More on the IAD Framework

Why are we talking about institutions and actors in solution oriented sustainability research? (And ITG?)

A brief summary of the course up to here:

Sustainability problems can be framed as coming from societal organisation and processes that create undesirable effects. In order to understand and solve them, or to contribute to their solution, the course presents some backgrounds and project oriented methods.
We have have discussed characteristics of sustainability problems in the first lecture. We have introduced systems thinking as an important mode of thinking which tries to understand dynamics (change over time) by looking into the deeper layer of causation (via causal loops which were not discussed deeply in the lecture) and their underlying structure of stocks, flows and feedbacks, which were emphasised in the lecture and the seminar. This perspective enables a deeper understanding of underlying processes which might be responsible for a problematic dynamic. With this in mind and the apparent necessity for change, once a problem is described, we looked deeper into theoretical perspective of how changes in terms of transitions can be explained, namely the so called multi level perspective and four distinct possible transition pathways, a socio technical system can take. Intentional change however, involves actions or change of behaviour. And as humans cannot act without interacting, this is where the lecture on actors and institutions comes in. As only actors can act (and not abstractions of systems units), we want to create an basic understanding of how actions of individuals and collective actors can be explained and studied. What makes actors behave in their specific ways, which formal, informal, explicit or tacit rules make them do what and how they do it.

For this purpose the lecture on actors and institutions initially defined the terms of actors and institutions and consequentially focused on Elinor Ostrom’s “Institutional Anaylsis and Development framework” (IAD). Institutions have an impact on which actions are “possible” for an actor or actor-groups in a sense. The value of looking at institutions is twofold. It enables us to better understand why (collective) actions took or take place in a certain way, producing a certain outcome and it enables us to elaborate or construct alternative institutional settings which might lead to different, or more desirable outcomes.

The following of this entry is not trying to re-explain all of the lecture. It rather provides some more material on the topic and reflects some frequent questions and gaps of understanding from the seminar especially regarding the IAD framework and the role of rules. Reading further here does not necessarily require having studied the assignment text, but if you consult this page for preparing for the exam without having done so, you might want to go back to moodle first.
Elinor Ostrom has herself summarised the framework here, by giving thorough explanations for the purpose, each component and especially for rules. You can have a closer look on rule configurations from p. 19 on. On p. 17 a definition of rules in general is given. The remainder of this entry is based on this background paper on the IAD.

What is the framework for?

Elinor Ostrom’s work was inspired (watch from 6:30 on) by Garret Hardin’s essay called “Tragedy of the commons”. In this essay, Hardin thinks about the “population problem” (constant population growth in a finite world) as a problem, which eventually cannot be solved technically. Along his argument, he illustrates this using the example of common pool resources. Common pool resources (or "the commons" or “Allmende” in German) are resources, from which no user can be excluded i.e. all possible users have access to. Think of a forest or fishing grounds in the ocean or a like. All you need to go harvesting is a saw, a hunting rifle or a ship and nets (—> boundary rule). In the harvesting “game” each harvester has a benefit to take as much as he or she can. This, according to Hardin, necessarily leads to overuse of the resource as an unescapable trap, which cannot be solved by harvesters themselves but requires rules to be imposed on them. Elinor Ostrom studied in the field specific communities and uses of commons empirically, basically to find out if there are other possible outcomes than overuse and collapse in reality. 
In short, the IAD framework was developed over many years as an analytical tool to be applied on such situations. It contains all necessary variables to understand the institutional arrangement around e.g. a specific case of fishing practices at a lake.

What does the framework consist of?

figure taken from here.

or as a later version from here.

Why the Actors are separated from the situation is of no concern here and can be read up in the backround-paper p.9. Let’s stick with "action situation" for now.

The action situation be the ongoing fishing activity at our lake at a certain time. How this activity looks like and why it looks like as it does, is partially externally “determined” by rules, attributes of the community, and the biophysical conditions, i.e. the conditions that certain fish live at certain depths, breeding at a certain time of year and so forth. Interactions in the action situation creates a certain outcome (e.g. food for people, commodities for export, jobs, pull factors for growing population, declining fish stocks…) which might themselves affect the external biophysical and community attributes or directly the action situation. These recursive arrows make it possible to use this framework over time and account for dynamic changes in the institutional arrangement. 
figure taken from here.

This figure (3) sort of opens up the action situation and allows analysis at the actor level. 


Are individuals that take part in the action situation, i.e. the fishing activities at our lake. For example fisherman john, fisherman Robert, fisherwoman Aria and harbour master Joffrey. 


Can be understood as roles or functions or an actor class. For our four actors, we can identify two positions. The fisherman and the harbour master. 


Each position can have a set of allowed or possible actions. A fisherman owns and sails a fishing vessel and extracts fish from the lake, brings it ashore at his harbour, and sells it directly on the landing stage. A harbour master assigns landing stages to incoming vessels for a certain time at a certain price, determined by the size of the vessel, grants customers access to the landing stages.

Information and Control

What information do actors have on their resource or fellow fishermen and how they affect which outcomes. What control do they have over the link between their actions and outcomes. They could e.g. confer on a maximum amount of fish they load off at one harbour for not spoiling prices due to oversupply (control). They can have traditional knowledge on where tho fish at what time or weather (information). A harbour master could know how much ships will come due to certain weather conditions or time of year. He might have some control how much fish will be on the market by denying ships to land their freight after a certain volume.

Pay-off, Costs and Benefits (incentives)

What specific costs and benefits come from potential outcomes which are linked to actors’ action? As a fisherman’s net profit is the income from selling his catch minus the fee he has to pay to the harbour master. The fee is dependent on the size of his ship, and he has the risk of not selling anything, when he is not assigned to a landing stage. So fishermen share an incentive to own a small ship and pack it as full as they can while being back before the others for minimising the risk of not getting to sell anything or maybe having to sail to a different harbour. A fisherman can act differently in this arrangement; own a large ship, and come back late. But this comes at a cost. 

This was the internal structure of an actin situation. But action situations partially depend external rules and their configuarion.

What are rules?

"Rules are shared understandings among those involved that refer to enforced prescriptions about what actions (or states of the world) are required, prohibited, or permitted. All rules are the result of implicit or explicit efforts to achieve order and predictability among humans by creating classes of persons (positions) that are then required, permitted, or forbidden to take classes of actions in relation to required, permitted, or forbidden states of the world (Crawford & Ostrom, 2005; V. Ostrom, 1997; Siddiki, Weible, Basurto, & Calanni, 2011).” (my accentuation)

Boundary rules

What constrains membership to the group involved in fishing at our lake? In our example, you have to have access, or live reasonably close to the lake shore.

Position rules

How do you move from just being a possible member in the situation to a specific role (position)? At our lake, you have to either own a ship, or a harbour. That’s it. Owning a ship makes you a fisherman, owning a harbour a harbour master. In this example boundary and position rules could also be the same ones. It is just important to note that actions are assigned to position (i.e. to the actor class) and not the individual actor. 

Choice rules (Authority)

What authority does a position (an actor class) have over their own actions? A fisherman may own a large or a small ship, he can come back early or lake, he can catch a lot or little, he can go every week or twice a day. The harbour master can charge a lot or little for landing, grant access to many or few customers, grant landing permits for long or short time. Also the net size might be required to have a certain grossness etc...

Scope rules

What is allowed for all participants? Is there a shared understanding about where not to fish, a certain maximum amount per fisherman per week etc.? In our example it might be unconventional to load too much fish which could lead to lack of security for the fishermen and deprive the harbour master of it’s fair income.

Aggregation rules

What is the actors’ understanding of the rules affecting their actions? Do certain actions require prior permission or communication?  In our example, fishermen might need prior permission of the harbour master to land their catch at a certain time of the day. Harbour masters might have to communicate timetables of free landing stages or changes in fees a week in advance.

Information rules

What is to be made public what to be held secret. For example, harbour master need to know the size of incoming ships to determine the fees. They need to know, when ships plan to come, so he can provide free landing stages at the agreed time.

Pay-off rules

What are sanctions for non compliance with rules above. For example. Overloaded vessels might have to give away their excess catch to charity and wait another day until they can go fishing again. The harbour master has to grant a week free access to a landing stage, if a ship does not get the promised landing stage at the communicated time. Fishermen not going to fish a whole week (e.g. while repairing their ship), get fish for their family from their colleagues.

General remarks

We hope this example helps to make more sense of the assignment. In this example we sticked to the analytical purpose of the framework, which makes it easier to grasp its components and the entire concept of structuring an insitutional arrangement in a given situation. In the assignment  and the seminar the idea was to “create” rules, which might be capable for solving a problem. That is to reflect on ways institutions could alter actor behaviour and outcomes in a way, which might result in a more desirable situation. This requires a sound understanding though. Usually, thiese rules and institutional arrangements evolve over a long time and exist for example as traditions, sometimes without actors or analysist to know about them.
Elinor Ostrom was extremely popular for being a great teacher and lecturer. Youtube is full of nice lectures and interviews. If environmental governance is your thing, go for a browse.
In 2009 she was awarded with the Nobel Prize in Economic sciences, as the first woman ever. You can watch her speech after receiving it here. She explains the internal of an action situation at around 25:00.
If getting your head around the IAD framework is hard for you at first, that is normal and should not discourage you. It is challenging material regarding challenging problems after all. This is well known. Ostrom is also known for the saying that solutions cannot be less complex than the problems they try to solve. She also states this in this Interview.