Program and main projects:


Elinor Ostrom famously argued to researchers and policy-makers the need to go “beyond panaceas” in order to improve natural resources governance and its prospect for sustainability. Our lab pursues research to understand how we can go beyond panaceas, particularly in the context of coastal-marine environments. Questions of interest include:

  • What forms of human organization (i.e., types and combination of rules across scales) are more likely to lead to the emergence and sustainability of local commons’ governance?
  • What is the interplay between biological and social factors and their effect in the likelihood of the emergence of self-organization and governance of the commons?
  • What are the effects of different conservation policies (e.g., marine protected areas, certification schemes, etc.) on commoners’ ability to engage in collective action activities fundamental for the maintenance of their livelihoods and well-being?

To address these puzzles we engage in collaborative work using a variety of analytical tools including: field-based descriptive and experimental approaches, modeling, and meta-analysis.

Our research program focuses on four broad interrelated lines of inquiry (note that numbers interspersed in the text below reference publications found in the publications tab):


The effects of cross-scale linking institutions on local resource governance. Common-pool resources theory has contributed to our understanding of how people in groups can overcome individual interest and work for the common good. Put differently, how individuals can put aside self interested behavior and avoid the tragedy of the commons without the need to privatize the commons or centralize control of them. Nowadays however, communities need to govern their commons within increasingly complex market structures and regulatory environments. What forms of organization (i.e., institutional arrangements) will continue to allow them to govern their commons successfully and for the common good?

To date we have explored the role of cross-scale linking institutions or multi-level governance in a number of different field-based contexts: The analysis of twenty-years of biodiversity conservation efforts in Costa Rica [8, 9, 10], understanding how privatization of large extensions of land affects the use of different types of wildlife by rural inhabitants in El Chaco region in Argentina [29], and analyzing how multi-level governance arrangements play out in the conformation of community-based marine protected area networks in Mexico [26] and Palau [5].


Dynamics of institutional change. Most analytical tools used in the social sciences are well suited for studying static situations. Static and mechanistic analysis, however, is not adequate to understand the changing world in which we live. To do that we need to develop analytical tools for analyzing dynamic situations—particularly institutional change. Our work in this issue has focused on theory development [19, 10], attention to processes of emergence [31, 10, 2], endurance [23, 10], and social and ecological interplay [22, 28]. We have tried to understand these issues using qualitative field-based approaches and often combined them to inform different kinds of modeling efforts [22, 27, 1], particularly in the context of small-scale fisheries in Mexico.


Effects of conservation policies on human livelihoods and well-being. We take an institutional approach to investigate how conservation policies affect people’s abilities to engage in activities for the common good and key for the maintenance of their well-being. Our lab is currently exploring a) the effects of the establishment of protected areas in local fishing communities in the Gulf of California Mexico and b) how different types of markets, particularly those created by green certification schemes, affect local livelihoods and local self-organization capacity among fishers. We are also studying rights-based fisheries as a new area of interest in conservation.


Development of analytical tools for institutional analysis and sustainability studies. We have engaged in the development of policy analysis tools related to the Institutional Development and Analysis (IAD) Framework. Particularly as it relates to the analysis of rules and norms (also known as the grammar of institutions) [21, 20, 15]. This project has been a long-term collaboration with Chris Weible (at the University of Colorado) and has increasingly included other colleagues.
We are also exploring the development and potential applicability of the social-ecological systems SES framework as a platform for natural-social science interdisciplinary scholarship on issues related to governance and sustainability of coastal marine fisheries [24, 25, 23, 13, 4, 3].