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Lessons learned from synthetic research projects based on the Ostrom Workshop frameworks

Michael Cox, Environmental Studies Program, Dartmouth College
Georgina G. Gurney, Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland, Australia
John M. Anderies, School of Human Evolution and Social Change and School of Sustainability, Arizona State University, Tempe, United States
Eric Coleman, Florida State University Department of Political Science
Emily Darling, Wildlife Conservation Society, Global Marine Program, Bronx, New York, USA
Graham Epstein, School of Politics, Security and International Affairs, University of Central Florida, Orlando, USA; School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Canada
Ulrich J. Frey, University of Giessen, Giessen, Germany; German Aerospace Center, Stuttgart, Germany
Mateja Nenadovic, Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University
Edella Schlager, School of Government and Public Policy, The University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA
Sergio Villamayor-Tomas, Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA), Autonomous University of Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain


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A generalized knowledge of social-ecological relationships is needed to address current environmental challenges. Broadly comparative and synthetic research is a key method for establishing this type of knowledge. To date, however, most work on social-ecological systems has applied idiosyncratic methods to specific systems. Several projects, each based on the frameworks developed by Elinor Ostrom and colleagues, stand out for their application of consistent methods across a broad range of cases. In this paper we compare seven of these projects and draw conclusions regarding their potential benefits and the challenges that scholars can expect in conducting this type of research. The two main challenges that we identified are (1) the collective-action dilemmas that collaborators face in producing and maintaining the social and technical infrastructure that is needed for such projects; and (2) balancing complexity and comparability in the structure of the databases used and the associated methods for characterizing complex social-ecological cases. We discuss approaches for meeting these challenges, and present a guiding checklist of questions for project design and implementation to provide guidance for future broadly comparative research.

Key words

broadly comparative research; commons; Ostrom; synthesis

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Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087