advantages that can be gained from drawing on several different research methods and the challenges of a multi-methods approach.</p><separator></separator><p>Ostrom, along with co-authors Marco Janssen, associate professor in ASU's <a href="http://shesc.asu.edu&quot; target="_blank">School of Human Evolution and Social Change</a> in the <a href="http://clas.asu.edu&quot; target="_blank">College of Liberal Arts and Sciences</a>, and Amy Poteete, assistant professor of political science at Concordia University, Montreal, look at how different methods have promoted various theoretical developments, and they demonstrate the importance of cross-fertilization involving multi-methods research across traditional boundaries.</p><separator></separator><p>Janssen echoes a lot of what Ostrom said during her lecture.</p><separator></separator><p>“Many researchers limit the questions they ask by the methods they are trained in," said Janssen, director of the Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity. "In the book we encourage them to define questions first and then decide on the appropriate methods to use to address those questions. If we want to make progress in answering the big-picture questions, we need to not limit ourselves to specific methods we have been trained in.”</p><separator></separator><p>Janssen added that new tools, new software and new technologies are rapidly changing, so it is essential for researchers to not only keep up-to-date with these changes, but to familiarize and expose themselves and their students to many of the research methods available.</p><separator></separator><p><strong>Taking on complexity</strong></p><separator></separator><p>Ostrom said we have to confront complexity rather than deny it. We have to triangulate methods in terms of doing and not saying that my discipline is better or my method is better, but how we learn multiple methods.</p><separator></separator><p>“I think we do have some basic lessons now," Ostrom said. "No single idealized type of government structure is successful in all ecological or social settings. You have heard me say it before and I will say it again… there are no panaceas!”</p><separator></separator><p>She concluded by saying there has been progress, but our work is far from over. There is still “a heck of a lot more to do.”</p><separator></separator><p>The North American Meeting of the International Association for the Study of the Commons is taking place at ASU through Oct. 2. The meeting is part of an increasing international effort to understand the complexity of the commons. The goal is to bring together researchers, especially from North America, working on this subject from an interdisciplinary point of view.</p><separator></separator><p>Arun Agrawal, a professor of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan, is well known in the commons community and will be giving his plenary lecture about decentralized governance of natural resources on Oct. 2.</p><separator></separator><p>Scott Southward, <a href="mailto:scott.southward@asu.edu">scott.southward@asu.edu</a><br />480-96504193<br />Consortium for Biosocial Complex Systems</p>