Research Portfolio Post #1: Research Interests

I am interested in examining the role social norms/identities play in shaping actor behavior, particularly in the context of global commons. I am intrigued by the question of whether the competitive (and ultimately destructive) self-gain patterns theorized in the Tragedy of the Commons need be considered inevitable or whether different conceptions of culture, self, norms, and property/ownership might influence consumption patterns of shared resources. On a more meta-level, I am really curious as to why actors do the things they do, as I am not completely satisfied with realist or liberal conceptions of self-gain as a sufficient explanatory variable on its own. Whether my research happens to apply this problem to commons or any other case, I am most excited to understand this “puzzle” of international and human/sociopolitical conduct.

Because I considered my research on the topic of the Tragedy of the Commons tentative, I have read broadly over the summer. Firstly, I have of course read foundational texts like Garrett Hardin’s frequently cited article in Science “The Tragedy of the Commons” and then sought to understand the surrounding discourse via “Property in the Commons: Origins and Paradigms” which contextualized the previous work and describes the ongoing conversations of the topic and relevant conceptions of property.[1]A few questions that came to mind, especially in light of class readings/discussions on situated/transcendent knowledge[2], include the observation that the concept of the Tragedy of the Commons is very much tethered to the specific context from which it was derived, namely Europe/England. Hardin cites William Forster Lloyd’s lectures in 1833 in Oxford where he discusses hypothetical herders who each endeavor to “rationally” maximize self-gain and thus inevitably deplete the common pastures.[3]In citing this, the argument Hardin makes nods to privatization as a necessary solution to offset the selfishness intrinsic to the human condition. Needless to say, this “evidence” is not sufficiently problematized, distinctly echoing Abbot’s definition of semantic explanation where things are – for a lack of a better word – “reduced” to the “final realms” of explanation where we take things as plainly “true”. For instance, in the Tragedy of the Commons, “[t]hey go no further because they think selfish behavior is self-evident; it needs no explanation”.[4]This factor, among others such as differences in social norms/identities, cultures, property and varying access to the resources (commons or otherwise) by individuals, begin to further flesh out my aforementioned “puzzle”.

In keeping with my curiosity about actor behavior and the problematization of motive, I find it relevant to briefly mention my readings on the alternative topic of human rights intervention, including Mutua’s “Savages, Victims, and Saviors” which inspects the discursive frameworks that justify human rights intervention.[5]


[1]Hardin, Garrett. “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Science162, no. 3859 (December 13, 1968): 1243–48.

Obeng-Odoom, Franklin. “Property in the Commons.” Review of Radical Political Economics48, no. 1 (September 2015): 9–19.

[2]Abbott, Andrew. Methods of Discovery: Heuristics for the Social Sciences. New York: Norton, 2004. Page 9.

[3]Lloyd, William Forster. Two Lectures on the Checks to Population. Oxford University, 1833.

[4]Abbott, Andrew. Methods of Discovery: Heuristics for the Social Sciences. New York: Norton, 2004.Page 50-51.

[5]Mutua, Makau W. “Savages, Victims, and Saviors: The Metaphor of Human Rights.” Harvard International Law Journal42, no. 1 (2001): 201–45.

3 thoughts to “Research Portfolio Post #1: Research Interests”

  1. Hi Mohammad! I think this is a fascinating research topic. I was so intrigued by the idea of the Tragedy of the Commons when I learned about it and I think it’s really brave to start your research with “why do actors do what they do?” I mean, isn’t that the question we really all want to know the answer to? That said, ToC is a pretty controversial explanation for human behavior, as is its author. Not only is its explanation Eurocentric, as you noted, Hardin was a known eugenicist ( and nativist. He spent much of his career attempting to integrate racist thought into environmental scholarship. That is not to say his theory of the ToC should be completely thrown out, but rather it’s extremely interesting to investigate its ties to nativism. If you do choose to integrate ToC into your research on motivation I encourage you to consider its roots and dedicate some time to investigating its critiques. Again, you have picked such an interesting topic! I can’t wait to see how it unfolds.

    1. Hi Claire, I think you raised some excellent points about the Tragedy of the Commons. It’s because of this that I wanted to investigate alternatives, and from class discussions about situated knowledge and context, I think I would probably look at more specific incidents where social norms and the other mentioned factors “deviate” from the descriptions of the ToC. That being said, while I did feel like the concept was Eurocentric, I had absolutely no idea he was a eugenicist and a racist. Yikes! Thanks for the insights!

  2. Overall a very good job here, Mohammad, as you start your research. You’ve also received some good suggestions from Claire! I would recommend researching Elanor Ostrom’s work in this topic area (“Governing the Commons” is her famous book) as you move forward, particularly to understand the development of the theory beyond Hardin’s oft-cited (and rightfully criticized) article. In addition, keep thinking about particular places or spaces where these phenomena manifest (call them “cases” if you will) so that you can start to identify specific instances to research as you move forward. I look forward to seeing how your research develops!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *