From historical institution to pars pro toto

The commons and their revival in historical perspective

Authored by: Tine De Moor

Routledge Handbook of the Study of the Commons

Print publication date:  January  2019
Online publication date:  January  2019

Print ISBN: 9781138060906
eBook ISBN: 9781315162782
Adobe ISBN:


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The commons are currently witnessing a true revival in many parts of the world. The term “commons” is hereby used in a context where citizens solve personal and/or societal problems as a group, and thereby also create a collective product or service, which they try to govern collectively. The historical background of the term commons, which forms the starting point of this chapter, will show that in the current context the term is used as a pars pro toto, whereby many more varieties of institutions for collective action are considered in a local context, on the basis of their common features such as self-governance, collective action and high member-participation. In this chapter we will generally use the term institutions for collective action (or ICAs) when considering institutional arrangements that are formed by groups of people in order to overcome certain common problems over an extended period of time by setting certain collective rules regarding access to the group (membership), use of the resources and services the group owns collectively, and management of these resources and services. Perceiving the commons as an institution for collective action is by now widely accepted. However, the usefulness of widening the time perspective, to include hundreds of years in our search for the holy grail of what makes institutions resilient, is often still underestimated. Commons-scholars such as Elinor Ostrom herself found it unlikely that the commons in a historical setting, taking us back several centuries, could be studied with the same depth as present-day commons, However, as we will demonstrate in this article, with the right methods and resources, the incredibly rich account of centuries-long successful resource management may deepen and possibly alter our understanding of sustainable cooperation fundamentally.

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