Friday, December 18, 2009

Spencer, Durkheim and Ostrom

I admit to being on a bit of an Elinor Ostrom kick at the moment -- in part because there is a clear (if unexplored) link between her work and a fundamental (if rarely talked about anymore) debate in early sociology. I'm talking about the debate between Spencer and Durkheim over the relationship between contracting individuals and society. Spencer argued that society emerged out of rational individuals entering into contracts with one another. Durkheim spends a significant chunk of The Division of Labor in Society arguing against this view (see, in particular, Book 1 Chapter 7 'Organic Solidarity and Contractual Solidarity'). According to Durkheim society necessarily preceded contracts because a specific social fact, trust that the other party would honor the contract, was a necessary precondition for entering into that contract.

Ostrom has spent a lifetime analyzing diverse situations in order to get an empirical answer to the conceptual problem Durkheim and Spencer argued over: what are the factors that increase the likelihood that participants will gain trust in others and reduce the probability of their being taken for a sucker in an interaction. Among the items she's identified are the following:
• Communication among participants
• Reputation of participants is known
• High marginal returns
• Entry and exit capability
• Longer time horizon
• Agreed upon sanctioning mechanisms

An interesting and relatively brief (28 minute) overview of Ostrom's work is available in the lecture she gave on acceptance of her recent Nobel Prize: Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems


  1. This discussion of 'trust' is important for me because I'm going to be looking at 'trust' in the Transition Towns movement. Neil Adger identified 'trust' as a necessary condition for resilience to ecological crisis, along with 'norms' (also in Ostrom's work) and networks. N. Luhmann also wrote extensively on 'trust' and is one of the theories that he is famous for.

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