Elinor Ostrom (1933-2012)
| Peter Klein |
A guest post from former guest blogger Joe Mahoney, the Caterpillar Chair in Business and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Business Administration, University of Illinois:
As many readers of O&M know by now, Elinor Ostrom of Indiana University (born August 7, 1933) died of pancreatic cancer on Tuesday, June 12th at the age of 78. She shared the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009 with Professor Oliver Williamson (UC-Berkeley). Elinor along with her husband Vincent Ostrom (now 93) founded Indiana University’s Workshop in Political Theory and Policy in the mid-1960s, in which she remained active until this Spring, only a couple of weeks before her hospitalization. She also donated most of her Nobel Prize money to the Workshop, as Elinor and Vincent had no children and few living relatives. Williamson said in a statement that Ostrom was “a great human being,” an inspiring teacher and colleague and accomplished social scientist. “She had a wonderful sense of joy about the importance of her work that she successfully communicated to others,” he said. A record five women won Nobel prizes in 2009, and Elinor Ostrom is the only woman to have been awarded the prize in Economics.
Elinor Ostrom, who was born and raised in Los Angeles as a child of the Great Depression, and received her education from undergraduate through Ph.D. at UCLA, contributed to our understanding of the evolution of institutions for collective action in common resource contexts such as forests, fisheries, oil fields, and grazing lands. She emphasized citizen involvement, the creativity of local communities, and cutting through sterile dichotomous classifications and ideological “solutions” that are glib and inaccurate. Ostrom states that “neither the State nor the market is uniformly successful in enabling individuals to sustain long-term, productive use of natural resources” (1990: 1). She emphasized the complementarities between public and private mechanisms for solving collective good problems (see Governing the Commons, Cambridge University Press, 1990.) Ostrom conducted field studies of the world’s fisheries, roamed with shepherds in Swiss pastures, and trudged around the Los Angeles water basin (during her dissertation work) to distill the essentials of harnessing cooperation. She writes in the preface to her 1990 book: “It is my conviction that knowledge accrues by the continual process of moving back and forth from empirical observation to serious efforts at theoretical formulation.” From this theoretically informed field case study method Elinor Ostrom concludes that instead of presuming that individuals sharing a common resource are “inevitably caught in a trap from which they cannot escape, . . . the capacity of individuals to extricate themselves from various types of dilemma situations varies from situation to situation” (1990: 14).
Ostrom championed unlocking the spirit of “public entrepreneurship” — a term she coined in her 1965 UCLA dissertation. Her spirit can live on within us, if we decide to “make it so.” Good years.