Institutions for collective action: link between size, heterogeneity, resilience


Across Europe, new bottom-up and self-governing institutions for the provisioning of energy, food, care and many other goods and services are currently increasingly being set up by citizens. Citizens hereby govern and use resources collectively according to the rules they decide upon as a group. The institutional design of these modern-day forms of citizen collectivities has many similarities with guilds, commons, cooperatives, and other institutions that have been developed in Europe’s history. The PhD-student will studying such historical forms of institutions for collective action, together with other team members of the Institutions for Collective Action research team, several of them also working for the UNICA-project. UNICA stands for “Building a UNified theory for the development and resilience of Institutions for Collective Action for Europe in the past millennium” and aims at building a unified theory that both explains the factors behind the development and spread of such “institutions for collective action” (ICAs) across Europe over the past millennium. In the project we will focus on the claim that these ICAs are more resilient organisations than top-down, share-holder types of organisations. This will be done by:

  1. Creating a spatio-temporal taxonomy of archetypes of ICAs for the past millennium
  2. Analyzing the scaling strategies of various ICAs over time
  3. A study of the relationship between size and heterogeneity of both members and resources (for mutuals and collectivities concerned with natural resource management) and their impact on the institutional design of the ICA.

The PhD-position fits under the 3rd part of the project and will focus on the micro-level, and in particular on the functioning of a specific ICA, from its historical manifestations to the cooperatives formed today. The focus will be on the internal functioning of such institutions, and how this changes over time, in relation to the size and heterogeneity of both membership and the resources these organisations managed. The PhD-student has the opportunity to choose a specific type of organization, however preferably with a focus on organisations that were concentrating on natural resource management (e.g. in agriculture, fishing, energy, etcetera). However, the relevance of the in-depth study of one or more ICAs goes far beyond a contribution to explaining what makes ICAs resilient. It also connects to highly relevant societal debates about -amongst others- current societal challenges, sustainability, and globalization. Understanding good governance, whereby collective action has always been an essential element, is thus vital, both on a local and global level. The project will be executed within the Institutions for Collective Action Team at the Business-Society-Management department of RSM, where sustainability is central to all research and cooperation with other disciplines is key. The researchers of the ICA-team (see work in a broad range of sectors in various countries, have been trained in a variety of disciplines, and apply mixed-methods approaches in their work. Besides this, all members also contribute to collective endeavours to translate their academic research to and share it with the general public, through e.g. the Extreme Citizen Science Project  

Further information about the project can be found at:


Institutions for Collective Action, longitudinal analysis, Social enterprises, Commons, natural resource management, resilience


MICRO-analysis of internal functioning of natural resource management collectivities in the European past

Remarkable about the growth of new Institutions for collective action (also collectivities, “commons”) today is their omnipresence in various sectors, and their tendency to utilise similar types of rules and mechanisms to achieve resilience - regardless of differences in resource types. There are subtle varieties in both their rules and adjustments that took place over time and how these try to mediate the effect of changes in the size and heterogeneity of both resources and members of these institutions. For this project, the PhD-student will analyse the internal functioning (such as member loyalty, rules, values) of a specific type of collectivities aimed at (natural) resource management in the European past (from the early-modern period to today) some of which were originally organised as guilds and then moved on as cooperatives after the dissolution of the guilds. Collective action was essential for the functioning of these communities – back then and now – for various reasons, ranging from creating more security to economic benefits generated by working closely together. Understanding how they did so, which rules they devised and how they prevented freeriding within the collectivity, and this in relationship with constant changes in the group size and heterogeneity is important to understand how an institution for collective action can be(come) resilient in the long run. The exact time frame for the study and the geographical area within Europe which the study will focus on will be decided jointly by the PhD-student and supervisors.


A substantial part of the research will be based on archival work for several historical case-studies/ collectivities, and the application of innovative analysis methods on these data. An overview will be made of services and goods offered to the collectivity of members evolved over time, how the diversity in functions was adjusted to the needs of the members over time; and to what extent rules were adjusted to balance changes in the members’ needs. Members’ behaviour will be reconstructed based on archival evidence documenting exploitation levels and their individual contribution to maintaining the collective resources the collectivities held (e.g. infrastructure for security, for harnessing energy, selling goods, but also e.g. insurance arrangements). The utility that members obtained from resource exploitation will be linked to changes in the social-economic profile of the members and how this affected their within-group behaviour. Conversely, the degree to which members were treated fairly (social equity) will be derived from records on their access to resources and involvement in decision-making processes. Other sources needed to study group dynamics will mainly consist of bookkeeping (to reconstruct the involvement of members in the appropriation of the resources, administrative work and labour done for the organization, etc.) in combination with membership lists and other sources indirectly related to the case (such as parish registers) to retrieve sufficient biographical information about individual members. Resource availability will also be distilled from meeting records and from other, wherever relevant and available, sources (such as economic surveys). Regulation data will be retrieved from rule books or other sources in which the rules were noted, e.g. minutes of general meetings of the organization. The collection of rules will be analysed through methods already applied in various projects executed by the ICA-team in the past, see e.g. the results of the Common(s) Rules-project and the MIDI-project (see projects under, and methods as developed by members of the Institutional Grammar Research Initiative ( The PhD-student will cooperate with other team members with extensive experience in studying ICAs in other sectors (see “Team” on the website).

Required profile

  • Master’s degree in Humanities, Social sciences or related disciplines, with a specific interest in longitudinal approaches to understanding collective action
  • Experience with historical research and dealing with archival sources is a must for these positions
  • Inquisitive nature, next to a drive to increase your knowledge and a passion for research
  • Social skills to engage with other colleagues and societal stakeholders and interested in experimenting with new research approaches
  • People skills to work in a team, willingness to contribute to the work of others and to the functioning of the research team.
  • Sufficient discipline to master a broad base of scientific literature, also outside of history as a discipline
  • Interdisciplinary attitude, with a clear willingness to learn from other disciplines and to engage in debates with scholars with a different disciplinary background
  • Willingness to invest time and effort in sharing research results with the general public.
  • Do also note the ERIM-requirements (GMAT/GRE/TOEFL) to start the PhD-trajectory. There will be no exceptions to these requirements.

Expected output

  • At least 3 top journal articles
  • Active participation in and contribution to the ICA-team’s functioning, both academically and socially
  • Contributions to knowledge valorization via
  • Collaborative efforts to work together with various partners, both academic and societal.


The project is embedded in the department of Business-Society Management under the so-called ORG (Organisation) pillar of the Research school (ERIM). As a research team we will be expanding the already existing network of local, national and international partners through building partnerships with organisations (such as VLaams Instituut voor de Zee, International Cooperative and Mutual Insurance Federation (, and the International Association for the Study of the Commons) and research initiatives such as the Institutional Grammar Initiative (see

Societal relevance

The project will allow us to connect micro-changes to macro-results, and to reflect on the potential outcomes of the current new “wave” of institutions for collective action. These results will be transferred to, a self-governing platform for self-governing ICAs today, which is also an important part of the project to which all project members contribute. This platform will be developed based on the principles of Extreme Citizen Science, in cooperation with and co-funded by several external parties. Other means of communication and valorisation will be an interactive redesign of, several conferences, further elaboration of the ICA-team’s network among academics, and by strengthening the ties with non-academic partners.

Scientific relevance

Given the slow changes that characterize institutions in general as well as the delay in visible impacts that resource use and management may have in the long run, a “longitudinal approach” is essential to understand how ICAs function; over time, a multitude of institutional arrangements for resource management have emerged to tackle numerous changes in economy and society. Comparative analysis over space and time is needed to identify the variety in these arrangements and the mechanisms behind them. In this project, this longitudinal approach will be linked to other approaches from other disciplines than history. Although in commons-literature fisheries’ management has played an important role, it has in fact never received full attention among those historians studying ICAs. With this project we intend to make an important contribution to understanding the role of collective action in the long run in the management of natural resources.

Literature references & data sources


E. Ostrom, Governing the Commons. The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

C. Tagliapietra, “A Threshold Hypothesis of Institutional Change: Collective Action in the Italian Alps during the 13th-19th centuries,”, PhD thesis, Erasmus University Rotterdam, 2013.

L. Ruttan, “Economic Heterogeneity and the Commons: Effects on Collective Action and Collective Goods Provisioning,” World Development, vol. 36, no. 5, pp. 969-985, 2008.

T. De Moor and A. Tukker, “Survival without sanctioning: The relationship between institutional resilience and methods to deal with freeriding on early modern Dutch commons,” in Rural History Yearbook, vol. 12, Innsbruck/Vienna/Bolzano, StudienVerlag, 2015, pp. 175-206.

T. De Moor, M. Laborda Pemán, J. Lana Berasaín, R. van Weeren and A. Winchester, “Ruling the commons. Introducing a new methodology for the analysis of historical commons,” International Journal of the Commons, vol. 10, no. 2, pp. 529-588, 2016.

De Moor, T. Revealing historical resilience. In: Boyd, R., Richerson, P.J., Meinzen-Dick, R., De Moor, T. Jackson, M.O., Gjerde, K.M., Harden-Davies, H., Frischmann, B.M., Madison, M.J., Strandburg, K.J., McLean, A.R., and Dye, C., 2018. Tragedy Revisited, Science 362 (6420), 1236-1241

Grisel, F. Managing the Fishery Commons at Marseille: How a Medieval Institution Failed to Accommodate Change in an Age of Globalisation, 2019, Fish and Fisheries.

M. Laborda Pemán and T. De Moor, “History and the Commons: A necessary conversation,” International Journal of the Commons, vol. 10, no. 2, pp. 516-528, 2016.

J. Lana Berasaín and I. Iriarte-Goñi, “Commons and the legacy of the past. Regulation and uses of common lands in twentieth century Spain,” International Journal of the Commons, vol. 9, no. 2, pp. 510-532, 2015.

S. Crawford and E. Ostrom, “ A Grammar of Institutions,” American Political Science Review, vol. 89, no. 3, pp. 582-600, 1995.

Employment conditions

ERIM offers fully-funded and salaried PhD positions, which means that accepted PhD candidates become employees (promovendi) of Erasmus University Rotterdam. Salary and benefits are in accordance with the Collective Labour Agreement for Dutch Universities (CAO).

Erasmus University Rotterdam aspires to be an equitable and inclusive community. We nurture an open culture, where everyone is supported to fulfil their full potential. We see inclusivity of talent as the basis of our successes, and the diversity of perspectives and people as a highly valued outcome. EUR provides equal opportunities to all employees and applicants regardless of gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, age, neurodiversity, functional impairment, citizenship, or any other aspect which makes them unique. We look forward to welcoming you to our community.

Contact Information

For questions regarding the PhD application and selection procedure, please check the Admissions or send us an e-mail via

Erasmus Research Institute of Management

ERIM is the research institute of management at Erasmus University Rotterdam, founded by Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) and Erasmus School of Economics (ESE), both of which excel in their research and teaching programmes. The level and international character of their research and teaching programmes has put both schools at the forefront of academic excellence. They offer a diversified portfolio of accredited teaching and research programmes, ranging from pre-experience MSc to postgraduate Masters and executive development, and from fundamental research to applied research and business support, which are renowned throughout the world. RSM is one of the few schools worldwide that holds a triple accreditation from the AMBAs, EQUIS and the AASCB, and is positioned among the top European business schools. The scientific staff of both schools plays a major role in the schools’ interaction with the international business community.

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