Lin’s Legacy: A Conversation with Michael Cox

PROSOCIAL is founded in large part on the work of Elinor Ostrom, a political scientist by training who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009. I met Lin (as she insisted everyone should call her) at a workshop in 2009, just a few months before she received the prize, and we worked together until her death in 2012. A partner in our collaboration was Michael Cox, who received his PhD with Lin and worked with her as a postdoctoral associate before accepting a faculty position in the Environmental Studies Program at Dartmouth College.

Michael is prominent among those extending Lin’s legacy and was the inaugural recipient of the Elinor Ostrom Award on Collective Governance of the Commons in 2016. He is the perfect person to discuss how PROSOCIAL’s “Core Design Principles (CDP) Approach” is being applied elsewhere.

DSW: Greetings, Michael, and welcome to PROSOCIAL Magazine. It’s a pleasure to interact with you again.

MC: Thank you David for setting this up. I am excited to talk about the “Core Design Principles” as you call them.

DSW: Always self-effacing, Lin insisted that they should NOT be called “The Ostrom Principles”. The announcement of your award on Dartmouth’s website says a little about how you became involved with Lin and what you are up to at Dartmouth. Let’s get right to a discussion of the Core Design Principles. Tell our readers how Lin derived them and how you and others had expanded upon her work at the time that I began working with you.

MC: It’s difficult to authoritatively describe how Lin derived the design principles, but I have impressions. More than anything I remember Lin talking about trying to “make sense” of the patterns she was seeing in a set of cases of community-based natural resource management. She was looking at cases of success and failure, although the design principles are most commonly seen as conditions for success, and that is how she introduced them. I do remember Lin telling me about going for walks as she struggled to find a pattern among the successful and unsuccessful cases. I suppose someone could criticize this effort for not being very reproducible, which is something we want in science. But maybe it is the case that many novel and importantly innovative efforts are not reproducible, and what is needed is an unpredictable stroke of intuition or intellectual creativity to make progress.

DSW: Did she eventually do a statistical analysis, based on numerical codings of the case studies, or was her analysis entirely descriptive?

MC: To my knowledge Lin did not do a statistical analysis in producing or testing the design principles. In Governing the Commons, the book in which she introduced them, there are 14 cases that she examines. So this would not be enough for any conventional type of statistical analysis. The commons project that she headed, and to some extent led to her writing that book, did involve several statistical analyses, I believe mostly led by her students at the time. So I would say that her analysis was not statistical, but I would also not call it entirely descriptive, as she was making non-correlational comparisons between the success and failures and making causal inferences based on the patterns she found.

DSW: I’m not disparaging this style of analysis at all. On the contrary, it is close to the way that evolutionary research takes place in the biological sciences, starting with a foundation of natural history information that is largely descriptive, which then gets refined by more quantitative methods. Now let’s focus on how others have built on her work.

MC: Moving forward from what Lin has done has required that we continue to conduct fieldwork-based, empirical social science to better understand the conditions that facilitate or frustrate effective commons management. I have worked on community-based irrigation systems for several years, and recently have begun to look at such systems in the Dominican Republic, along with some community-based fisheries here. I think this experience and approach to commons science is important. It humbles you as an institutional “expert”, someone that other people look to for answers to management and governance problems. But the challenge is that real-world systems are very complex and patterns can be difficult to detect, and that, even if we know that we want to get from A to B (where B is say the presence of the core design principles), getting there can be very difficult. Lin often talked about the importance of understanding institutional change, and to me it means understanding just this type of process.

To complement this fieldwork-focused research we need theoretical development, which several of us have been working on in a project known as the Social-ecological systems meta-analysis database (SESMAD) project (, where we have formalized theories of commons governance in a shared database. This is, as far as I know, the first attempt at creating a repository of theoretical knowledge of commons governance.

DSW: Your point about getting from A to B is taken very seriously by PROSOCIAL, which works on increasing psychological and organizational flexibility in addition to implementing the Core Design Principles. Next, tell us about Lin’s outsider status. As I understand it, not only was she largely unknown among economists when she received the prize, but she represented a minority school of thought within political science and wasn’t even well recognized by her university. Is that correct?

MC: Well, I would say that Lin was well known in the discipline of political science by then, having served as the president of the American Political Science Association at one point. It is certainly true that she was not well known in the discipline of economics before she won the prize. I think her work is probably unfamiliar to most economists, as it is mostly qualitative. Lin collaborative with people who did quantitative work, but it wasn’t as if she was booting up Stata every morning and running lots of regressions like a good econometrician. The field she helped create, which I generally just refer to as the study of the commons, faces several challenges that are likewise probably unfamiliar to many economists who do not devote substantial parts of their research time to going into the field to collect primary, very often observational (non-experimental) data. These challenges include the high cost of collecting such data and the comparatively low statistical power available to those of us who try to collect quantitative data in the field. So in this way it is more like anthropology, but it is also deeply informed by economic theory, which Lin’s work was as well of course.

DSW: The CDPs are a big part of Lin’s legacy but there is also more, including the concept of polycentric governance that she developed with her husband Vincent and others. How would you describe her full legacy?

MC: Probably foremost here is the idea that top-down management is not always required and can sometimes cause more problems than it resolves. This is of course related to the idea of polycentric governance, which is often contrasted to a system with only one center of decision-making authority. Additionally, Lin was a strong advocate of the idea that there is not one solution to all our social or environmental problems. I actually think this is a profound idea, in part because we see all around us the temptation to proclaim otherwise. In the commons field, this often comes in the form of arguments in favor of a particular type of governance arrangement (such as market-based systems like cap-and-trade for climate change or individual transferable quota systems in fisheries). But in research in general, I think there is a tendency to find the “key” to explaining an important outcome, such as personal success or individual-level health outcomes.

Indeed, the main criticism that has been leveled at Lin’s principles has been that they seem to some people to represent a “blueprint” approach to organization: just apply these principles and you will be successful. I think the response to that, as you have articulated, is to understand that each of the principles allows for a large diversity of implementations, so they are not as precisely prescriptive as they may seem.

Then to continue to respond to your original question, I think a big part of Lin’s legacy is the idea that science is a social enterprise, and that it is not just about being precise and following protocols, but is more like a craft, involving a mix of explicit and more implicit processes and activities. Both of these ideas are embodied in the use of the term “Workshop” in name of the center that Vincent and Lin created at Indiana. For me these are actually the parts of Lin’s legacy that I still experience most directly. My professional social network is hugely important to me, as I think much of what makes work enjoyable is who you do it with, and much of this network was produced during my time at the Workshop. I often contrasted in my mind the social atmosphere at the Workshop with the advice a dean once gave me when I was a first-year graduate student, in which she described getting a PhD as a “monastic” activity (which sounded awful to me).

DSW: As you know, our academic article generalizes the CDPs in two ways. First, they follow from the evolutionary dynamics of cooperation in all species and our evolutionary history as a highly cooperative species. Thus, the theoretical framework can be generalized beyond theories that are restricted to political science and economics. Second, for this reason, the CDPs apply to nearly any group whose members must work together to achieve common goals. In a sense, cooperation is itself a common pool resource. Have others arrived at this insight, apart from our own effort, and to what extent has the CDP framework been expanded beyond common-pool resource groups?

MC: It certainly has been applied to the analysis of groups that are not using an environmental commons. A little while ago the study of the commons was extended to include non-environmental commons, and some of the new work has explicitly examined the design principles. I would still say that they are primarily applied in an environmental context though. In any case, I do like your comment that “cooperation is itself a common pool resource.” Lin and others used to distinguish between a first-order collective-action problem, which is based on a divergence in interests of group members caused by their shared use of a common-pool resource, and a second-order collective-action problem, which is the problem of deciding who will incur the costs involved in producing the cooperation needed to resolve the first-order collective-action problem. The development and enforcement of the institutions needed to resolve first-order collective-action problems have the quality of a public good, and individuals thus have an incentive to free-ride on the efforts of others to provide these services to the group. Why should I go out and monitor when someone else will?

DSW: Thanks! Even though the CDPs are extremely general, as originally formulated by Lin they bear the earmarks of the particular kind of groups that she studied. Has this been commented upon and has anyone proposed amendments to the core set, either for common-pool resource groups or other kinds of groups?

MC: Well, within the study of environmental commons, the design principles are generally seen as a subset of a larger set of factors that are known to affect the likelihood of successful governance. Other factors include the size of the group involved, how heterogeneous this group is along different dimensions, and whether or not there are effective and accountable leaders to motivate the efforts of regular group members. So while there hasn’t been a lot of effort to better articulate the design principles per se, there definitely has been a lot of work done to expand the list of factors known to determine success.

DSW: There’s a lot to be said here. PROSOCIAL makes a distinction between the Core Design Principles, which are needed by most groups, and “Auxiliary” principles, which are needed by some groups to accomplish their specific objectives. For example, in a school for at-risk students that I and my colleagues helped to design, we added two auxiliary principles (creating a safe and secure social environment and making long-term learning outcomes rewarding over the short term) to the eight CDPs.  I think that the concept of a core set is important and I wouldn’t want to see it diluted by the addition of many additional factors. Take group size as an example.  It is assuredly an important factor, but does it count as a ninth principle or is it important because it influences how the eight principles can be implemented? A lot of research will be required to clarify these issues. On that point, when we first started working together, you had already assessed Lin’s findings with an additional sample of common-pool resource groups. Have there been other assessments and how strong is the empirical support for the CDP approach today?

MC: Actually I am not aware of any similar efforts to do this.

DSW: As you know, PROSOCIAL uses the CDPs in a very practical way to improve the efficacy of groups of all sorts. Has this been attempted by any other individual or group?

MC: To my knowledge PROSOCIAL is unique in this way David. That is one of the main reasons I am really excited about what you all are doing with this effort.

DSW: PROSOCIAL has a second major component in addition to the CDPs—techniques for increasing psychological flexibility taken from the applied behavioral sciences. After all, adopting the CDPs requires individual and organizational change, which is not always easy. Do you know if any other change efforts based on the CDPs also pay attention to psychological flexibility?

MC: I do not; I think it may be a weakness of the study of the commons that we are not always aware of advances in psychological research, which are obviously relevant to our own efforts.

DSW: I’d like to end by discussing the relationship between the CDP approach and other approaches to good governance at all scales. Because the CDPs (or more generally Multilevel Selection Theory) are so general, I tend to think that all other successful governance methods will reflect the same principles. It’s not as if another core set it out there! Here is how I sometimes put it: What Ostrom showed for common-pool resource groups is that some have adopted the CDPs without needing to be taught, while the same principles are sadly lacking in other groups. It was this variation that enabled Lin to derive the CDPs in the first place. The same variation can be expected for all other kinds of groups, including formalized methods of governance. Some work better than others and the difference can be attributed to the CDPs. That said, I also recognize the importance of auxiliary design principles required for groups with specific objectives, as we have already discussed.

This way of thinking about the generality of the CDPs works pretty well for me. For example, my most recent article for PROSOCIAL Magazine describes a book titled  “Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness”, by a management consultant named Frederic Laloux. It’s a fascinating book with wonderful case studies of businesses that work well, but this is because of the CDP’s, not other principles! As another seemingly very different example, some evangelical Christian churches have adopted a social organization called a cell group ministry, in which a large congregation is divided into small groups that meet in people’s homes. Why do these cells work so well? You guessed it!

In work that you alluded to earlier (, you describe an open access database that includes many theoretical perspectives, their predictions, and supporting data. I really admire this effort, which is audacious in scope, but at least upon my first reading there doesn’t seem to be an effort to derive a common set of principles shared by the theories. Lin’s CDP approach is just side by side with many others. Please help me relate the approach you are taking with this database with my own approach.

MC: Well, the database is designed to serve as a repository of theories that have stipulated relationships between independent factors and important outcomes of environmental commons governance. The context for these theories is not exclusively community-based natural resource management, which was Lin’s context when she developed the design principles. So there are many theories that are describing the outcomes that are predicted when, say, a centralized government tries to set up a large protected area, potentially by excluding natural resource users. There are many patterns of interactions between humans and their natural environment that are important to document, and so yes, in this context Lin’s design principles become one among many such patterns that have been discovered. And finally, as I mentioned before, even within the context of community-based natural resource management, there are factors that are known to matter other than the design principles, so we needed the database to reflect these as well.

DSW: This has been a great interview! Is there anything you would like to add that we have not already covered?

MC: Nope! I think that covers it!

DSW: Thanks for your time and I’m glad to introduce you to the PROSOCIAL community with this interview.

MC: Thank you very much David, I appreciated the chance to think about all of this again.

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David Sloan Wilson is President of the Evolution Institute and SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. His most recent book is Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others.

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