Elinor Ostrom: A Brief Appreciation

When Elinor Ostrom of Indiana University was named a co-recipient of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, those of us at the Kettering Foundation nodded in agreement. The foundation long ago recognized the relevance of the work being done through the remarkable workshop at Indiana University that Elinor and her husband Vincent created and directed for over 30 years. They have participated in Kettering research exchanges, including a visit last December by Elinor Ostrom and her student Michael Cox at a meeting at the Mathews Conference Center. Elinor Ostrom is a remarkably courteous and lovely person, and for that alone we are happy about the news. But the award also presents an opportunity to reflect on the growing number of noted scholars in the social sciences exploring questions directly related to those guiding the foundation’s work. Ostrom’s work focuses on the how people can organize themselves to deal with situations that present possibilities for shared benefits, but only if incentives for individuals to act opportunistically can somehow be overcome. In other words, she studies politics. The specific research identified by the Nobel committee is her work on the problem of allocating the use of “common-pool” resources such as water systems, pasture, fishing grounds and other natural resources. The traditional view begins with the premise that any form of common ownership—that is, ownership by the users themselves—will inevitably result in overuse of the resource. That implies the simple familiar choice: Establish individual ownership rights to the resource, or put the resource under the control of the state. Ostrom challenged the premise, showing that communities of people have commonly found ways to govern the use of such resources themselves. Her research has gone on to identify the conditions that make such self-governance more or less difficult, and to map the essential characteristics of successful institutional design. In discussions of her work, one will commonly see the claim that Ostrom has shown how economic theory can inform an understanding of politics. That has her emphasis just backward. Ostrom’s insight was that neither politics nor economics could be studied in isolation and that “political economy” is necessarily a study of people and how they coordinate their interactions so that their communities can survive and prosper. At Kettering we share the sense that this core idea provides the necessary basis for a truly trans-disciplinary approach to understanding the challenge of democracy. While we applaud the growing recognition of the insight among scholars, we hope that the recognition of Elinor Ostrom’s research will speed the wider recognition of the potential. There is a lot of work to do. Randall Nielsen Randall Nielsen is a Kettering Foundation program officer.