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Social-Ecological Systems Meta-Analysis Database: Theory

CBNRM design principles

Variable relationship:

In 1990 Elinor Ostrom published Governing the Commons, in which she introduced eight design principles (Actor Group Boundary Clarity; Social-ecological Fit; External Recognition; Multiple Levels; Commons Boundaries; Proportionality; Participation in Rulemaking; Environmental Monitoring; Self-Monitoring; Self Sanctions; Conflict Resolution) that increased the likelihood of successful community-based natural resource management (Commons Condition Trend). This is accomplished so by helping to exclude outsiders (Outsider Exlusion) from using the commons, ensuring a fair measure of the rule compliance (Compliance) and collective action (Collection Action) needed to maintain the commons, as long as the costs of enforcement and conflict resolution (Transaction Costs) don't become too onerous.

These design principles, which are probably the most famous arguments in the field of commons management. In 2010, Cox et al. (2010) conducted a meta-analysis of the literature that had evaluated Ostrom's work and introduced a slightly modified version of the principles, expanding the number from eight to ten.

While coded here as one individual theory, it is probably equally accurate to view the design principles as a collection of semi-independent theories. Indeed, several other theories (e.g. "enforcement") are formally nested within this one. The reasoning here is that the principles have never been connected via one causal narrative that describes how they interact to produce an outcome, the way that variables in the theories in sesmad generally are. However, discussions of the principles do frequently imply some type of interaction among them.

Scientific Field
Component Type(s)


VariableRoleRole ExplanationValue
Actor group boundary clarityProximate independent variablePrinciple 1a: Clear boundaries between users and non-users ensures that users receive the benefits of cooperating, and limits pressure on a commons.Clear boundaries
Social-ecological fitProximate independent variablePrinciple 2a: a fit between social and ecological conditions is important to ensure that the physical particularities of a commons are taken into account in the development of the institutional arrangements that govern its use.High
External recognitionProximate independent variablePrinciple 7: In nested systems, it is important that governmental bodies allow local resource users to design their own institutions. This helps ensure that their is local buy-in to these institutions, and that they are appropriate suited for the local environment.Moderate - some autonomy
Multiple levelsProximate independent variablePrinciple 8: In large, complex systems, it is seen as important for communal institutions to be nested within a set of larger-scale institutional arrangements (potentially implemented by a state).Coordination among multiple levels
Commons boundariesProximate independent variablePrinciple 1b: clear resource boundaries helps to enable a common understanding of what is being governed, and what the consequences of resource extraction are.Clear boundaries
Proportionality (of costs and benefits)Proximate independent variablePrinciple 2b: when benefits received are proportional to costs incurred, users have a sense of fairness that motivates them to cooperate with each other.Yes
Participation in rule makingProximate independent variablePrinciple 3: Collective-choice arrangements that guarantee some level of political participation enable users to adapt rules to local circumstances, and ensure a certain level of buy-in to the resulting institutional arrangements.High
Environmental monitoringProximate independent variablePrinciple 4b: Environmental monitoring is important to ensure that institutional arrangements can adapt to changing commons conditions.High
Self monitoringProximate independent variablePrinciple 4a: Self-monitoring is important to ensure that some users don't cheat excessively and overuse a commons.Yes
Self SanctionsProximate independent variablePrinciple 5: Graduated self-sanctions are needed to deter rule-breaking without diminishing social capital with excessive punishment.Graduated sanctions
Conflict resolutionProximate independent variablePrinciple 6: Conflict resolution mechanisms are needed to resolve differences over rule-breaking so that a community can move forward in a way that is considered fair and acceptable by those involved.Yes
ComplianceIntermediate outcomeSeveral of the design principles, particularly enforcement (technically principles 4 and 5) encourage individuals to follow community rules.Yes
Outsider exclusionIntermediate outcomeAs a result of social boundaries, group members are able to effectively prevent outsiders (non-group members) from accessing the commons, which helps to prevent over-use.Some exclusion or total exclusion
Commons condition trendFinal outcomeThe design principles encourage the collective-action and rule compliance needed to maintain a commons.Remained the same or Improved

Related Theories

TheoryRelationshipCharacterizing Variables
External recognition and local autonomycontains
User group boundariescontains
Proportionality and collective-actioncontains
Commons boundaries and collective actioncontains
Participatory management contains
Conflict resolution and collective actioncontains
Nested governancecontains

Related Studies


Ostrom, Elinor. 1990. Governing the Commons. New York: Cambridge University Press.


Cox, Michael, Gwen Arnold, and Sergio Villamayor-Tomas. 2010. “A Review of Design Principles for Community-Based Natural Resource Management.” Ecology and Society 15 (4).