Chapter 1B: Social Boundaries

This is the second of 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.  Each post includes definitions from the literature, describes the theoretical mechanisms by which the design principle might contribute to sustainable outcomes, and provides examples of how these concepts might be operationalized in field research and when coding secondary data.  The posts then conclude with a brief discussion that highlights issues, challenges or points of concern that have been raised by researchers.  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 second design principle, resource boundaries (1B), suggests that prospects for sustainable community-based management are enhanced when the boundaries of common-pool resources are well-defined.  Whereas Ostrom’s initial formulation combined resource (1B) and social boundaries (1A) into a single design principle, more recent research has tended to follow the suggestion of Michael Cox, Gwen Arnold and Sergio Villamayor Tomas to measure them separately.    

Individuals or households who have rights to withdraw resource units from the common-pool resource (CPR) must be clearly defined, as must the boundaries of the CPR itself

Ostrom (1990)

The boundaries of the CPR must be well defined

Cox et al. (2010)

Although the concept of resource boundaries appears fairly intuitive, there are nonetheless a few ambiguities that may create challenges for operationalizing the resource boundaries principle in research.  First, as noted in the first post the design principles record details about rules-in-use rather than rules-in-form.  Second, resource boundaries should be measured in relation to a focal user group and thus measures may change depending upon how this focal user group is defined.  Whereas social boundaries identify who is eligible to harvest resources, resource boundaries identify which resources may be harvested by a group of actors and/or the location of their harvesting activities.  Third, resource boundaries may be defined by one or more of the natural distribution of the resource (such as the edge of a forest or type of habitat, a lake or water basin), built infrastructure (such as a fence or other type of marker) and/or institutions (such as rules defining management units or zones).  Empirical assessments of the design principles have tended to combine these different types of boundaries into a single indicator but is possible and perhaps even preferable to develop measures for each of these separately.  Fourth and somewhat paradoxically thresholds for distinguishing between boundaries that are clear (or well-defined) and those that are not clear is somewhat ambiguous.  In general I would suggest that a resource boundary is clear if most individuals exploiting resources in an area are aware that resource boundaries exist, and are reasonably consistent in terms of the location of those boundaries. 

Theoretical Mechanism(s)

Clear resource boundaries may help to support sustainable governance of common-pool resources through several mechanisms.  First, much like social boundaries, clear resource boundaries help to internalize the costs and benefits of resource use, providing incentives for actors that possess rights to a defined set of resources to maintain sustainable levels of resource use and invest in the management of those resources.  Second, clear resource boundaries can also help to reduce costs and uncertainty associated with monitoring resource conditions and the behaviour of resource users.  For example, it is fairly easy to track changes in the availability of water in a reservoir, but more challenging to do the same in a river.  In fact although it is still possible to define clear boundaries, their effectiveness at internalizing costs and benefits and reducing information costs and uncertainty tends to decline when resources are mobile and are widely distributed.  Third and finally, clear resource boundaries, may also enhance the overall legitimacy of rules and regulations contributing to higher levels of compliance, by providing clear signals to resource users about the areas in which different management rules apply.    


The measurement of resource boundaries involves establishing whether the location of resources harvested by a group of resource users is clearly defined by natural, constructed or institutional boundaries.  Although measuring resource boundaries may be straightforward in some contexts, it can also present challenges in cases where there are differences in terms of the clarity of natural, constructed or institutional boundaries.  For example, spatial management of marine areas (i.e. TURF’s, MPAs) often results in the establishment of clear institutional boundaries, and yet the boundaries for the resources themselves are often unclear or at least different from the institutional boundaries.  In general studies of the design principles have tended to record the presence of resource boundaries if any one of the boundaries are clear.   Much like social boundaries, resource boundaries may also be inferred through observations of the harvesting practices of a group of resource users, but it is generally preferable to follow up these observations with a series of probing questions to determine whether resource users are generally aware of the boundaries and reasonably consistent in terms of the locations in which those boundaries are found. 

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

  • Are the boundaries of the resource clearly defined by natural features, infrastructure and/or institutions?
    • Are there any natural features that clearly define the resources that may be harvested by a group of resource users and/or where that group may harvest resources?
    • Is there any infrastructure or constructed features that clearly define the resources that may be harvested by a group of resource users and/or where that group may harvest resources?
    • Are there any rules that clearly define the resources that may be harvested by a group of resource users and/or where that group may harvest resources?
  • Are most individuals aware of these boundaries and reasonably consistent in terms of their locations? 

Coding Secondary Research

Are the boundaries of the resource clearly defined by natural features, infrastructure and/or institutions at the end of the time period examined?

Presence of Resource Boundaries

La Campa has one clay bed that provides high-quality clay suitable for pottery making; it is located within an area measuring approximately 20 m by 40 m

Tucker (2010)

Villagers defined the locations and boundaries of the FCZs, based on LEK, which has been accumulated through generations of fishing experience, and through the personal experiences and observations of local fishers.

Baird and Flaherty (2005)

As stated earlier, local fishermen have knowledge on spawning seasons and fishing grounds. Thus, the zoning of Fisheries Resources Management Plan (FRMP) gazetted under Section 61, Fisheries Act 1985 is a formal mechanism to manage the resources and reduce the encroachment of illegal trawlers. The area covers approximately 30 nautical miles and has been a traditional fishing ground for fishermen from Kuala Teriang, Kuala Chenang, Pantai Kok, Kuala Melaka

Halim et al. (2011)

Absence of Resource Boundaries

The struggle to effectively delineate and then implement the boundaries of the PA in Phnom Samkos testifies to how clearly the local people saw the consequences of the international process impacting on their daily lives

Lo Cascio and Beilin (2010)

Other rules regarding land allocation do not exist, and issues, for example, of inheritance, boundaries or trespassing are decided case by case

Greiner (2017)

Concluding Thoughts

The resource boundaries design principle (1B), alongside social boundaries (1A) is often considered one of the defining characteristics that distinguish a common property rights regime from open-access conditions and is generally supported by empirical research.  However, it should be clear from the preceding discussion that there are several conceptual issues that continue to create challenges for measurement and empirical research.  First and foremost, given that resource boundaries are defined relative to a group of resource users it is important that user groups are defined relatively consistently across cases.  Second, the design principles, including resource boundaries principle are mostly silent on issues of scale, including both the spatial areas defined by resource boundaries and the size of focal user groups.  Thus a clear resource boundary may refer to a small community forest exploited by a single community of thirty households or a large forest, exploited by multiple communities with hundreds or thousands of households.  Third and finally, the resource boundary principle is sometimes confused with the concept of spatial fit which refers to the alignment between management boundaries and the distribution of a resource.  Although the measures are generally equivalent when the resource boundary principle is based upon the distribution of a resource, they are likely to differ when they are based on institutions and/or infrastructure.