What’s missing from Ostrom? Design principles, cultural theory, and Faroese grindadráp

Benedict Singleton, of Örebro University, Sweden, compared Elinor Ostrom’s design principles with cultural theory to understand the situations that arise when common pool resources are harvested, and improve management.

Benedict Singleton

Benedict Singleton


Many societies face challenges in managing natural resources; one response is to manage them collectively as a common pool resource (CPR). Elinor Ostrom’s design principles for successful CPR institutions have been influential and applied in a wide variety of settings: challenging orthodox economic predictions that CPRs can only be managed through systems of privatization or state control. The principles are not without criticism: Ostrom’s adherence to a rational choice-based approach, it has been argued, led her to underappreciate the possibilities/importance of macro-level factors; to hold an over simplistic picture of human behavior; and to be quiet on issues of power and inequity. This presentation explores the possibility that cultural theory (CT), a theory of plural rationality related to context, could be used to ameliorate these criticisms. This involves comparison of design principle- and CT-based analyses of a CPR institution: Faroese pilot whaling, grindadráp.


This research is based on three months’ fieldwork in the Faroe Islands in 2014. These data were used to carry out a CT analysis of Faroese whaling. The findings were then compared to an assessment based on Ostrom’s design principles [1].

Results and conclusions

Faroese pilot whaling embodies all eight of Ostrom’s design principles, suggesting that it is likely a successful institution and will prove to be a long-standing one. By contrast, the CT analysis suggests that grindadráp is based around the principles of egalitarianism and hierarchy. This is the mark of a true CPR institution [2] and is what has ensured that grindadráp has maintained its place in modern Faroese society. The particular principles that predominate vary at different social scales, becoming more hierarchical at the national and international scales. The institution itself has changed repeatedly, but the egalitarian base of the practice has usually been reinforced. Despite this, when faced with particular challenges (such as how to ensure equitable distribution of meat and blubber), it has proved possible for solutions rooted in alternative logics to be voiced and accepted. Thus Faroese whaling, in CT terms, is clumsy: effective and appropriate in responding to diverse challenges.

CT and Ostrom’s design principles are largely complementary; the design principles may be interpreted as guidance for creation of an egalitarian-hierarchical institution. By using both approaches, practitioners and stakeholders are presented with a more nuanced picture of a CPR institution and can better assess the possibilities of enduring management. Future work will explore the creation of composite design principles and whether CT also augments Ostrom’s later work on socioeconomic systems.


[1] Kerins, S. 2010. A Thousand Years of Whaling. Edmonton: CCI Press.

[2] Thompson, M. 1998. Style and scale: two sources of institutional approaches. In: M. Goldman, ed, Privatizing nature. London: Pluto Press, 198-228.


Michael Thompson and Wei Liu, Risk, Policy and Vulnerability Program, IIASA


Benedict Singleton, of Örebro University, Sweden, is a citizen of UK. He was funded by the IIASA Swedish National Member Organization and worked in the Risk, Policy and Vulnerability Program during the YSSP.

Please note these Proceedings have received limited or no review from supervisors and IIASA program directors, and the views and results expressed therein do not necessarily represent IIASA, its National Member Organizations, or other organizations supporting the work.

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Last edited: 02 February 2016

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