The notion of the „commons“

In this research note, I try to clarify what I mean when I use the notion of the „commons“ in the context of this research project. The note is intended to further the research group’s shared understanding of the term. But at this point, it’s my personal point of view.

Usually, commons are regarded as complex, comprehensive institutions. De Angelis & Stavrides (2010), for example, differentiate between commons (resources) commoners (people, community) and commoning (ongoing social practices).

For a dictionary entry, I defined commons simply as “resources managed by a community for joint use. ” (Stalder 2017)

Or Hess (2008) defines commons as „a resource shared by a group where the resource is vulnerable to enclosure, overuse and social dilemmas. Unlike a public good, it requires management and protection in order to sustain it.”

Elinor Ostrom never came up with a definition or a model, but developed eight design principles which define some of the basic issues involved in commoning (1. clearly defined boundaries are in place; 2. rules for resource use are well adapted to local needs and conditions; 3. resource users can usually participate in modifying the rules; 4. resource users’ rights to devise their own rules are respected by external authorities; 5. a system for self-monitoring users’ behavior is in place; 6. a graduated system of sanctions has been established; 7. community members have access to low-cost conflict-resolution mechanisms; 8. and nested enterprises with appropriation, provision, monitoring and sanctioning, conflict resolution, and other governance activities are arranged in a nested structure with multiple layers of activities.)

On a more expansive view, commons are conceptualized as something “beyond market and state” (Bollier & Helfrich, 2012). Often, in  a more popular discourse, commons are seens as something like holistic communities, untouched by the hostile dynamics of neo-liberal global capital. Here is a tendency and danger to romanticize the notion.

Prime examples of the knowledge/cultural commons are usually Wikipedia, open source/free software and other large scale community-based projects seen, which tend to employ “free licenses” (creative commons, GPL, or similar) as the legal framework to govern the resource.

Very few of the projects we are looking at in this research project really fit this conventional notion of the commons.

When I speak of the commons here, I want to put into focus a relationship between a group of persons (or sometimes a single person) and a set of cultural objects and/or institutions. That relationship is not characterized by the framework of (public or private) property, but rather by the framework of responsibility, care, custodianship or something similar. That is, a group / a person takes on the responsibility to create and manage a resource, because he/she/they care about it in a specific way. That is, they have an understanding of the potential of the resource and want to use it for a particular purpose and the process. In this process,  they are making this resource available to other people either to contribute within the framework they established or to use it outside of this for whatever purpose they see fit.

So, they key concept it not exclusivity (who can anything digital be exclusive, other than it being secret) but affection of some kind. What this affection can mobilize, and the kinds of actions/infrastructures/institutions are being brought forward to realize this affection, is what interest here and what is brought together under the umbrella term of the commons.

Of course, in a world based on competition, narrow self-interested rationality and property, trying to establish social relationship and artistic practices based on a different principle is likely to lead to conflicts of some kind, most obviously in the field of “intellectual property”, but also in other fields where market logics and differential reputation dominate.

Yet, I  make no assumption about how the relationships between the practices of the commons and the wider social context, dominated by private property, market exchanges and public institutions, looks like. They may be in conflict with one another, or one might feed into the other.  This is to be investigated.



De Angelis, Massimo und Stavros Stavrides (2010): „On the Commons: A Public Interview“, e-flux Journal 17,

Bollier, David and Silke Helfrich (eds) (2012): The wealth of the commons: a world beyond market and state, Amherst, Mass: Levellers Press.

Hess, Charlotte (2008): „Mapping the New Commons“, SSRN Electronic Journal,

Ostrom, Elinor (1990): Governing the Commons, Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Stalder, Felix (2017). Informational Commons. in: Ritzer, George (ed). Encyclopedia of Social Theory. (second edition). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

One Reply to “The notion of the „commons“”

  1. Discussion 10.07.

    On the question of non-exclusivity. If we take the Hess & Ostrom (2007) approach and differentiate between facilities (pyhsical infrastructures), artifacts (files, data etc) and ideas („coherent thoughts, mental images, creative visions, innovative information), then the artifacts are always treated as non-exclusive, the facilities are sometimes exclusive and sometimes non-exclusive and the ideas (what the project is about) are often very exclusive, in terms of being connected to an specific, personal artistic vision.

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