Elinor Ostrom

Ostrom’s Early Life

Elinor C. Ostrom, née Awan (19332012), was born in Los Angeles, California. Her mother was a musician and her father a film and stage set designer.

Ostrom’s father’s family was Jewish, but her parents separated when she was little and she was raised mostly by her mother, whose family was Protestant.

Though she was raised in affluent Beverly Hills, Ostrom has said that she was the “poor kid” in the school. She graduated from Beverly Hills High School in 1951.

Due to the prevailing ideas of the time, Ostrom was dissuaded from studying trigonometry in high school, which would later impact the course of her education.

Ostrom’s Education

Ostrom attended the University of California–Los Angeles (UCLA), taking her bachelor’s degree with honors in political science in 1954.

Ostrom had gotten married while in college and after graduation from UCLA she worked for an electronics manufacturer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, while her husband attended Harvard Law School. After a few years, she got divorced from her first husband and decided to apply to graduate school herself.

Ostrom first applied to the economics department at her alma mater, UCLA. However, her lack of trigonometry caused her to be rejected. She then applied to UCLA’s political science department and was accepted.

Ostrom received her master’s and doctoral degrees from UCLA, in 1962 and 1965, respectively, both in political science.

While working on her doctoral dissertation at UCLA, Ostrom undertook extensive studies of the celebrated California “water wars.” It was in this context that she made the first steps towards her seminal work on providing a solution to the so-called “the tragedy of the commons.”

The tragedy of the commons, as articulated above all by Garrett Hardin, is the idea that the exploitation by “rational” (that is, utility-maximizing, egoistic) agents of resources held in common inevitably leads to overexploitation and depletion of those resources.

In her dissertation—entitled “Public Entrepreneurship: A Case Study in Ground Water Basin Management”—Ostrom demonstrated logical scenarios in which individual rational action did not inevitably lead to resource exhaustion.

In 1963, Ostrom married one of her graduate course instructors, the political scientist, Vincent Ostrom. They would go on to collaborate extensively in their academic work.

Ostrom’s Career

In 1965, Vincent moved to Indiana University (IU) in Bloomington, Indiana. As a newly minted PhD, Elinor received an appointment as a Visiting Assistant Professor, teaching an evening course on American government.

Both Ostroms went on to spend their academic careers at IU-Bloomington. Their work—especially, Elinor’sis now often referred to as the “Bloomington School.”

In 1973, the Ostroms founded the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at IU-Bloomington. In 1989, Elinor, on her own, also founded the International Association for the Study of the Commons.

Elinor Ostrom rose through the academic ranks at IU-Bloomington, and in 1991 was appointed the Arthur F. Bentley Professor of Political Science, a chair she occupied until her death.

In 2006, Ostrom received a joint appointment as Research Professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University in Tucson.

In 2009, Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.

The following year, in 2010, Ostrom’s Nobel Lecture, “Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems,” was published in the distinguished journal American Economic Review (see the publication details under “Ostrom’s Principal Works,” below).

In 2010, Ostrom was also appointed Distinguished Professor at UI-Bloomington.

Ostrom’s Ideas

Ostrom began her active academic career by examining the influence of “public choice” decisions—in the sense of the work of James M. Buchanan and his colleagues—on the provision of public goods and services. For example, some of her earliest publications focus on community policing in Bloomington from the public choice perspective.

Over time, Ostrom began to understand that her approach to public choice—which is the study of government institutions, considered as utility-maximizing agents with their own interests—differed from Buchanan’s in substantive ways.

Basically, Ostrom’s comparative empirical studies convinced her that the neo-Malthusian view of common-pool resources around the world was, in fact, mistaken.

In a nutshell, the fact that such resources were not typically exhausted indicated that their use must already be regulated through some sort of spontaneous, distributed, self-organizing system—as opposed to the sort of centrally controlled, top-down institutions which were the primary focus of Buchanan’s work.

Ostrom also realized that not all self-organized solutions to similar problems will necessarily be the same; rather, such solutions may differ substantially due to being significantly shaped by local cultural norms.

Ostrom saw the main contribution of outside economists to third-world communities as helping local actors to optimize the use of common-pool resources through a small number of specific recommendations:

  • Agents should engage in consultation with one another about best practices, which should be formulated as simple rules.
  • As many resource-users as possible should be included in these consultations.
  • A system of effective monitoring of common-pool resource use should be established.
  • A scale of graduated sanctions should be implemented for violators of the rules.
  • Cheap and easy-to-access conflict resolution mechanisms should be instituted.
  • Higher-level authorities should be encouraged to recognize the self-determination of local communities.

Other versions of this list have been proposed over the years, but this one represents a minimal, standard set of recommendations to guide outside actors assisting local agents in the more-effective management of common-pool resources.

Ostrom’s Principal Works

1. Works Authored or Co-authored by Elinor Ostrom

The Delivery of Urban Services: Outcomes of Change(1976).

Patterns of Metropolitan Policing, with Roger B. Parks and Gordon P. Whitaker (1978).

Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (1990).

Crafting Institutions for Self-Governing Irrigation Systems (1992).

Institutional Incentives and Sustainable Development: Infrastructure Policies in Perspective, with Larry Schroeder and Susan Wynne (1993).

Rules, Games, and Common-Pool Resources, Roy Gardner and Jimmy Walker (1994).

A Grammar of Institutions,” with Sue E.S. Crawford, American Political Science Review, 89: 582600 (1995).

“A Behavioral Approach to the Rational Choice Theory of Collective Action,” American Political Science Review, 92: 122 (1998).

Foundations of Social Capital, with T.K. Ahn (2003).

Understanding Institutional Diversity (2005).

The Samaritan’s Dilemma: The Political Economy of Development Aid, with Clark C. Gibson, Krister Andersson, and Sujai Shivakumar (2005).

A General Framework for Analyzing Sustainability of Social-Ecological Systems,” Science, 325: 419–422 (2009).

“Engaging with Impossibilities and Possibilities,” in Ravi Kanbur and Kaushik Basu, eds., Arguments for a Better World: Essays in Honor of Amartya Sen; Volume 2: Society, institutions and development. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 522541 (2009).

Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems,” American Economic Review, 100: 641–672 (2010).

Working Together: Collective Action, the Commons, and Multiple Methods in Practice, with Amy R. Poteete and Marco A. Janssen (2010).

Improving Irrigation in Asia Sustainable Performance of an Innovative Intervention in Nepal, with Wai Fung Lam, Prachanda Pradhan, and Ganesh P. Shivakoti (2011).

The Future of the Commons: Beyond Market Failure and Government Regulation, with contributions by Christina Chang, Mark Pennington, and Vlad Tarko (2012).

Choice, Rules and Collective Action: The Ostroms on the Study of Institutions and Governance, with Vincent Ostrom (edited by Paul Dragos Aligica) (2014).

2. Works Edited or Co-edited by Elinor Ostrom

Strategies of Political Inquiry(1982).

Local Commons and Global Interdependence, with Robert O. Keohane (1995).

People and Forests: Communities, Institutions, and Governance, with Clark C. Gibson and Margaret A. McKean (2000).

Institutions, Ecosystems, and Sustainability, with Robert Costanza, Bobbi Low, and James Wilson (2000).

Protecting the Commons: A Framework for Resource Management in the Americas, with Joanna Burger, Richard Norgaard, David Policansky, and Bernard D. Goldstein (2001).

Trust and Reciprocity: Interdisciplinary Lessons from Experimental Research, with James Walker (2003).

The Commons in the New Millennium: Challenges and Adaptation, with Nives Dolšak (2003).

Seeing the Forest and the Trees: Human-Environment Interactions in Forest Ecosystems, with Emilio F. Moran (2005).

Asian Irrigation in Transition: Responding to Challenge, with Ganesh P. Shivakoti, Douglas Vermillion, Wai-Fung Lam, Ujjwal Pradhan, and Robert Yoder (2005).

Linking the Formal and Informal Economy: Concepts and Policies, with Basudeb Guha-Khasnobis and Ravi Kanbur (2006).

Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: From Theory to Practice, with Charlotte Hess (2006).

Property in Land and Other Resources, with Daniel H. Cole (2011).

Works on Ostrom

Aligica, Paul Dragos and Peter J. Boettke, Challenging Institutional Analysis and Development: The Bloomington School(2009).

Boettke, Peter J., Bobbi Herzberg, and Brian Kogelmann, eds., Exploring the Political Economy and Social Philosophy of Vincent and Elinor Ostrom (2020).

Cole, Daniel H. and Michael D. McGinnis, eds., Elinor Ostrom and the Bloomington School of Political Economy: Volume 1, Polycentricity in Public Administration and Political Science (2014).

Cole, Daniel H. and Michael D. McGinnis, eds., Elinor Ostrom and the Bloomington School of Political Economy: Volume 2, Resource Governance (2015).

Cole, Daniel H. and Michael D. McGinnis, eds., Elinor Ostrom and the Bloomington School of Political Economy: Volume 3, A Framework for Policy Analysis (2017).

Cole, Daniel H. and Michael D. McGinnis, eds., Elinor Ostrom and the Bloomington School of Political Economy: Volume 4, Policy Applications and Extensions (2018).

Herzberg, Roberta Q., Peter J. Boettke, and Paul Dragos Aligica, eds., Ostrom’s Tensions: Reexamining the Political Economy and Public Policy of Elinor C. Ostrom (2019).

Jenkins, Megan E., Randy T. Simmons, and Camille H. Wardle, eds., The Environmental Optimism of Elinor Ostrom(2020).

Lemke, Jayme and Vlad Tarko, eds., Elinor Ostrom and the Bloomington School (2021).

Nordman, Erik, The Uncommon Knowledge of Elinor Ostrom: Essential Lessons for Collective Action (2021).

Tarko, Vlad, Elinor Ostrom: An Intellectual Biography (2016).

Wall, Derek, The Sustainable Economics of Elinor Ostrom: Commons, Contestation and Craft (2014).

Wall, Derek, Elinor Ostrom’s Rules for Radicals: Cooperative Alternatives Beyond Markets and States (2017).