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Social-Ecological Systems Meta-Analysis Database: Theory

User group boundaries

Variable relationship:

Ostrom (1990) predicts that social boundaries (Actor Group Boundary Clarity) that delineate who is and who is not a member of a commons user group, or otherwise who can and who cannot use a commons (Outsider Exclusion) are important for limiting access to the commons. Social boundaries are also pivotal in ensuring that those who comply with group rules are provided sufficient benefts (from commons use) for motivating their continued cooperation (Collective Action) and succesful outcomes (Commons Condition Trend). Initial formulations of this theory grouped social boundaries with resource boundaries, but was subdivided by Cox et al. (2010).

Scientific Field
Component Type(s)
Natural Resource Unit


VariableRoleRole ExplanationValue
Actor group boundary clarityProximate independent variableClear social boundaries (as opposed to unclear boundaries or no boundaries) are needed to ensure that cooperators obtain the benefits needed to sustain collective action and the condition of the commons.Clear boundaries
Collective actionIntermediate outcomeClear social boundaries and outsider exclusion provide incentives for high levels of collective action. High
Outsider exclusionIntermediate outcomeClear social boundaries and high levels of collective action help to enable the effective exclusion of non-user-group members (outsiders) from over-using the commons.Some to total exclusion
Commons condition trendFinal outcomeAs a result of high levels of collective the commons is sustained or improved. Remained the same or improved.

Related Theories

TheoryRelationshipCharacterizing Variables
CBNRM design principlesnested
Collective action and the commonscontains

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).