Elinor Ostrom (RIP): A personal appreciation

To an outside observer, my career may look rather successful at the current time. Has it always been this way? To be honest, the answer is no. My entry into an undergraduate major in political science was almost accidental. Fortunately, I had a short business career before starting my graduate program or I might have been discouraged by the advice I was given when I applied to graduate school. My research interests took me down a long and interdisciplinary path to the study of complex social-ecological systems—a path that many colleagues in political science strongly criticized.
I was deeply interested in how institutions were initially crafted, and then how they affected the incentives and outcomes of human interactions in many settings. Although the theory I participated in developing was general, most of the settings where I conducted empirical research were viewed by some in my home discipline as being irrelevant to political science. Why was I studying local governance and policing, or irrigation systems in Nepal, or peasants, or forests? A political scientist was expected to study the parliaments or bureaucracies of national or international regimes and not the design, operation, and adaptation of rule systems at lower levels.

I was devastated to hear that Professor Ostrom died today of pancreatic cancer.

She was the first women to win a Nobel Prize for economics for her work on commons.

She argues that people can come together and find ways of managing resources in an environmentally sustainable way.

She would declare 'No Panaceas', sometimes commons failed,  and didn't like to advise governments because she believed academics often got it wrong.

Her work has been one of my major inspirations.  I have just today been writing an article for Green World the Green Party magazine about her and I met up with her twice in the spring when she was in London.

A towering intellectual but a modest one, she was almost embarrassed to gain the Nobel because she insisted her work was a collaboration with both her husband Vincent Ostrom and with a network of colleagues.

I sincerely believe that, despite her modesty, if human beings are to prosper we need to learn from her work and that of her network of scholars across the world.

To my understanding her work had a number of key themes:

1. Commons, there are different ways of owning property that work in broadly ecological and democratic ways, there is property beyond the private and the state.  Property rights she argued in reference to John Commons the institutional economist, were bundles of rights.

2. Craft.  Politics isn't just about government its about how we humans craft institutions for governing ourselves right down to community rules for keeping using forests.

3. Polycentricism.  From her husband, who survives her, Vincent Ostrom and Michael Polanyi she continued to argue that in a messy world, different over lapping systems worked best, this extends to social science theory and method.

4. Inter-disciplinary work.  She was a political economist inspired by such varied figures as Douglas North and John Commons but worked with anthropologists, biologists, mathematicians.  Her work was most famous for case studies but ranged from experiments to the use of satellites to survey forests.

5. Ecological sustainability.  This was key to her work but based on local and global action on the creativity of people not just top down rules (although somethings these were needed too she argued).

6. Indigenous.  She was a great supporter of indigenous people and would repeat the Iroquois's Seven Generation Rule that in policy matters we should think of the next seven generations.

7.  Economic isn't just about money and markets.  Rules shape all economic systems even ones that don't use money or markets or over lap with systems that do. Agnes Varda's film The Gleaners and I is a good illustration of this point.

8. Academic practice.  Hailed as a libertarian and indeed drawing strongly on Hayek her practice shames most academics who claim to be on the left, she shared, she worked to promote free exchange of knowledge, she gave her prize money away to fund research and was a great advocate of social justice and compassionate living.  She was a collectivist in the best sense of networking with others, despite,  or perhaps, even because of her 'individualist' roots.

She place 137 of her articles on the web for free all part of a Digital Library of the Commons she created with Vincent and her colleagues, how many academics work to make sure their findings are disseminated for free and not enclosed in exclusive expensive 'academic journals'.

The Digital Library of the Commons that provides free universal access to thousands of full-text commons papers, articles, and dissertations—it is hard to imagine how challenging it must have been in the formative years. In a letter dated June 20, 1984 Vincent wrote: “We have struck a sensitive and hostile response where our work has not confirmed the predispositions and aspirations of other scholars. We have had great difficulty in securing publications; and we have a great reservoir of important work that has never seen the light of day.” 

Her complex work, micro political economy, isn't properlydescribed by the labels people normally use, her work and that of her husband is something else.  Normative concerns with environment, indigenous peoples, anti-racism, feminism, equality were rarely given labels and were combined with an intellectual heritage which might be seen as liberatarian and market based.  To repeat key to her work and that of her husband was the idea of humans designing their own political systems and a scepticism of top down control whether from states or corporations.

Her autobiographical article A Long Polycentric Journey' is important to read especially about her struggle against the barriers women faces in the 1950s, 60s and 70s to becoming academic

She gave us many gifts, we need to keep giving them away, a generous and beautiful soul, I was privileged to meet her.


Sandwichman said…
Elinor Ostrom, Presente!
Anonymous said…
Having seen her lecture in London recently, it is hard to believe that this impressive woman was battling against cancer.It makes her words seem even more inspirational.

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