Sunday, November 8, 2009

Elinor Ostrom and archaeology

A chance comment from a colleague made me think again about the relevance of Nobel-winner Elinor Ostrom’s research for archaeology. (See my earlier post). I think her work has great potential to contribute to the archaeological analysis of ancient economic and political dynamics, but that potential is only starting to be realized. So here are a few brief thoughts on the matter, semi-random attempts to justify that opinion.

1. Archaeologists are starting to use collection action theory.

I have said elsewhere that recent research by Blanton and Fargher is very important and will be influential in changing the direction of archaeological studies of ancient state systems:

Blanton, Richard E. and Lane F. Fargher (2008) Collective Action in the Formation of Pre-Modern States. Springer, New York.

Blanton, Richard E. and Lane F. Fargher (2009) Collective Action in the Evolution of Pre-Modern States. Social Evolution and History 8(2):133-166. ***IF you can’t afford the book, try this paper***

Fargher, Lane F. and Richard E. Blanton (2007) Revenue, Voice, and Public Goods in three Pre-Modern States. Comparative Studies in Society and History 49:848-882.

2. Archaeologists are starting to look at common pool resource theory.

A few southwesternists have published in this area. There are many more applications in the literature on hunter-gatherers, but I don’t know that literature. A quick search on Google Scholar will find them, I’m sure.

Bayman, James M. and Alan P. Sullivan, III (2008) Property, Identity, and Macroeconomy in the Prehispanic Southwest. American Anthropologist 110(1):6-20.

Kohler, Timothy A. (1992) Field Houses, Villages, and the Tragedy of the Commons in the Early Northern Anasazi Southwest. American Antiquity 57:617-635.

3. Elinor Ostrom has co-authored papers with some archaeologists:

Liu, Jianguo, Thomas Dietz, Stephen R. Carpenter, Carl Folke, Marina Alberti, Charles L. Redman, Stephen H. Schneider, Elinor Ostrom, Alice N. Pell, Jane Lubchenco, William W. Taylor, Zhiyun Ouyang, Peter Deadman, Timothy Kratz and William Provencher (2007) Coupled Human and Natural Systems. Ambio 36:639-649.

Young, Oran R., Frans Berkhout, Gilberto C. Gallopin, Marco A. Janssen, Elinor Ostrom and Sander van der Leeuw (2006) The Globalization of Socio-Ecological Systems: An Agenda for Scientific Research. Global Environmental Change 16:304-316.

4. Other members of her Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity at ASU have published papers using archaeological data:

Anderies, John M. (2006) Robustness, Institutions, and Large-Scale Change in Social-Ecological Systems: The Hohokam of the Phoenix Basin. Journal of Institutional Economics 2:133-155.

Anderies, John M., Ben A. Nelson and Ann P. Kinzig (2008) Analyzing the Impact of Agave Cultivation on Famine Risk in Arid Pre-Hispanic Northern Mexico. Human Ecology 36:409-422.

Janssen, Marco A., Timothy A. Kohler and Marten Scheffer (2003) Sunk-Cost Effects and Vulnerability to Collapse in Ancient Societies. Current Anthropology 44:722-728.

Janssen, Marco A. and Marten Scheffer (2004) Overexploitation of Renewable Resources by Ancient Societies, and the Role of Sunk-Cost Effects. Ecology and Society 9(1):article 6 (online).

5. Finally, here is my own personal Kevin-Bacon-linkage to Ostrom:

A. Ostrom has co-published several papers with Abby York (of CSID). For example:

Evans, Tom P., Abigail M. York and Elinor Ostrom (2008) Insitutional Dynamics, Spatial Organization, and Landscape Change. In Political Economies of Landscape Change: Places of Integrative Power, edited by James L. Westcoat, Jr. and Douglas M. Johnston, pp. 111-129. Springer, New York.

B. I am working on a multi-author paper with Abby (not yet published, though):

York, Abigail, Christopher Boone, George L. Cowgill, Sharon L. Harlan, Juliana Novic, Michael E. Smith, Benjamin Stanley and Barbara L. Stark (2009) Ethnic and Class-Based Clustering Through the Ages: A Transdisciplinary Approach to Urban Social Patterns. (paper in preparation).

So, if you are not yet tempted to look at the work of Elinor Ostrom, then I give up!



RMA said...

I am tempted, and Blanton & Fargher is very important research. But....

Lets never go down the System road again. Ever. We do not have a high-level theory of human collectivities, nor do we have a coherent outline of what our common human nature is like. The whole promise of comparative research for me is that we can be more empirical when addressing these big issues.

Derek Wall said...

thanks for this, I used to be an archaeologist, I now teach political economy and if any one is going to get us out of economic and ecological crisis it will be Elinor, good that archaeologists are looking at her work.

Michael E. Smith said...

Derek- Thanks for the feedback.

RMA - Not sure what your comments mean, or how they relate to Ostrom's work.

On collective action models in archaeology-

I neglected to mention my own use of these models, in chapter 8 of Aztec City-State Capitals. I still don't have much feedback on my model in that chapter..... said...

I agree, Ostrom's findings can have a major impact in understanding how less complex societies crossed the threshold via self-organisation first which was then institutionalised. I am trying out her theory in an archaeology of Minoans...

RMA said...

Well, I'm sure you remember Flannery's 1972 paper and the push for systems theory in the 1970s. Big utter failure and far removed from actual data.

Though I understand Ostrom bases herself more on fieldwork, including her own in Africa and Nepal.

David said...

I agree with the archaeological applicability of Ostrom's work. "Governing the Commons" presents several cases of collective institutions with diachronic depth in centuries. Far from being monolithic "systems," they are full of goal-seeking agents and factions, wholly consistent with contemporary archaeological theory.

Michael E. Smith said...

RMA--I guess we see things differently. To me, systems theory was a big step forward for archaeology, getting us beyond simplistic linear-causal models of society and appreciating the complexity of society and change. I'm still not sure what that has to do with Elinor Ostrom's work, though.

RMA said...

The references you listed she co-authored with others do refer to socio-ecological systems, but I'm sure as David says they are different from the systems of the 1970s.

Actually, I'm pretty big on comparative work, just prefer a different style, like Norman Yoffee's recent book 'Myths of the archaic state'. Systems theory was too elaborate for the 1970s archaeological data for my taste. Building further along the lines of Adams' 'The evolution of urban society' would have made much more sense.

Sorry for this digression, I'm sure her work, as it i discursive with people's data is going to be useful. But I am a little bit worried about overelaborated models in archaeology. We tend to have a lot of them.

Michael E. Smith said...

Click Here to see a piece on Elinor Ostrom and SHESC (my unit at ASU) from the December, 2009, Anthropology News.