Chapter 2A: The Congruence Principle

This is the third in a series of blog posts on the meaning of the design principles.  The posts aim to provide a gentle introduction to each of Ostrom’s design principles for sustainable community-based natural resource management.  As a reminder, these posts represent my own perspective and experience undertaking research on the design principles and are not necessarily representative of how all commons scholars interpret and understand the design principles.  I hope that if you disagree or have something that might require further clarification that you reach out so that we can provide a simple, yet practically useful online guide to the design principles.


The third design principle, namely the congruence (i.e. fit) between appropriation rules and local conditions (2A), suggests that prospects for sustainable community-based management are enhanced when rules for the use of common-pool resources (i.e. appropriation rules) are adjusted to local conditions.  Once again, this principle has been changed by Michael Cox, Gwen Arnold and Sergio Villamayor Tomas from Ostrom’s initial formulation to distinguish between fit to local conditions and proportionality between appropriation and provision rules as can be seen from definitions below:

Appropriation rules restricting time, place, technology and/or quantity of resource units are related to local conditions and to provision rules requiring labor, materials and/or money

Ostrom (1990)

Appropriation rules restricting time, place, technology, and/or quantity of resource units are related to local conditions

Cox et al. (2010)

The basic concept of congruence or fit between rules and local conditions is highly intuitive.  However, the congruence principle is not the same as the more general concept of institutional fit.  First and foremost, the congruence principle is concerned about the fit between appropriation rules (i.e. rules for the use of resources) and local conditions.  Second, the definition does not specify the components (i.e. social, ecological or both) that individually or collectively define “local conditions”.  However, from examples in Governing the Commons and related research it seems fairly clear that “local conditions” can be primarily social, primarily ecological or both.   Third and finally, as noted in the first post the design principles record details about rules-in-use rather than rules-in-form. 

Theoretical Mechanism(s)

Congruence between appropriation rules and local conditions may help to support sustainable governance of common-pool resources through several mechanisms.  First, congruence between appropriation rules and locally relevant institutions, customs and norms may facilitate sustainable management by encouraging higher levels of compliance and collective action, even if the rules themselves are not necessarily optimal from an ecological standpoint.  For example, the practice of notching berried females in Maine’s lobster fishery provides resource users a fairly clear signal that other resource users are complying with rules, helping to build trust within the community, but may actually be somewhat harmful to the lobsters themselves by increasing risks of infection.  Second, congruence may facilitate sustainable management by offering more effective and efficient solutions to ensure that resources are exploited sustainably in a particular social and ecological context.  For example, several studies have suggested that quantity rules for appropriation are ill-suited to manage the exploitation of mobile resources, particularly in the absence of storage and/or scientific technologies and methods for assessing resource conditions. 


The measurement of congruence or fit between appropriation rules and local conditions is somewhat different from other design principles in that it necessarily implies consideration of at least two variables, one which relates to appropriation rules and the other that relates to some aspect of the local social, ecological and institutional context.  Given the inherent complexity of the local social, ecological and institutional context it is somewhat challenging to provide general advice for measurement.  Nonetheless, I would suggest that there are at least three general types of measures that might be used to assess congruence; interaction terms, levels of correspondence or overlap between institutional and contextual features and credible mechanisms.  The first, interactions, involves the development of an interaction term involving an appropriation rule (or attribute thereof) and one or more feature of the local social, ecological and institutional context.  For example, one could conceivably assert that location rules are particularly well suited to manage mobile resources and include an interaction between the two in a statistical model.  Second, levels of correspondence-based measures, would consider the extent to which some characteristic of the social, ecological or institutional context are reflected in appropriation rules, and would generally vary between zero and one.  For example, one might consider the spatial fit of appropriation rules and develop a measure based upon the alignment between the boundaries within which appropriation rules and the geographic distribution of the resource.  Third and by far the most common approach is to rely upon knowledge of the case, and/or the social and ecological mechanisms that underlie the problem to generate insights as to why appropriation rules are congruent with local conditions or not.  For example, in Governing the Commons Elinor Ostrom described how irrigators in Spain used timing rules to allocate water to farmers.  Farmers would go to the main canal to open gates to their fields at a particular designated time and be able to easily observe whether the farmer whose turn is about to end are closing their gate.  Ostrom asserted that this arrangement was particularly well suited to this context as it provided mechanisms to support monitoring the behaviour of other resource users as a by-product of appropriation. 

The following sections provide very brief examples of the types of questions I might ask myself or research participants in field research and while coding secondary data.  Field research questions are often adapted for different sectors and/or local contexts to facilitate data collection.  This may lead to improved measures within cases or studies, but create challenges for empirical synthesis.  The questions and text examples for the secondary data example are drawn directly from a codebook and coded cases from the Commons Synthesis Project, involving myself, Jacopo Baggio, Joshua Lambert, Jennifer Obado Joel and Felicia Gordian at the University of Central Florida. 

Field Research

  • Interaction-based measures
    • What are the defining social and/or ecological features of the appropriation problem?
    • Which appropriation rules (or attributes thereof) are particularly well suited to these features?
  • Correspondence-Based Measures
    • What are the defining social and/or ecological features of the appropriation problem?
    • To what extent are appropriation rules aligned with these features?

Coding Secondary Research

Are rules restricting the time, place, technology and/or quantity of resource units related to local conditions at the end of the time period examined? 

  • Is there evidence that appropriation rules are particularly well (or poorly) adapted to one or more attribute of the local social, ecological and/or institutional context
  • Are there any social or ecological mechanisms that explain why appropriation rules are well (or poorly) adjusted to the local social, ecological and/or institutional context  

Presence of Congruence

Much of this decision had to do with simply the size, topography and climate in the area the Wyoming water system attempted to cover, and the era when it began, with technology and transportation remaining rudimentary. It demonstrates a fundamental adjustment of a human institution to meet the social and environmental circumstances surrounding it.

MacKinnon (2011)

Crop-related decisions are not just dependent on exogenous factors such as the rainfall. Personal need, practicalities and collegiality towards field neighbours are also important factors. Thus, agricultural practices are flexible responses to situations at a given time and given place. They are adaptations to the year, particular soil conditions and to highly specific contingencies arising within the social world

Mehta (2007)

Absence of Congruence

The existing policy of allowing farmers to hunt and trap pest wild animals within the confines of their farms has yet to be implemented. Local communities are thus neither allowed to kill pests nor compensated for their losses. If local communities only see economic losses from the CAs wildlife programmes, they will be likely to be motivated to disregard rules and regulations and sabotage conservation efforts

Mehta and Kellert (2002)

Furthermore, the implementation of a uniform CBFM system formulated at DENR headquarters counteracts the CBFM program’s positive features. Consequently, despite being forest managers, local residents cannot adjust the rules and regulations to fit their specific utilization patterns according to their lifestyles, traditions and cultures, or according to natural location specific conditions

Hashiguchi et al. (2016)

Concluding Thoughts

The congruence or fit principle (2A) is at once one of the most important design principles, but also one of the hardest to measure consistently across cases.  In my opinion its importance stems not from offering specific advice about how to develop appropriation rules, but rather as a more general guiding philosophy for institutional design.  Most notably it encourages actors to a) consider and incorporate aspects of the local social and ecological context when designing rules, b) provide mechanisms for incorporating local and traditional knowledge to improve the fit of rules, and c) for experts to adopt a measure of humility in adhering to the proverbial saying “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.  In my opinion the latter is among the most important lessons from Ostrom’s legacy in suggesting that empirical evidence of effectiveness should always supersede insights from theory and models suggesting that they are not.  Finally, although the philosophical aspects are important I am hoping that empirical researchers will continue to work towards formalizing their hypotheses about congruence using interaction and correspondence measures to begin offering more contextually relevant guidance or suggestions for institutional design.