A Threshold Hypothesis of Institutional Change
Collective action in the Italian Alps during the 13th - 19th centuries
Een drempelhypothese van institutionele verandering: Collectieve actie in de Italiaanse Alpen tijdens de 13e 19e eeuw
This dissertation is about collective action issues in common property resources. Its focus is the "threshold hypothesis", which posits the existence of a threshold in group size that drives the process of institutional change. This hypothesis is tested using a six-century dataset concerning the management of the commons by hundreds of communities in the Italian Alps. The analysis seeks to determine the group size threshold and the institutional changes that occur when groups cross this threshold. There are five main findings. First, the number of individuals in villages remained stable for six centuries, despite the population in the region tripling in the same period. Second, the longitudinal analysis of face-to-face assemblies and community size led to the empirical identification of a threshold size that triggered the transition from informal to more formal regimes to manage common property resources. Third, when groups increased in size, gradual organizational changes took place: large groups split into independent subgroups or structured interactions into multiple layers while maintaining a single formal organization. Fourth, resource heterogeneity seemed to have had no significant impact on various institutional characteristics. Fifth, social heterogeneity showed statistically significant impacts, especially on institutional complexity, consensus, and the relative importance of governance rules versus resource management rules. Overall, the empirical evidence from this research supports the 'threshold hypothesis'. These findings shed light on the rationale of institutional change in common property regimes, and clarify the mechanisms of collective action in traditional societies. Further research may generalize these conclusions to other domains of collective action and to present-day applications.