- Institutional Design and Ideas-Driven Social Change:Notes From an Ostromian Perspective
What happens if, instead of the typical approach that gives a position of preeminence to institutional theory and considers institutional design an extension of peripheral interest, we start by focusing on institutional design and we consider institutional theory in the light of its instrumental value to design? Elinor and Vincent Ostrom's work is a case-study giving many clues and some possible answers to this question. Their approach is well-known for aiming not so much at grand theory building but rather at specific problems of collective action, governance, and social dilemmas. Making the practical and applied dimension the starting point as well as the filter of our interest reveals a different configuration of concepts marking and linking the practice-to-theory continuum. And it is perhaps surprising, but definitely noteworthy, that the notion of ideas-driven social change emerges as crucial.
An approach to institutionalism from an applied angle in no way lessens the role of ideas and theory. On the contrary, it puts them in an enhanced, preeminent position. What else is institutional design if not ideas for action and ideas applied to practice? The process of institutional design, based as it is in social knowledge and social prediction, is one of the purest and most outstanding forms of ideas-driven social processes, of institutional order based not on accident but on "deliberation and choice." As Vincent Ostrom put it, knowledge of the relationships between rules and players in the various "games of life" is the basis for using institutional analysis to design better institutional arrangements. 1 If institutions are the "rule of the game," [End Page 50] then institutional design is the process by which the rules of the game are imagined, drafted and advanced for adoption by a society or social group. This process needs the development of ideas—a knowledge or a science of rules enabling both designers and actors "to understand how rules constrain choice and affect behavior." 2
Looking at things in that light opens up an interesting perspective on the nature of institutional design as well as on the way its limits shape up in relationship with the social environment on which it is supposed to operate. In what measure is institutional design a form of social constructivism? What is the relationship between institutional design and social engineering? Are they different? And if they are, how are we to characterize the difference? In other words, interesting questions and theoretical insights may be revealed once we start to approach things in the Ostromian way.
This article will explore these issues using as a focal point the twin themes of institutional design and the role of ideas in the Ostroms' work. The article takes as a starting point the notion that there are two ways of approaching the issue of ideas and institutional design from an Ostromian perspective. The first is straightforward: simply follow the explicit arguments developed by them and synthesize the main points made over time around concepts such as epistemic choice, institutional levels, and ideas-informed social experiments. We call this the "Level 1" perspective. The "Level 2" perspective is different and, in a sense, indirect: move beyond a mere expository approach and to elaborate several implications and assumptions inherent in the Bloomington scholars' arguments, but which were not always made fully explicit by them. Once that is done, this perspective links them to some of the explicitly articulated and better recognized points defining their approach. In doing that, the very problem of the relationship between institutional design and social engineering comes to be addressed in a straightforward and edifying way.
Level 1: Ideas, Experiments and Epistemic Choice
In their work, Elinor and Vincent Ostrom deal with the theme of ideas and institutional design both explicitly and implicitly, both as an assumption and as a conclusion. An approach from a design perspective reminds us that social order is shaped by ideas in ways that are more complex and robust than those allowed by the views used to define the progression from theory to practice in mainstream accounts. In other words...