In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Institutions

  • Introduction
  • Definitions of Institutions
  • Drivers of Institutional Design
  • Institutional Change and Evolution
  • Main Frameworks for Institutional Analysis
  • Institutional Resilience and Robustness
  • Adaptive Governance and Institutions
  • Institutions as Component Parts of Complex Adaptive Systems
  • Methods and Applications of Institutional Analysis
  • Social Capital in Formal and Informal Institutions
  • Advances and Lessons in Game Theory

Environmental Science Institutions
Ramiro Berardo, Jeffrey W. Hanlon
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 September 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199363445-0040


There is widespread consensus among environmental scientists that a holistic understanding of how natural resources are managed effectively at different scales requires a solid grasp on the functioning of governance institutions that link human users to the biophysical world in which they are embedded. Societies exist within complex social-ecological systems, in which the social and ecological components are tightly connected in systematic, but often hard to understand, ways. Institutions are, in essence, the lubricant that mediates the relationship between the two components; without the right institutions in place, no human society can tackle environmental problems successfully. Needless to say, the variation of societies and ecological systems around the world is vast and rich, which makes the study of institutional diversity and its effect on the management of natural resources both fascinating and daunting. From the rules to manage small-scale indigenous fisheries to the treaties to tackle global climate change, humans craft and enforce institutions to avoid “tragedies of the commons” that result when the prevalence of individual interests leads to the mismanagement (and sometimes sheer complete destruction) of resources that are open to multiple users. This article serves as an introductory guide for scholars and students with an interest in understanding how social scientists have researched institutions and their role in constraining human behavior in search of sustainable uses of natural resources. Sections cover research focusing on the definition, creation, development, evolution, and performance of institutions, as well as the operation of institutions at different scales and in different topic areas.

Definitions of Institutions

The term “institution” has been used and misused to describe a wide variety of social structures and trends. Is language an institution? The US Congress? The fashion faux pas of brown shoes with a black belt? This introductory section defines exactly what the term means within the subfield of environmental governance. Hodgson 2006 addresses the confusion over the very definition of institutions. Hodgson’s key contribution is the distinction between self-organizing institutions (i.e., emergent strategies around coordination problems) and designed rules (to solve cooperation problems); the latter, he claims, is woefully underanalyzed. Hodgson’s article is a response to, and theoretical critique of, North 1990, the influential book that put forth the general definition of institutions as “rules of the game” in coordinating human activities. To provide clarity to many of the confusions raised by Hodgson, Ostrom 2009 clearly defines institutions as rules, norms, or strategies that people derive to coordinate or cooperate more successfully in collective endeavors. Using empirical examples drawn from game theoretical research and case studies regarding both coordination and cooperation problems, Ostrom posits that the institutions from which people either rationally or subconsciously derive to manage their shared use of natural resources is highly variable and contextually dependent. Ostrom 1986 very much echoes the direction Hodgson envisioned and contends that this is important if we are to become better at understanding rationally how to create rules that beget the types of biophysical and social outcomes we desire. However, there is still another hemisphere to human institutions—those that are not rationally derived but emerge out of repeated social activities. Bowles, et al. 2003 uses agent-based models to conclude that humans are not rational derivers of institutions but are experimenting with strategies of cooperation; those that yield benefits survive, and those that do not disappear. Related to this perspective, Greif and Laitin 2004 proposes that scholars focus on the systemic nature of social and biophysical pressures when investigating institutional change and stability. Together, the set of readings defines institutions and lays out some basic theoretical, terminological, and methodological possibilities for understanding better how human institutions are created and work in environmental management.

  • Bowles, S., J. K. Choi, and A. Hopfensitz. 2003. The co-evolution of individual behaviors and social institutions. Journal of Theoretical Biology 223.2: 135–147.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0022-5193(03)00060-2

    The authors explore the less rational type of institutions. Using agent-based models, they explain how and why group-beneficial norms of altruism and sharing evolve over time in societies, even if individually costly. Intergroup conflict serves as the causal driver of institutionalization of group-beneficial behaviors.

  • Greif, A., and D. D. Laitin. 2004. A theory of endogenous institutional change. American Political Science Review 98.04: 633–652.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0003055404041395

    Greif and Laitin provide a good background of the contribution of game theory to an understanding of what institutions are and how they change over time and/or remain stable. They theorize that endogenous institutional change can occur via altering of quasi-parameters, or how actors perceive the effects of their actions. Without even weak self-reinforcement of behaviors, institutions can and will drift toward other equilibria.

  • Hodgson, G. 2006. What are institutions? Journal of Economic Issues 40.1: 1–25.

    Defines institutions as “systems of established and prevalent social rules that structure social interactions” (p. 2). The article exposes the lack of clarity in other definitions, most notably the one by North 1990, and argues that both organizations and informal rules are, in fact, institutions.

  • North, D. C. 1990. Institutions, institutional change and economic performance. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511808678

    The book contains the classic definition of institutions as “rules of the game” that shape human interactions and help solve coordination and cooperation problems. It also discusses institutional change as a symbiotic process in which institutions and organizations shaped by them coevolve, affecting each other dynamically.

  • Ostrom, E. 1986. An agenda for the study of institutions. Public Choice 48.1: 3–25.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF00239556

    Describes how “institutions” have been variously defined as preferences, rules, individual strategies, customs and norms, and structural aspects of political systems. The focus in this article is on the analysis of rules, which are defined as linguistic entities used to prescribe required, prohibited, or permitted behavior in action situations.

  • Ostrom, E. 2009. Understanding institutional diversity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    Provides a comprehensive overview of the institutional analysis and development (IAD) framework, building and expanding on previous efforts that laid the foundations of the approach, most noticeable Ostrom’s classic Governing the Commons (Ostrom 1990, cited under Drivers of Institutional Design). The book focuses on how to identify and evaluate rules that constrain human behavior.

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