One of the key issues to be resolved in the management of natural resources is the extent to which resources can be used and managed in common. With its focus on shared rights, responsibilities and use, common pool resource (CPR) theory has much to offer natural resource policy and planning. However, the policy models and frameworks developed under CPR theory tend to ignore the economic, political, social and cultural context of a resource situation. Such context helps to determine how the actors in a resource situation relate to their social and natural environment and so make resource decisions. Contextual factors are dynamic forces based locally and remotely from resource management regimes and define (i) what is physically, legally, economically and socially feasible in terms of the supply of products and services from a resource; and (ii) what is economically, socially and culturally desirable, by establishing the demand factor. This paper presents a framework of analysis for CPRs, which proposes that there is a contextual factor continuum, forming a series of relationships from local contextual factors to the more remote. The researcher is advised to ‘backsolve’ from resource use outcomes to contextual factors, via the choice sets available to resource users in terms of (i) products and services demanded, (ii) different decision-making rules, and (iii) different action strategies. Such analysis is crucial in informing effective policy review and subsequent changes to institutions.