“Circuits of Commons”: Exploring the Connections Between Economic Lives and the Commons

The insight that the economy is made of social practices, institutionally framed and culturally dependent, arises mostly from the domains of economic sociology, anthropology, and institutional economics. Despite the evident connections among these areas, each one emerges out of remarkably distinctive methodologies, theories, and epistemological premises. This trend has not disengaged scholars such as Elinor Ostrom and Viviana Zelizer who demonstrated how interdisciplinary studies come in favor of the advancement of economics in an enlarged manner. With the support of fieldwork, these authors inaugurated novel interpretations on collective governance, bottom-up arrangements, and the moralities of monetary and non-monetary exchange widely cited in various disciplines. This article aims at: a) exploring examples of what constitutes an ethnographic study on economic lives, b) showing how the meaning making of economic transactions relates to institutional norms present in those works, and c) scrutinizing its connections with institutional economics, mostly in relation to the framework developed by Ostrom on the commons. As the paper argues, much of the fieldwork-based observations present in these studies show deep connections with key elements of institutional analyses as the rules-in-use often relate to the access to resources, knowledge as commons, path dependency, and analyses on the economic incentives. This effort does not aim at producing re-interpretations, but rather wishes to surpass the boundaries between these domains and encourage future scholars to build up on the fertile intersections. The expected contribution of this article is to continue the interdisciplinary path undertaken by Ostrom and Zelizer with a focus on ethnography as seen through the lenses of economics.

This chapter is part of an edited volume, "Living Better Together: Social Relations and Economic Governance in the Work of Ostrom and Zelizer."

Find the full chapter here.