Subproject 3 and 4

A micro-analysis of internal functioning of fishing collectivities and mutuals

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Remarkable about the growth of new ICAs today is their omnipresence in various sectors, and their tendency to utilise, regardless of differences in resource types, similar types of rules and mechanisms to achieve resilience. In this context lists of rules for resilient ICAs, in particular the Design Principles List of Ostrom have received a lot of attention. However, this has also somewhat obscured the subtle varieties in rules and their adjustments that took place over time as well as the attention for the way in which such rules play a role in dealing with variations in size and heterogeneity of both resources and members. Both between and within specific ICA-archetypes such varieties are present. This motivates our choice for in-depth micro-analyses of internal functioning of 2 substantially different types of ICAs in NL and BE (fishing collectivities, 1200-2020, Subproject 3) and mutual insurances (1900-2020) (Subproject 4), with each PhD focussing on one type of ICA. Given their differences in resource used and managed collectively, we expect to find substantial variation in the types of rules designed to achieve sufficient utility, equity and efficiency in the ICA, for it to stay in balance. We also expect to find a different impact on the institutional design due to differences in types of heterogeneity: whereas fishing collectivities benefitted from higher resource heterogeneity (as in different services offered to the members, from collective safety measures to the sharing of equipment and trade facilities), but would have also benefitted from member homogeneity, the mutuals would have benefitted more from certain types of member heterogeneity (e.g. variety in ages among members) in order to spread risks among their members and over time.

Another advantage of our choice of ICA-type for the case-studies is their long-term evolution as archetypes: both fishing collectivities and mutuals are interesting examples of different “bifurcations” in the taxonomy that will be built in Subproject 1. Whereas fishing collectivities originally were organised as guilds but then, after their dissolution, moved on as cooperatives, the mutuals were a new form of ICA which took over only part of the functions – insurances – of the guilds and developed as a separate ICA-archetype. The continuity between the guilds and cooperatives as ICAs in the domain of fishing is also most interesting to help us understand the effect of resource type on the prevalence of collective action in specific sectors.

These substantial differences in both resource types and member-expectations ensure that our focus on these ICA-archetypes will deliver a unique perspective on the range of instruments to deal with social dilemmas within an ICA-context, over long periods of time. With Subprojects 3 and 4 we will aim at delivering a specific outcome that will add to the integrated theory on ICAs: we will build scenarios that help us to identify the impact of group and resource size and heterogeneity in terms of utility and equity, and how institutional design is adapted to moderate these effects.


In terms of size and heterogeneity of membership, Subprojects 3 and 4 will identify the level of utility and equity by using already designed parameters to evaluate, across time, the relationship between the group’s features on the one hand, and the way in which resources and access to the decision-making processes are distributed among members on the other hand. A lack of balance between the group of active users of commoners (those harvesting resources, or performing labour or administrative tasks on the commons) and passive users (those who merely became members because they had the right to do so) may lead to changes in governance and eventually also the dissolution of the common. For example, changes in the level of active membership (members who actively used the resources or fulfil tasks for the ICA) versus passive membership (members who registered as members but did not participate) may be used as an indicator for the utility-parameter, helping us to understand why certain governance decisions in the institutional design may have been made. On the other hand, inclusion of all stakeholders in the decision-making process diminishes the need for costly and complex sanctioning mechanisms. So far, however, research results remain often restricted to geographically isolated cases within a specific time frame and context, thus preventing extrapolation of the results for other cases and regions.

In terms of the study of size and heterogeneity of resources, Subprojects 3 and 4 will consist of three main data collection and analysis efforts: First of all, an overview will be made of how services and goods offered to the collectivity of members evolved over time (stock and flow of the resources), how the diversity in functions was adjusted to the needs of the members over time (changes in utility) and to what extent rules were adjusted to balance changes in the members’ needs.

In terms of institutional analysis, Subprojects 3 and 4 will add to the Commons-rules-dataset (over 5,000 coded regulations of commons during pre-industrial times), rules of the selected ICAs, and as such consolidate earlier work. Subprojects 3 and 4 will be able to build upon extensive experiences of the research team in longitudinal analysis of ICA-regulation, as demonstrated in the MIDI-project and the Common-Rules-project. The MIDI-project builds on a large database of historical cases of commons, containing information about the rules in place and how they were adjusted over time, all retrieved from regulation books. These allow us to track institutional change as a reaction to changes in resources, in the user group, and in external factors. This has been done in The Common Rules Project, an international network of historians at the universities of Utrecht, Lancaster, and Pamplona built between 2011-2014 a dataset of regulations governing the shared use of natural resources (pastures, forests, peat, water) in pre-industrial communities across western Europe. To add to the systematic analysis of regulations and comparison with other cases, we will be expanding the existing database with the ADICO-framework, originally designed by Crawford and Ostrom. The analysis of historical regulations will offer novel and sounder insights about how the rules of ICAs was adjusted over time to cope with sources of distress and crisis. Applying this framework on longer timeframes than it was actually designed for will undoubtedly bring to light some new challenges but also opportunities to understand the evolution of institutions over longer periods of time, as the historical information is usually richer and more detailed than the data on which ADICO has so far been applied. The resulting necessary modifications to the framework will also subsequently enrich the study of current ICAs, within other disciplines. In order to enhance the comparability of the regulation-data collected for the UNICA-project, the PI has also agreed to join the Institutional Grammar Research Initiative (IGRI) as a faculty affiliate.


For these SPs we will restrict the number of cases to what is – from an archival perspective – doable, as in-depth case-studies are highly labour-intensive, but also very rewarding in terms of a deep insight in the functioning of an organisation. Besides the detailed archival data on resources, members and institution, the PhDs will be able to rely on the in Subproject 2 composed country-level overviews of potential threats to ICAs in order to explain changes in the strategies of the selected cases.

Members’ behaviour will be reconstructed based on archival evidence documenting exploitation levels and contribution to the ICA’s resource maintenance. The utility members obtained from resource exploitation will be linked to changes in their background and how this affected their within-group behaviour. Conversely, the degree to which members were treated fairly (equity), will be derived from records on their access to resources and involvement in decision-making processes. Other sources needed to study group dynamics will mainly consist of bookkeeping (to reconstruct the involvement of members in the appropriation of the resources, administrative work and labour done for the organization, etc.) in combination with membership lists and other sources indirectly related to the case (such as parish registers), to retrieve sufficient biographical information about individual members. Resource availability will also be distilled from bookkeeping and meeting records, and from other, wherever relevant and available, sources (such as economic surveys). Regulation data will be retrieved from rulebooks or other sources in which the rules were noted, e.g. minutes of general meetings of the organization.