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Institutional entrepreneurship in a contested commons

Institutional entrepreneurship in a contested commons | IE Business School

Insights from struggles over the Oasis of Jemna in Tunisia.

What are “commons” and what are “contested commons”? Should common resources be controlled collectively, or are such resources better managed by the private sector or government? What is an institutional entrepreneur? How can institutional entrepreneurs promote and defend a common logic in a contested setting?

Rachida Justo, Professor at IE Business School, and Karim BenSlimane, and Nabil Khelil Published in the Journal of Business Ethics, August 2020


“Commons” is a ubiquitous term in economics, yet there is a scarcity of research on the topic in management. According to economics theory, a common good or resource is one to which everyone has equal access, but usage by one limits usage by another. Commons also characterize a social practice of a community of users that self-governs a resource through institutions that it creates. This concept to natural or other types of resources, such as intellectual commons in the case of Wikipedia community or digital commons in the free software industry.  

Recently, management literature has sought to examine the role of institutional entrepreneurs in the emergence of commons logic and in building consensus around its meaning, particularly in cases of contested commons. Contested commons are those resources or artifacts whose social meaning is contested or challenged, where there are conflicts or disagreements regarding ownership, use, and management. In this article, Professor Justo identifies two main strategies used by institutional entrepreneurs to frame the commons as a superior alternative: (1) idealizing the commons and (2) coalescing the community to harness its potential. The article also highlights the heretofore neglected role of opponents, who engage in demonizing the commons to restore the competing logics of state or market. Finally, the article unravels some of the conditions that allow for a temporary settlement of the contest, leading to what is known as “de facto commons”.

To illustrate the governance challenges around contested commons in practice, the article engages a qualitative study of the case of the Oasis of Jemna in Tunisia, North Africa. Pictured against the historical backdrop of the Arab Spring, the case typifies the struggles that involve institutional entrepreneurs and the opponents of a contested commons. The Oasis of Jemna is located in southwest Tunisia in the Sahara Desert. Across the last two centuries, the oasis has transitioned through several distinct property regimes. It began as a collective space in the pre-colonialism era before becoming privatized during colonial period. After Tunisia’s independence. In 1964, the oasis transitioned to state-ownership. In 2011, during Arab spring anti-government protests, hundreds of young men occupied a palm grove in the village of Jemna, claiming that they were legitimately re-appropriating the common property of their ancestors. Organized as the Association for the Safeguard of the Oasis of Jemna, these protestors sought to recover their ancestral land. They also showed that a common management created higher social and economic returns than state or private ownership. As a result, the Government of Tunisia resolved the question of contested commons by issuing a law legitimizing the oasis as a commons once again.

While the case of the Oasis of Jemna represents a physical contested commons with a complex historical and cultural significance, the principles of commons logic can be equally applied to modern contested commons, such as the creation of complementary currencies such as Bitcoin, or the identification of urban commons. In such instances, there exists real disagreement if it should be governed or controlled collectively, or if it is better managed by the private sector or government. Under public ownership, resources run the risk of the classic “tragedy of the commons” phenomenon; however, under government or private ownership, public access can be restricted. To resolve such debates, institutional entrepreneurs must act as change agents, bringing common logic and shared solutions to resolve such issues. The article offers strategies for institutional entrepreneurs caught in an institutional struggle over contested commons as they seek the decommodification of a commons.

To learn more about this subject, view a discussion with Vice Rector of Research, Marco Giarratana here: