Rules, Games, and Common-Pool Resources

Elinor Ostrom, Roy Gardner, and James Walker
With Arun Agrawal, William Bloomquist, Edella Schlager, and Shui Yan Tang
Explores ways that the tragedy of the commons can be avoided by people who use common-property resources


While the tragedy of the commons is real, there are many instances where institutions develop to protect against overexploitation. In this important work, the authors explore empirically, theoretically, and experimentally the nature of such institutions and the way they come about.

Forests, irrigation systems, fisheries, groundwater basins, grazing lands, and the air we breathe are all examples of common-pool resources (CPRs). Because no one has property rights or control over such a resource, users of CPRs are frequently assumed to be caught in an inescapable dilemma---overexploitation of the resource, or what is commonly known as "the tragedy of the commons." Many well-documented examples of overexploitation exist. The users of commonly held resources have, however, in many instances overcome incentives to destroy the resources and have developed long-enduring institutions---rule-in-use---that enabled them to utilize these resources more effectively. Understanding the conditions under which users of CPRs successfully develop and maintain effective institutions is critical to facilitating improved resource policies.

Using the analytic tools of game theory and institutional analysis and an empirical foundation based on controlled laboratory experiments and field data, this book explores endogenous institutional development. Specifically, this research focuses on three questions. In CPR dilemmas, to what degree are the predictions about behavior and outcomes derived from noncooperative game theory supported by empirical evidence? Where behavior and outcomes are substantially different from the predicted, are there behavioral regularities that can be drawn upon in the development of improved theories? What types of institutional and physical variables affect the likelihood of successful resolution of CPR dilemmas?

This is a work of important relevance to all studying environmental issues from a wide variety of disciplinary perspectives.

Praise / Awards

  • ". . . presented in an excellent way. . . . The volume makes worthwhile reading and its pathbreaking results should quickly enter textbooks."
    —Bruno S. Frey, Kyklos
  • "The book is about one-third theory, one-third lab experiments . . . and one-third field studies, updating and extending many of Ostrom's original analyses of irrigation systems, fisheries, forests, and ground water extraction. What I love most about the book is that, even though much of the analysis takes place in the lab under experimental conditions, you're never very far from the real world. . . . Answering the question, 'Is one set of rules more likely to provide efficient outcomes . . . is far more powerful when embedded in such genuine situations."
    —James E. Alt, Policy Currents: Newsletter of Public Policy Section APSA
  • ". . . a good supplementary text for graduate public policy studies. The theory makes clear contact with some of the essential issues of local versus centralized policy-making and enforcement; and then it convincingly illustrates those issues with a combination of experiments and field evidence."
    Public Choice
  • "Much of the interest in the book is essentially anthropological. The ingenious solutions to such common dilemmas found by Brazilian fisherfolk and thakali irrigators and Pasadena water authorities will enliven public economics lectures for years to come. The variability of those solutions will similarly provide a continuing challenge to theorists trying to bring formal models more fully to terms with the real world."
    Public Administration
  • ". . . a valuable book, largely because of the inductive conclusions based on field studies. Given Otstrom's mastery of the empirical data concerning common-pool resources, and her creativity in interpreting that data, I am confident that she and her colleagues will make increasingly valuable contributions to the study of this important topic as her work progresses."
    Yale Journal on Regulation
  • "The authors have shown in an impressive way that the economics of common-pool resources is a fascinating research topic. . . . For any economic application, it should become the standard approach to combine game-theoretic analysis, experimental investigations and studies from the field. In this respect, the present volume hopefully serves as a pioneering guideline to establish that desirable standard."
    Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics
  • Dr. Elinor Ostrom won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics.

Look Inside

Copyright © 1994, University of Michigan. All rights reserved. Posted August 2009.

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Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 392pp.
  • figures, tables.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Paper
  • 1994
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-06546-2

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  • $36.95 U.S.



  • tragedy of the commons, common-property resources, anthropology, economics, social science, public policy, economic policy, CPRs, experiments, game theory, environmental studies