Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Resource Economics

Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin | Thaer-Institute | Resource Economics | Research challenges | Problem dimensions | Institutional Change and Governance Reform in Social-ecological Systems

Institutional Change and Governance Reform in Social-ecological Systems


Human behavior and in particular economic choices depend crucially on what social constructions actors and societies have developed over time and how these in turn have shaped their reasoning and visioning. This ubiquitous interdependence between structure and agency has found its expression in how traditions and religions, norms and rules, languages and discourses, trust and commitment, mental models and believes emerge, are practiced and change.

However, such processes of social construction and deconstruction do not take place only in the social world; indeed, they are crucially conditioned and influenced by attributes of the physical and natural environment. Those physical stocks and natural systems humans want to extract matter or energy from, grow living organisms on, or dispose into, show a wide range of properties and are subjected to changing scarcities. The interconnected ecological, biological, geological, hydrological, marine and atmospheric subsystems of the earth system are extremely diverse and complex, ever changing and only understood by humans to a limited extent. This equally applies to the tools, technologies and infrastructures humans have developed - with an rapidly increasing speed of innovation and expansion over the last century - and set up to use, manage, cope with and also protect those systems such as farm machines, irrigation systems, logging equipment and fishing devices.

Such tools, technologies and infrastructures have enabled humans to increase their capacity to perform nature-related transactions which had an important impact. This is because these transactions have properties that are typical of natural systems - because these are not completely designed by humans like transaction that relate to engineered systems. Hence the interdependence between actors they cause may be different requiring also different institutions and governance structures that regularize the interaction of natural-technological and social-institutional systems.

Given this natural and technological context that influences the social construction of human behavior it is obvious that regularizing and governing the interrelationship of humans vis-à-vis the intertwined systems outline above natural and technological systems, which will affect simultaneously the relationship among themselves, cannot be achieved by few and simple social constructions. In contrast, such diversity and complexity in natural and associated technological systems requires require corresponding diversity and complexity in institutions and governance structures and forms, what is not only a plausible suggestion but has been theoretically and empirically substantiated in a by the Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University in Bloomington Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University in Bloomington, USA.

There is one theoretical and empirical conclusion which should be emphasized: Any institutional analysis of the interaction of natural-technological and social-institutional systems should start from explicitly accepting complexity and diversity. This means to refrain from oversimplification in institutional analysis and to be careful with theoretical approaches and empirical methods which may automatically imply oversimplification. For policy recommendations it is equally important to avoid blueprints that give the impression that they could be successfully applied anywhere independently from the physical and social context and the historical background. Elinor Ostrom’s famous warning of panaceas applies.


This problem dimension has been addressed in the following research projects:

  • PINE (Transcoop)
    Promotion of Institutions for Natural Resource and Environmental Management in Central and Eastern Europe
Mann, Carsten Dynamics of governance regimes and reciprocal influence with policy instruments
Otto-Banaszak, Ilona From Government to Governance: Problems and Tensions in Transition to Polycentric Governance of Natural Resources
Pinto Siabato, Flavio Institutions for the Sustainability of the Economic and the Ecological Systems from a Perspective of Complex Systems
Schleyer, Christian Market-based instruments as components of institutional arrangements for the provision of ecosystem services – The example of land use measures for climate- and nature-protection in cultural landscapes in Central Europe
Schlüter, Maja Mechanisms of resilience in coupled social-ecological systems - examples from irrigation and fisheries
Theesfeld, Insa Water and Institutional Analysis – Power and Leadership in Natural Resource Management
Thiel, Andreas Shaping the scale of natural resource governance

Zikos, Dimitrios
Resource Scarcity, Competition and the Relationship between Conflict and Cooperation. The Role of Institutions in Shaping the Outcome