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Commons Comment

At Prawfsblawg, Derek Bambauer has some provocative thoughts about cultural commons that follow up on the “Convening Cultural Commons” workshop that I co-hosted a week ago at NYU, with Brett Frischmann and Kathy Strandburg.

Derek writes:

[T]here was one looming issue that the conferees couldn’t resolve: what, exactly, is a commons?

The short answer is: no one knows. Ostrom’s work counsels a bottom-up, accretive way to answer this question. Over time, with enough case studies, the boundaries of what constitutes a “commons” become clear. So, the conventional answer, and one supported by a lot of folks at the NYU conference, is to go forth and, in the spirit of Clifford Geertz, engage in collection and thick description of things that look like, or might be, commons.

As an outsider to the field, I think that’s a mistake.

And he goes on to offer some tentative thoughts regarding possible “theories of the middle range.”

I appreciate Derek’s thoughts and suggestions.  All the same, I think that it’s possible to over-state the distinction between “Geertzian” bottom-up approaches and top-down theoretical approaches to the commons “space.”  For one, neither Ostrom’s work nor mine (with Brett and Kathy) are really concerned primarily with “what is a commons?”; rather, the work is aimed at understanding the dynamics of institutions and reasons for their successes and failures.  The definitional question is a question about what cultural (or information or knowledge) institutions are worth studying.  Do we include or exclude certain targets ex ante because they “are” or “are not” “commons” according to some analytic definition?  Speaking only for myself, I think that using a hard-edged strategy of exclusion is unwise, particularly at the front end of a research project, if only because you lose out on potentially valuable insights.  (The converse risk is that you waste the time of readers and potential partners by studying things that turn out not to be useful.  But such is the nature of the research enterprise, I think.)   Even “theories of the middle range,” if employed too aggressively, create risks of excluding potentially valuable research targets.

So, one participant at the Convening Cultural Commons workshop argued to me that the research enterprise should be focused exclusively on innovation institutions, that is, on institutions whose primary purpose was to encourage the cumulation of knowledge.  (That would eliminate research on roller derby from the enterprise, for example.)  Personally, I think that approach is too narrow; one of the interesting distinctions between a natural resource commons and a “cultural” commons, using that phrase as I used it with Brett and Kathy in this paper (and this one) is that the outcome of the commons isn’t necessarily a “what” — a sustainable resource (or collection of resources).  The outcome may be a “who” — a sustainable community or collaborative or field or discipline.  Emphasis on “may” in that sentence.  Consider that a working “theory of the middle range.”

One of the most fascinating and rewarding things about the workshop was its genuinely interdisciplinary character.  We had substantial, interesting contributions from legal scholars and also from political scientists, economists, anthropologists, sociologists, and historians.  (And I may be omitting one or two fields.)  That breadth sometimes made the workshop challenging, because participants’ frames of reference were often quite different.  The search for a definition of “commons” was in part an effort to reach a conversational starting point, if you will, rather than a search for an intellectually rigorous starting point.  But I think that everyone there came away stimulated and encouraged about participating in a “commons” future.