Critiques of the Ostrom scholarship

I got fascinated trying to find the most critical criticisms of Elinor Ostrom’s work, and went deeper than I’d expected. Overall, there’s a lot of hero worship (me included). For every paper that criticizes her on a point, there’s one that holds her up as conciliating or defending or representing that exact point in an especially nuanced way.

The main criticisms that are available are of two related types,

  • that the paradigm fails to take into account critical understandings of power and agency, and
  • that it is too beholden to rational choice theory and methodological individualism, two basic tenets of economics and behavioral science.

The problem with the first criticism in the work I found is that every expression of it is pretty fluffy. I found no really clear and clean example putting this shortcoming in relief, and several papers holding her work up against Econ as an example of the opposite: that her work is valuable because it succeeds at taking into account power and agency.

The problem with the second criticism is that the best expressions of it don’t actually criticize her community’s angle on it (me included), they just rely on old and well-trod criticisms of rational choice generally.

It’s a bit disappointing that after all this digging I found no deeply undermining assumption of her frameworks to shake me to the core. But it makes sense, she was pretty reasonable and hedged her claims a lot. That’s a good reason to be hard to criticize. Still, out of this whole exercise I’ve managed to come out with a third “meta” criticism of the Ostrom scholarship: the hero-worship itself. There’s a tacit hierarchy in the Ostrom community of people who can assert the legitimacy to improve and criticize her work (not just apply it), with former students and collaborators at the top, most comfortable saying she missed this or was wrong about that. It could be worse: they could be closed-circle hero-worshipping keepers of the flame, but even that hierarchy is causing problems

  • her frameworks change and improve slowly and in a very hard to track way (there used to be 8 design principles, now there are 10),
  • there’s a lot of uncritical copy/paste application of her frameworks, rather than development of them
  • there is the tendency to see the Ostrom’s contributions as part of the future rather than part of the past. This makes the community vulnerable to developing blind spots.

Here are the least softball critiques that I was able to find.
Cleaver F (2001) Institutional Bricolage, Conflict and Cooperation in Usangu, Tanzania. IDS Bulletin 32(4): 26–35. DOI: 10/bd765h.
Cleaver F (2007) Understanding Agency in Collective Action. Journal of Human Development 8(2). Routledge: 223–244. DOI: 10/crhdr9.
Kashwan P (2016) Integrating power in institutional analysis: A micro-foundation perspective. Journal of Theoretical Politics 28(1). SAGE Publications Ltd: 5–26. DOI: 10.1177/0951629815586877.
Mollinga PP (2001) Water and politics: levels, rational choice and South Indian canal irrigation. Futures 33(8): 733–752. DOI: 10.1016/S0016-3287(01)00016-7.
Mosse D (1997) The Symbolic Making of a Common Property Resource: History, Ecology and Locality in a Tank-irrigated Landscape in South India. Development and Change 28(3): 467–504. DOI: 10/ftdm7p.
Saravanan VS (2015) Agents of institutional change: The contribution of new institutionalism in understanding water governance in India. Environmental Science & Policy 53. Crafting or designing? Science and politics for purposeful institutional change in Social-Ecological Systems: 225–235. DOI: 10/f7rrw2.
Social-ecological systems, social diversity, and power on JSTOR (n.d.). Available at: (accessed 29 September 2020).
Velicu I and García-López G (2018) Thinking the Commons through Ostrom and Butler: Boundedness and Vulnerability. Theory, Culture & Society 35(6). SAGE Publications Ltd: 55–73. DOI: 10/gfdbbs.

Note to self

I do have a few more substantive critiques of my own that I haven’t developed at all:

  1. One: the design principles seem to work insofar as they create a bubble within which market exchange works (within which CPRs are excludable): so how is that an improvement on “markets for everything” ideology?
  2. Two: she has an alignment with super libertarian public choice people in the municipality/Tiebout space that might open up some avenues for criticism.
  3. Three: blind spot failure to integrate findings from the “soft stuff” in democratic theory, pretty much all of deliberative/participatory democracy.
  4. Vlad Tarko adds “There’s also a critique of the design principles as being applicable only to small scale.”
  5. There is a deeply baked-in assumption that when communities succeed or fail, it’s because their governance system was good or bad. Communities fail for other reasons, and other endogenous reasons (not just meteor strikes). A lot of online communities never take off in the first place, because they’re not interesting enough to users to attract the critical mass necessary for governance to be relevant. That’s not a governance failure.


This entry was posted on Friday, October 15th, 2021 and is filed under Uncategorized.